By Nethmi Dissanayake
Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Like you don’t actually deserve your job and the accomplishments behind you? Like your friends or colleagues are going to discover at any moment that you’re a fraud, even though you aren’t? If so, read on. These feelings are known as impostor syndrome, or what psychologists refer to as ‘impostor phenomenon’. The impostor phenomenon affects people from all parts of life at all levels of their careers – students, entrepreneurs, actors, and executives etc.
The impostor ‘syndrome’ refers to the notion that some individuals feel as if they ended up in esteemed roles and positions not because of their hard work and achievements, but because of some oversight or stroke of luck. Such individuals, therefore, feel like frauds or ‘impostors’.
Just own your accomplishments; it’s not out of luck, it’s purely out of your talent and your ability: Bihan Mahadewa
Brunch spoke to Metana Co-Founder and CEO Bihan Mahadewa on how he tries his best to get rid of those feelings and continue to build his brand. Bihan is a lead instructor, software engineer, and entrepreneur. He’s the youngest instructor on Udemy and the CEO of Sri Lanka’s first blockchain instruction academy. “I was incubated a lot of the time in an environment where I was the smartest person in the room, but there have also been a lot of times where I doubted the ability to take a decision based on my skill,” Bihan explained, adding: “The fix was simple, I moved myself from being the smartest in the room to being the dumbest person in the room. The way I achieved this was by surrounding myself with people who are 10x better at what they do in their own industry. There was this one time where an investor offered me a position in a New Zealand-based software company, and I asked: ‘Why me?’ I had to remind myself that I had education and experience required to fit leading roles.”
Bihan also described how he attempts to play the role of a ‘boss’ with conviction despite being the ‘youngest in the room’ on many occasions. “It’s 50/50, sometimes I say things or make decisions that adults/employees don’t agree with, and I succeed in proving them wrong, but some other times I fail horribly, proving that their experience is what makes them arrive at those decisions swiftly. An important thing is to try to take a stance to just take a decision; it doesn’t matter whether I fail or whether I succeed. If I fail, I take it into my hands to recover from it faster. Sometimes I just have to do it even after everyone doubts me. I have to block those voices out to move for my vision, and ultimately your confidence has to be greater than your doubt.”
Mahadewa further added: “I have been a perfectionist for the last several years, and being a perfectionist adds a lot of unhealthy stress and pressure to get things done perfectly on time. I’ve learned to stop doing that, and since I’m in a position to hire talent, I am able to hire a brilliant team to share the workload. Admitting you don’t know something when you don’t know it is the best way to get straight with anyone. Even if you are considered an expert in the field, there’s no end to learning more about it. Rather than focus on self-doubt, I focused on my passion and things that were authentic and true to me.”
Sharing some tips on overcoming impostor syndrome as a young professional, he mentioned that recognising when you should feel fraudulent is important, as that moment reveals that you just don’t know what you are talking about. Also, he suggests that the word failure should be renamed as ‘temporary defeat’; he added that it has helped him develop a healthy response to failure and take it as an opportunity to restart more intelligently. Finally, and most importantly, he noted that you need to stop comparing. Focusing on your own achievements and goals is better than holding them up against other people.
Mahadewa concluded by saying: “In my case, if I started to compare my achievements with classmates, I’m way ahead and it makes me stop and take a rest, but if I started to compare my achievements with people I admire such as Alan Turing, then I’m way behind. It’s just better to focus just on yourself. At the end of the day you come to the world alone and you disappear back to earth alone. But also just own your accomplishments; it’s not out of luck, it’s purely out of your talent and your ability to exercise discipline across them.”
Accept who you are, know your true values, know what your end goal is: Harsha Abegunasekara
Another successful young entrepreneur, Metana Co-Founder and COO Harsha Abegunasekara, shared with us his own journey with this ‘syndrome’.
When asked whether he ever gets paranoid about his success and if he ever feels like he’s not deserving of getting this far, he said: “Absolutely! In fact, if I’m hiring someone, I think, I’d never hire someone like me. I know this is not the way I’m supposed to think about myself, but it’s hard to get over the impostor syndrome.”
Abegunasekara mentioned just thinking “I am uncomfortable right now and that’s how it should be, this is how I grow as a person, this is exciting and fun,” helps him calm his mind and cope with these moments.
Sharing some of his own principles and beliefs that help him to be his true self and be authentic which helps in the process of getting rid of the negative feelings, he added: “Accept who you are, know your true values, know what your end goal is and understand what it’ll take to go there. Sometimes you will need to make compromises and it’s okay. For example, I’m so blunt and I think I unintentionally ghost people a lot. It’s not nice to be like that and I never mean it. However, if I’m in the business of making everyone happy, I must sell ice cream. But we’re in the business of building Metana.io, and it is super mind draining.”
I cherish and celebrate my victories regardless of their magnitude: Dilshara Hasanka
STEM link Founder Dilshara Hasanka, another outstanding young entrepreneur, spoke to Brunch about how he overcomes that wave of negative emotions which makes him lose balance in life.
“Experiencing feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt is a common issue even the most outstanding achievers in the world have gone through. Due to different reasons and factors in our lives, we would start doubting our knowledge, capacities, luxuries, appearances, and many more.”
“In my younger days, there was a time when I felt my natural behaviours had reflected badly on me, and I tried to adapt to a Don Draper or James Bond lifestyle, which I thought would be cooler in outlook. That eventually led me to believe that I’m not myself anymore. This is where I realised that doubting your behaviour or actions would take your lifestyle away from you,” he added.
Dilshara said: “The more I matured, I started realising that self-appreciating my abilities, living by my standards, and never bending my principles at any point would give me more wisdom than trying to position my status in the community. Whenever I make a significant move, I always ask myself whether I am driven by an external force or an internal force. Authenticity in life will always give you confidence in any challenging situation since you present your true self and have nothing to hide.”
He also mentioned that dealing with negative vibes and comments has become a 21st Century challenge due to social media matrices, and it would make you doubt yourself and your abilities. In all these situations, self-realisation is the key to tackling this emotional torture.
“I cherish and celebrate my victories regardless of their magnitude. How could you expect others to appreciate your achievements when you do not value them? There’s always a part of this world that wants you to be joyous and to see you succeed, and it all should start with yourself,” Dilshara added.
The hustle culture that all Gen Z and millennials are a part of has its own toxic traits. We all want to accomplish something important and make a real difference in the world. We all want to become wildly successful. We all want to be remembered for our achievements. However, the closer we get to our goals, the more discomfort we experience, and the more anxious we get. Why is it that for many of us, our accomplishments are accompanied by the sinking feeling that we don’t deserve them?
Having these external inputs led me to think whatever small or big wins I had were just me being lucky: Newan Vinthusha
In conversation with Newan Vinthusha, a new kid on the tech entrepreneurs’ block, he reflected on days where he lost that sense of confidence and how he prevented himself from going down that rabbit hole.
“Earlier, I used to adapt to my peers in order to feel that I belong in a group. Ever since I explored more about how life works and what happiness is, I always put authenticity as the priority. Trying to push ourselves to be someone who we are not, to impress someone whom we don’t even like, leads to a catastrophe. I believe being authentic and true to yourself is the key to happiness. Being able to accept who you are allows you to experience the purpose of your life and the sense of fulfilment. Actions taken without you being you will lead towards regret. And most importantly, by being your true self, you will attract the right set of people to your life.”
Newan added: “When I was starting out my entrepreneurial journey I had no prior experience whatsoever on how to run a business. And my family was against it. What I was hearing most of the time was ‘business is not for you’. Having these external inputs led me to think whatever small or big wins I had were just me being lucky. Then with time when I realised that I kept going in the midst of all of those discouragements, it gave me the power to accept that I made a choice to believe in myself, and be happy about it.”
Sharing how to cope with those feelings of inadequacy, he suggested: “Celebrate all your small wins and feel good about yourself. We tend to ignore our small wins and assume it is ‘settling down’ when we have something bigger to accomplish. But everyone forgets that the process or the path you follow to reach a goal defines its’ success, not the destination itself. And the most important thing is to change the perspective of how you look at it. Whenever I feel like I actually don’t deserve something, I try to reframe that as an opportunity to put more effort into it and make sure I reap the benefits.”
Historically, ‘impostor syndrome’ has been considered a female trait. But no, anyone and everyone can feel the fear, and people in particularly unsteady or competitive fields are more prone to it. There are several factors that can trigger these feelings. Perhaps the most obvious is social media. Today, you’re not just comparing yourself to others in your school or workplace, but the whole world. A glimpse at someone’s great website or seeing their thousands of Instagram followers or their Instagram feed can easily lead us to feel inadequate.
Most importantly, impostor syndrome can spiral into anxiety and depression, and hold you back in both your personal and professional life. So it would be helpful to share what you’re feeling with trusted friends or mentors. People who have more experience can reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal, and knowing others have been in your position can make it seem less scary. If you want to delve more deeply into these feelings, seeking out a professional psychologist is always an option.