Imposter Syndrome Had Ruled My Life – These Eight Words Changed Everything

I tried to laugh his question off, but it burrowed under my skin, nagging me for weeks after I’d left his office.
Oleg Breslavtsev via Getty Images

“Are you always going to be like this?”

I knew exactly what my boss was referring to when he asked me that question: My constant denial of being worthy of my accomplishments, a trait that I’m sure had become irritating to everyone around me. He’d asked after my response to his compliment about a recent paper I’d published.

“The journal probably only accepted it because they were in a bind,” I’d explained.

I tried to laugh his question off, but it burrowed under my skin, nagging me for weeks after I’d left his office.

Was I always going to be like this?

When I first heard the term ‘imposter syndrome,’ I knew immediately that I had been plagued by it my entire life. Psychologists Pauline Chance and Suzanne Imes first used the phrase in 1978 to refer to the all-encompassing conviction that you are not as smart, accomplished or successful as your external qualifications suggest and the constant fear that you will ultimately be exposed as a fraud.

I self-diagnosed immediately as I read the description of the syndrome. Find ways to excuse away your successes? Check. Fixate on negative criticisms or minute failings? Check. Highly self-critical? Double check.

At the time that I became familiar with imposter syndrome, I had just started working as an academic and was pursuing a career as a law professor. A voice nagged at me every time I would stand in front of a classroom or submit an academic article for publication. You don’t belong here, it said. And everyone is going to find out eventually.

In attempting to understand my new self-diagnosis, I did as any good academic would do and threw myself into research.

I read through numerous papers detailing the causes of imposter syndrome—which range from both internal factors like perfectionist personality traits, to external factors like working in highly competitive fields or industries where you are deemed to be a minority or an outsider—and the impacts—anxiety, burnout, and even physical ailments like migraines and autoimmune disorders.

I also began to realise how common imposter syndrome is both in legal academia and in society at large.

A survey I conducted revealed that the vast majority of legal academics experience imposter syndrome in some, way, shape, or form during their career. On top of this, some of the greatest minds and recognisable faces in society experience it as well. Think Michelle Obama, Viola Davis, even Tom Hanks!

But the one thing my research did not reveal was the answer to the question I was most keen to answer: How do I fix it? Or, as my boss had asked me, how do I stop being like this?

I stumbled across a number of vague, infuriating ‘cures’: Give it time, talk about your feelings with others, or—my least favourite—fake it ’til you make it. But none of these were the quick fix that I was looking for.

In the years that followed, as I earned a position as a law professor and gained more experience in academia, I did find that my imposter syndrome began to subside slightly. The more I become comfortable with my teaching and research duties the more confidence I gained and the less I heard that voice telling me I was a fraud.

That is, until I started a new career.

During the pandemic I decided to try something I had long dreamed about: Writing a novel. And after many difficult months staked out in front of my laptop, and many, many drafts, I had done it. I’d written my debut thriller called The Dive.

And once again, my imposter syndrome reared its ugly head. It flared up when I first queried agents and again when my agent and I submitted my manuscript to publishers. I was certain I would be exposed as a fraud at virtually every stage in the publication process.

And now, as I stand on the cusp of publication day for The Dive, that voice is still whispering in my ear. People are going to read your book and finally realise you are a fraud. Who do you think you are? You aren’t a real author.

Sara Ochs

Maybe it’s experience or research or a greater understanding, but I can now identify that voice for what it is: a figment of my imposter syndrome. And while it’s undisputedly still there (and quite loud and annoying), it’s easier for me to live with now.

Have I figured out the cure for imposter syndrome? Not quite. Have I been waking up in a dead sweat in the middle of the night as the days tick down to publication day? Sure have.

But I do know this: my imposter syndrome is here to stay, as it is for so many people. And if I let it control me, then I’ll never accomplish anything. So, when I hear that voice, I identify it for what it is, recognise that it will fade with time, and—best of all—flip it the middle finger once I prove it wrong.

So, in answer to my boss’s question all those years ago: Yes, I likely will always be like this. I’ll always be a self-proclaimed imposter. But I sure as hell won’t let it stop me from going after what I want.