In the 1944 film Gaslight, Charlie Boyer’s character tries to convince his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, that she is going insane. He manufactures circumstances that challenge what Bergman knows to be true, such as whether the eponymous gaslights in the house are flickering. In modern usage, “gaslighting” usually refers to a form of abuse: one person in a relationship subtly influencing the other to doubt their own reality. It’s a power thing. It is not lit.
Unfortunately, we do this to ourselves too—especially when we have a new idea or accomplish something. This denial or downplaying of evident success or ability is the condition recognized as “impostor syndrome.”
A certain degree of self-doubt is healthy. Literary critic Robert Hughes wrote that “perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize”: “the greater the artist, the greater the doubt.” That whisper of apprehension about our capabilities can be beneficial. Instead of strutting around like hot cheese, thinking we’ve got it all figured out, we are open to change and growth. We reflect more authentically, research more thoroughly, and have the humility to accept feedback and help from others.
Though experts aren’t entirely sure why, it’s typically high achievers who suffer from impostor syndrome, and people who feel like outsiders in other ways—such as women and minorities—are often most susceptible. Although we all want to distinguish ourselves, there’s a psycho-social imperative to not be too different. Otherness can feel illicit. So, when we have a burst of creativity or do something exceptional, it’s almost an instinct of self-preservation for our minds to say, “Well, actually…” We’ll start constructing a narrative to knock ourselves down a bit—I’m not so smart, I’m not successful, anyone could have come up with that. These perceptions become problematic when they develop into persistent and limiting patterns of thought.
If you find yourself entertaining these ideas more often than you’d like, or if they’re a barrier to basking in your own greatness, there are a number of techniques you can use to overcome them. For the most part, these strategies work on retraining yourself to appreciate both success and failure for what they’re worth, through things like visualization, scripting, and rewards. But one of my favorites is working as a mentor. It forces you to acknowledge your own expertise, and to get out of your own head for a while by helping someone else.
Even if your own insecurities (we all have them) haven’t reached impostor syndrome proportions, a little introspection and perspective can’t hurt. Personally, I take my usually epic to-do list and pick just one thing that represents success daily—and as often as possible, I choose something that relates to my long-term health and happiness, rather than my short-term productivity. I give myself credit every day, and I motivate myself with rewards on a weekly basis. That works for me, and it was a process of trial and error to discover.
Alexis Rockley makes a strong argument in Find Your F*ck Yeah that the self-help industry fails on a mass scale, because everyone has a different idea of personal fulfillment and is driven by different influences. By the same token, you’re going to have to forge your own definition of success and then accept it. Allow yourself to live up to your own expectations. And stop trying to convince yourself you can’t—or didn’t—just do the damn thing.