I have a complicated relationship with success — I crave it as much as I dread it. Crave it because, well, who doesn’t? Dread it because while it’s sweet at the moment, it turns abruptly bitter with time.
It means more things I must live up to, more pressure to do better, for everyone believes I can — only I can’t. Like the girl in Rumpelstiltskin, who enlists the help of an imp to spin gold, I am but a fraud. It’s only due to a stroke of luck that I succeeded, and even then, not by my efforts. But I’m hardly alone in feeling this way.
Aptly known as imposter syndrome, it is the persistent belief that one is not as competent as others perceive them to be and that their success is largely undeserved. In fact, it’s more prevalent than you might expect. According to a 2020 study by Asana, 74 per cent of office workers in Singapore experience imposter syndrome, which is significantly higher than the global average of 62 per cent.
It’s not that surprising, considering our society demands results and performance from a young age. The rigour of the education system, coupled with the pressure to be successful in life creates room for some self-doubt to slip in. Add in incessant comparison with others — well, those make for rich grounds for imposter syndrome to sprout.
It’s not all doom and gloom; some benefits do come out of imposter syndrome. A healthy amount of fear drives an individual to strive for excellence and motivates them to work hard. People are also more receptive to feedback and ideas for growth. It also promotes humility and keeps one grounded.
So what’s the issue?
The problem thus comes from succumbing to it. Imposter syndrome can lead to diminished confidence and self-esteem. When one consistently believes what they get is undeserved, and regards themselves as incompetent, they reinforce a negative self-image. This makes them more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
People with imposter syndrome typically tend to strive for perfection as well, leading to excessive procrastination and subsequently, poor performance. Depending on the individual, it either drives one to work compulsively in hopes of “making it” or self-sabotage to affirm their beliefs of being a fraud.
It’s funny — on one hand, we badly want to believe in the voices that say we are enough. On the other, we’re just as desperate to be outed, to put an end to this agonising charade and answer the question once and for all: are we enough?
From experience, it’s like running on a hamster wheel, where the only options are to run faster and faster until you inevitably, spectacularly fail, or stop trying and show the “truth”: that you are incapable, that the expectations of others are misplaced. Both are equally unpleasant.
What can we do?
Unfortunately, it’s not something that simply goes away when you get “better”, in whatever context it may be. That path never ends; there will always be someone better, something to improve, an endless flight of stairs to climb. It might help for a moment, but the real issue lies in how we see ourselves, an intrinsic thing rather than something to be solved simply by improving.
If we don’t change that, such feelings of inadequacy are bound to return, albeit in a different time and place.
The first step is to face it — recognise your abilities as things that can be honed, not innate unchanging traits. Success isn’t just the end product we all see, but countless failures and challenges behind the scenes. There’s nothing fraudulent about failing; it is an inevitable part of life.
Most importantly, comparison can be used for good — to learn from others, to be inspired, to grow — but only if we view it as such.
Everyone has a different life path after all, but with a few core similarities: they’re just trying their best, dealing with their own insecurities. Perhaps we never truly stop being afraid. That’s not the goal. What matters is we show up anyway.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with success. Though it has improved, it’ll still take time before the dread goes away, if at all. But we’re more than what others think of us and more than what we think of ourselves. And maybe, the question we ask has already been answered: we are enough, and always have been.