I received a relatively long message in my facebook page inbox a few days ago. Rather than copy and paste, here's the abridged version:
You made it out the hood. So did I. But I don't feel like I belong because of how I'm treated and how I view myself. There isn't any advice on this. Can you help?
For those of you who don't know, I was born and raised in public house (a.k.a. "The Projects", "The Ghetto", "The Hood" or whatever other monicker you know it by). I wasn't just kinda raised there either. I lived in an urban war zone until I was 18, when I went away to college and never looked back. I went to school in projects until I was 11 and in the hood (slight distinction, but not one of socio-economic worth) until I was 14.
Just because I made it out of the projects doesn't mean that I immediately landed on my feet. I still spent most of my twenties poor, with terrible habits, weak values, and a serious case of imposter syndrome. This doesn't even touch the serious bout of alcoholism I fell into in my 20s. Slowly but surely I worked through my issues and now, at 34, I finally feel like a competent adult.
But this article isn't about my journey. You keep following me closely and one day I will surprise you.
I only mentioned these things so you could see that I'm qualified to speak on fitting in once you're out of the ghetto. I know that most of my readers aren't from the ghetto, but as I began to take notes on how to best answer this question, I realized that this was important enough to share with everyone. Rather than answer his inquiry specifically, I decided to make it a blog article. Who knows? This might turn into a newsletter post as well.
When you don't feel like you deserve what you've worked for, you feel like an imposter. When you don't feel like you are who the world sees you as, you feel like an imposter.
In a perfect world, how you feel about your abilities wouldn't matter as long you could execute, but we don't live in a perfect world. The reality is that confidence makes you perform better and bounce back faster when you fall short.
Imposter syndrome makes capable people feel like they're incapable. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it's largely an issue of perspective and focus rather than fact or belief.
What you pay attention to is what grows in your psyche, for better or worse. We also remember what went wrong more than what went well.
This combination can make even the best performer feel like a fake. I'll elaborate and give you the solution.
Crossed Wires and Mixed Pain Responses
A big part of imposter syndrome is self-consciousness.
No one has a perfect life. We all make mistakes. When we make those mistakes, we feel terrible. Not only is this normal, but these feelings are necessary for us to improve.
We not only evolved to seek things that are pleasurable (food, warmth, sex) but also to avoid pain (physical, mental, emotional, etc.). The memory of the pain we suffered is supposed to serve as a reminder: don't do this again because it caused you harm.
This is good for some things but not all. For example, your muscles should ache after working out. That doesn't mean you should stop working out. Only a weakling would interpret the signal that way. It's not the same pain as putting your hand on a hot stove. Only an idiot would think this means they aren't strong enough and need a few more reps at the burner.
A great contributor to imposter syndrome is confusing your responses to the type of pain you experience. You're self-conscious because you've got your wires crossed.
Force Rather Than Feeling
We all feel anxiety when we start something new. In most people, the feeling losses intensity the more you do the thing that causes anxiety, This is no different than not getting as sore from working out the more conditioned you become. You experience imposter syndrome because you still react to your anxiety like it's a hot stove. You focus on that feeling so much that you ignore the positive feelings and feedback you get from a job well done.
We all feel embarrassed when we make a mistake--especially a public one. This embarassement drives us to learn from our errors and correct them. You experience imposter syndrome because you treat the embarrassment like a hot a stove rather than a heavy weight.
The solution is to focus on the objectively constructive elements of your performance and abilities. Notice that I didn't mention your feelings. Just telling people to feel a certain way almost never works. If it did, they wouldn't need advice about dealing with their emotions in the first place. You need an intellectually sound, action based approach.
Competition is healthy because it brings out the best in us. It's effective because it sorts out the worst among us. Without competition, we wouldn't know who is most fit to handle what. Ironically enough, this would cause way more people to lose.
Whenever you feel like you don't belong somewhere, force yourself to objectively assess the situation. Look at your accomplishments and abilities relative to your peers or the people who have occupied the spot before you. Focus on the praise and accolades you have received for your work and skills. While it may be impossible to change how you feel, it is very possible to change where you look, what you focus on, and what absorbs your attention.
This will not be easy, but few necessary things are. This is, however, easier than attempting to just change how you feel. That advice is worse than cliche; it's impossible. At least cliches are based on truth.
The Illusion of Appearances
Another reason we feel like we don't belong is because we don't look, talk, sound, or act like the other people who are at our level.
Professions, vocations, and hobbies all have a certain culture. There's an office, academic, or sports culture. There's even a gamer, anime, or chess culture. If we don't fit into the culture, we won't feel like we belong, regardless of our interest or ability. When it comes to hobbies and social activities, it's a simple matter to leave. These are the activities in the latter groups.
When it's any other culture, this is where you feel stress. Surrounding yourself with people who are culturally different from you makes you feel like you don't belong. Again, this is where I remind you to look at the objective facts. But in this instance, you must also do something else...
Own your differences. Own what makes you unique. People who are different will end up in one of two positions: a lone wolf or a leader. Being a lone wolf is fine, but being a leader gives you power and control. It also eradicates the negative feelings that make you feel like an outsider. I strongly suggest you learn to see your differences as a strength. In doing so, it's almost inevitable that your need to fit in will evaporate.
Even if you ONLY become a leader of yourself, that's more than enough. In leading yourself, you're no longer a victim to the whims of Imposter Syndrome because you are taking control of your mindset and feelings in a way not possible as a reactionary. The absolute worst case in the scenario of unapologetically embracing your differences--assuming you have the objective skills and accomplishments to be there--is that you feel great about yourself.
The best case is that your differences become a strength and gives you opportunities that the rest of the crowd doesn't get--precisely because they move and think like everyone else.
Focus on the facts. Not your feelings.
Embraces your differences. Use them as strengths.
As usual implementation and execution is up to you...