Greg de la Cruz works in the tech industry and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.
Why People Feel Unworthy of Success
When I was a kid, personal achievements used to be a lot simpler. It was a time of basic bliss and self-appreciation, when my parents pinned ribbons on my school uniform on Honors Day – that momentous occasion in private school wherein the first half of the program was a photoshoot, and the second half was unsatisfied parents haggling with teachers about their kids’ grades.
But in the perspective of a grade-school student who had just been awarded for high academic marks, these were such days when I received validation that I was relatively better than other kids my age. Feeling happiness over such accomplishments was fairly easy as a child. Your brain at that age is too preoccupied with learning abstract concepts to make itself absorb or even acknowledge impostor syndrome.
As you grow older, it seems like your brain has a tendency to minimize your own accomplishments. Having a wider perspective on things – knowing that your circumstance, timing, environment, and the people around you each had a hand in helping you attain success – you face the mental distress of feeling like you didn’t deserve any of the success, because just how much did you play any part in it?
As a reassuring message, know that feeling like an impostor is commonplace. And know that even the very best feel it, too. It might be helpful to mull over the reasons why you feel undeserving of your own success. Here are six of them:
- You rose up the ladder too fast.
- You had many lucky breaks.
- You know people with less-fortunate circumstances.
- You're being paid more than older or more experienced peers.
- You grew up without much struggle.
- You perpetually doubt yourself.
Let's explore these reasons in detail.
1. You Rose Up the Ladder Too Fast
You’ve probably reached a relatively high position or status at some big company right now, or you may be someone who has attained a certain level of esteem in your trade or industry. Additionally, you did so quite fast. You’ve exceeded the ranks of people who have been around longer than you have. As a rising star, you’re blazing your own path and redefining the rules of a traditional career trajectory.
Either you got there on your own merits, or there are key people backing you up so that those promotions that used to take years to accomplish, you attained in just a few months.
If this is you – know that there have been people who’ve been gifted a position or rank simply because they’re related to someone (like the sons or daughters of prominent politicians) or because of some elaborate, usually fraudulent scheme (like Adam Neumann of WeWork or Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos). Whatever the reason you rose up too fast, be confident that some of it had to do with just how good you are.
2. Having Had Many Lucky Breaks
You may feel like everything, or most of what you’ve accomplished have been a result of lucky breaks, or by being at the right place at the right time. While it may be true for some of your achievements, feeling this way for most, if not all of them is a self-destructive approach. Luck almost always is an ingredient to achieving something – take for example in 2013 when an offensive rebound that went the Miami Heat’s way resulted in a game-tying shot that’s said to have ‘saved LeBron James’ legacy.’ Basketball fan or not, it’s easy to say the Heat won that NBA Finals because of a lucky break, however they wouldn’t have been in a position to get that rebound-and-shot had it not been for a crucial decision made by the Heat’s coach – keeping the tall Chris Bosh in the lineup despite the Spurs going smaller for better switching. People forget that it was that coaching decision that gave the Miami Heat a chance to get an offensive rebound, which resulted in the greatest shot in NBA Finals history.
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In sum, don’t forget the decisions you made along the way which put you in a position to get lucky.
3. Knowing People with Less-Fortunate Circumstances
Is it not good for our own success if we personally know people who are less fortunate than us? Sometimes this guilt always hangs around and you question why these people were not able to get the opportunities you were blessed with. This is particularly common from where I come from, where there aren’t a lot of good-paying jobs for those with low academic attainment. Often, the jobs that are available hardly make for a ‘living wage’, which is the reason Filipinos look outside the country for even the crappiest of jobs, just so they could earn a decent and livable salary.
Blue collar work doesn’t pay much in my country, unless it’s highly specialized. And so when I look around and see all these people who are older and oftentimes far more skilled than I am (welding, carpentry, electrical works, etc.), and know that they most likely earn close to minimum wage – it’s easy to feel impostor syndrome.
4. Being Paid More Than Older or More Experienced Peers
Sometimes you need not look further than your own workplace to find people who are not as well-compensated as you are. This is related to Reason No. 1, rising up the ladder too fast – although you need not rise that high to earn more than your peers. Sometimes, all it takes is negotiation, or the right timing.
Traditionally, workplaces discourage the sharing of compensation info, tagging it as confidential and sometimes make up a punishable offense in the Code of Conduct when an employee reveals his salary to a fellow employee. But this tradition is dying, especially with the emergence of sites like Glassdoor, Payscale, and levels.fyi. Even at professional networking sites like LinkedIn, you can already get an idea of what your other co-workers earn when your own company posts a job similar to theirs.
While compensation transparency is ultimately beneficial to employees, it can also be a source of guilt and feeling over-compensated (which you should never feel, and is probably what your company wants you to feel so they can guilt you to stay longer).
5. Growing Up Without Much Struggle
You’re probably not a Trust Fund Baby, but if you’ve had relatively less, or nonexistent struggle growing up while completing your studies, there’s a chance you’ll feel impostor syndrome when you’ve attained considerable success. We are a logical species, and if there’s one thing the movies and media have taught us – it’s that hard work pays off. There are too many stories to enumerate, of a protagonist going through sometimes a traumatic, often underprivileged beginning – only to overcome obstacle after obstacle – and in the end triumph to become a somebody. Even in the real world, the media seems to jump on underdog stories – how an ordinary college student who loves computers drops out and establishes a multi-billion-dollar company (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk) or how a poor, marginalized kid uses basketball to become a multi-millionaire, Most Valuable Player, and NBA champion (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo).
It seems like we’ve been ingrained to believe that success awaits those who overcome adversity. That’s why it might seem like success isn’t so sweet when there wasn’t adversity to begin with.
6. Perpetually Doubting Yourself
Unending pressure on oneself is often the case for those who grew up around a person who constantly made them feel that they were never good enough. Even when that tormenting figure disappears, the self-doubt they leave in some cases sticks for good. Self-doubt is a reason why you might hesitate to try new things, or have a recurring fear of failure.
It’s not easy to deal with self-doubt, because it’s something people naturally feel. We are aware of our own natural limitations, and we have a tendency to invent our own set of limitations which in due time we treat as natural even if they are self-imposed.
Which of the six reasons I shared resonated the most with you? Feel free to share your own experience in the comments section. I hope this article was helpful to you in some way. If you think what you’re feeling is impostor syndrome, know that you are not alone and there is an online community out there ready to listen and share their own experience with you.