Have you ever sat in a classroom or work meeting and felt small, like you didn’t belong there, as you listened to other people make seemingly smarter comments than you can think of? Have you ever cringed at your own reflection in the mirror, seeing a body that’s nothing like the ones you see in magazines? Or have you doubted your own sanity when you thought you were awesome but discovered that someone else seemed to think you didn’t measure up?
Each of us has someone in our life who makes us feel as invalid as an expired password. Sometimes that someone is a parent, a partner, a total stranger, or even a friend. Often, that someone is actually something, like an academic institution or a whole cultural stereotype. And sadly, sometimes we buy into it ourselves.
Each of us has someone in our life who makes us feel as invalid as an expired password.
Recently, I was listening to Michelle Obama’s autobiography in audiobook form, and I stopped dead in my tracks when she described how in high school, a guidance counselor told her she was not “Princeton material.” Even more surprising than this was that she doubted herself, too. So much of what she did in her youth was aimed at answering the question, “Am I good enough?”
I wondered, “If Michelle Obama could question her own adequacy, what hope is there for the rest of us?”
Imposter syndrome is real. Every one of us can relate to this type of self-doubt on some level. And it’s not just about academic ability. Snuggly couples pop out from every corner whenever we feel lonely. Ridiculously attractive people seem to materialize next to us on the beach when we’re feeling especially bloated. We rejoice at passing the exam, but feel deflated as the kid next to us shows off a big “A.” We try not to make eye contact with passers-by as we park our years-old Corolla between a Porsche and a Land Rover.
What do you do when life leaves you feeling like you’re just not good enough? Here are seven ways to hit the reset button and see yourself anew.
1. Trust that everyone has their stuff
First of all, I’ll bet you my last box of Thin Mints that the kid next to you showing off their “A” grade feels deeply inadequate, themselves. Same thing for your Instagram influencer friend who looks perfect in every post and can’t stop bragging about how many “likes” they get. True adequacy doesn’t feel the need to advertise.
While we can’t know if these people in our lives are searching for affirmation, trying to build themselves up by comparing down to others, or simply habitual show-offs, we can know that their lives aren’t perfect.
How do I know for sure? Because they’re human, just like me.
A healthy dose of self-doubt helps us monitor ourselves and our behavior, sparks introspection, and motivates us to grow and change.
Insecurity is part of the human condition. In fact, it’s necessary: a healthy dose of self-doubt helps us monitor ourselves and our behavior, sparks introspection, and motivates us to grow and change. We doubt ourselves so we can check ourselves, which allows us to get along better with our fellow humans and ultimately keeps the species going. Not only is insecurity part of the human condition, but a total lack of insecurity is actually a sign of things gone wrong. (I’m looking at you, psychopaths and narcissists.)
2. Add “yet”
Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University is known the world over for her research on mindset. She delivered a TEDx talk in which she describes a high school in Chicago that gives students who don’t manage to pass a class the grade “Not Yet.”
What does this do? Most importantly, it shifts the focus from a fixed mindset—the idea that your basic qualities are static and unchangeable—to that of a growth mindset, which proposes that your talents can be developed. This shift from outcome to process implies eventual success, and in the meantime, focuses on effort, strategy, resilience, and perseverance.
For your own endeavors, rather than labeling a project or a process a failure—I haven’t been able to run 5 miles, I haven’t found the right romantic partner, I don’t have my dream job—tack on the word “yet.” I don’t have my dream job yet.
Believing you can improve, instead of assuming you’re stuck with cards you were dealt, makes all the difference.
3. Replace “but” with “and”
Another powerful word is “and,” especially when it replaces “but.” It gives us the chance to see a fuller, more balanced picture, and to acknowledge a more complicated truth than the “I’m not enough” story.
When you say “but,” you instantly erase whatever came before it, especially if it’s a pat on your own back for progress made so far.
Let’s look at a couple of thoughts we might have about ourselves: “I’m eating much more nutritious food now, but I have to start exercising” versus “I’m eating much more nutritious food now, and I have to start exercising.” Which one sounds more like you’re scolding yourself instead of motivating yourself?
When you say “but,” you instantly erase whatever came before it, especially if it’s a pat on your own back for progress made so far. When you say “and,” you acknowledge your wins and use them to fuel your “not yet” goals.
4. Broaden your scope
Pop culture would have us believe that adequacy comes from one of only a few areas: financial success, fame, career achievement, relationship bliss, or physical appearance. We narrow our own vision accordingly and feel hopelessly inadequate if we’re not rich, famous, powerful, in love, or hot.
But these mainstays of pop culture and internet gurus are narrow and, truth be told, misguided. A good life comes from so much more: having integrity, being curious, chasing inspiration, appreciating beauty in the world, speaking the truth, and perhaps most of all, creating and maintaining loving relationships with friends and family.
Enjoy pop culture and internet gurus for what they’re worth, but don’t rely on them to tell you what makes you worthy.
Don’t get me wrong—enjoy pop culture and internet gurus for what they’re worth, but don’t rely on them to tell you what makes you worthy.
5. Beware contingent self-esteem
A term called contingent self-esteem is the tendency to change one’s self-evaluation based on feedback. It’s the most fragile form of self-esteem—it’s controlled by others and requires meeting their standards in order to earn value or worth as a person.
Contingent self-esteem doesn’t just create a shaky foundation for self-image; it puts our very health at risk. In a 2017 paper, two researchers from Stockholm University examined 122 participants and found that those diagnosed with exhaustion, cardiac issues, or immunological disease scored significantly higher on measures of contingent self-esteem than healthy controls.
A recent study also found that those whose self-esteem is contingent on power experience less well-being, and this relationship is at least partially driven by them feeling less authentic in who they are.
6. Give your “best self” a rest
Despite what every lifestyle blog would have us believe, it’s perfectly okay not to be your “best self” all the time. Too often, we want people to like us or want to come across as having it all together, so we end up trying too hard. But in pushing so hard to be our best, we subtly tell ourselves that being just as we are is insufficient.
It’s okay not to push your best self out on stage all the time. Instead, just be yourself.
The solution? It’s okay not to push your best self out on stage all the time. Instead, just be yourself. That means allowing yourself to have some bad hair days, lazy workdays, awkward conversation moments, relationship stumbles, and any number of perfectly normal experiences without judging yourself
7. Remember that perfection is boring
It’s easy to feel intimidated and inadequate compared to people with seemingly perfect lives. But have you ever walked into a “perfectly” decorated room? They’re soulless, boring, and they even smell sterile, like a furniture showroom. They’re the last place you’d want to kick off your shoes, put your feet up, and have a few belly laughs with friends.
People who advertise their seemingly perfect lives are similar—a mix of intimidating and oddly boring. When something is perfect, it means there’s nowhere else to go. Things are finished. The story is over. And how stifling is that?
Much better to be a work in progress, to let some of the tangled yarn hang out or, best of all, to add “yet” to your unfinished dreams.
This episode was originally written by Dr. Ellen Hendriksen. It has been substantially updated by Dr. Jade Wu.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.