How being raised by Asian parents made me an impostor

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

It was one day when I was in 4th grade, a friend of my mom came to visit us. I don’t remember their conversation, but I guess it was a typical one when the adults talk about family and children. However, there was a thing my mom said that has been lingering in my mind since then, as it was strongly connected to my feelings at the time, and has invisibly attached a label to me until my adult life.

- How was her performance at school? Excellent? — The woman asked my mom.

- She is just good, maybe above average.

The 9-year-old me was confused. I didn’t understand what she meant when she said “above average”. I was expecting her to proudly tell people that I, her daughter, was always amongst the top students at school. How could it be above-average to my mom?

Later in my 18, when I passed the university entrance exam, my parents just smiled knowing that their daughter did a (so-called) good job. My mind was flooded with the thoughts that it was just pure luck, I wouldn’t celebrate my achievement until I graduated university, which meant that I deserved it, I was not a fraud. I found evidence to tell people that I didn’t study well the month before the exam (I spent half of the time learning new stuff on the internet and chilled). But I didn’t mention that I had poured blood, sweat, and tears studying in 3 years of high school to prepare for that one exam, so this one month was a great break for my mental health (Sorry I barely knew about mental health back then to explain to myself that it’s okay to take a break). I should be the one who knows how hard I worked to achieve this.

I grew up being told to become a modest girl who succeeds in silence, never brags, and tries to downplay my abilities. My parents always mentioned not being too confident because the enemy will attack when you’re resting on your laurels. Instead, focus on working toward your goals *SILENTLY*. Gradually, I became immune to praise to avoid the spotlight and being hated by the fellows.

The self-doubt plus my introverted trait made me stuck as a person who didn’t dare to speak up at school, though I was amongst the top-performing students all those years. Needless to say, my life ended up in a cycle where I suffer impostor syndrome, trying to get rid of it with plenty of self-help books on my shelf, gaining confidence in my work/study life after recharging myself with positive energy, then thinking I’m not as smart as my fellows when I get stuck again.

Impostor syndrome describes high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor.

Below is the impostor cycle beginning with the assignment of achievement-related tasks by Jaruwan Sakulku, James Alexander in The Impostor Phenomenon.

The Impostor Cycle

At the age of 25, when I decided to transition to the tech industry, I knew I would face the false beliefs that I’m not good enough, and that I have to overwork myself to achieve higher standards. Looking at the job description online where people recruit junior designers with a related bachelor’s degree and 3–5 years of experience in the field, I have no clue why people still recruit this way in a world full of promising talent that barely holds a degree or 3 years of experience. The pattern of thinking that I’m not yet qualified for the job, again, has crept into my life during the very first year in the design industry.

Have you ever felt like you’re not good enough to do the job you’ve been hired to do — and that your boss might figure it out at any moment? No matter how much evidence there is that we’re successfully navigating our lives, jobs, and relationships, many of us hold false beliefs that we aren’t actually as capable or smart as others think we are. This is called impostor syndrome.

The good news is that if you also experience impostor syndrome like me, we are not alone. 70% of the population have felt this way, whether they’re smart enough in the new position or feeling like a failure when they only meet 99% of their goals. We’ve been through it for a limited time in our life.

How I overcame it

It's not easy at all. I usually have to practice the fake it till you make it thing. Below is what I've done in the past year.

Talking to my mentor

During 6 months at DesignLab, I’ve been lucky enough to have Dhaval Ghandi as my mentor, who calls me every week to support me with my assignments or sometimes just to cheer me up. The boot camp was intensive and exhausting to me when I had to learn on my own. Every time I told him “I’m not good enough”, he immediately showed me how much I’ve improved since the beginning of this journey. A mentor can share about the struggles they’ve been through and give you helpful advice. If you don’t have a mentor, reach out to a therapist or someone capable of empathizing and encouraging you. If you’re a designer, ADPList may help.

Letting go of the inner perfectionist and be kind to myself

Knowing that I can’t be an expert in just a few months and perfectionism is counterproductive. There were some days when I stayed up till 6 AM to finish the deadline because I changed my mind the day before, that I didn’t like the outcome of my design so I had to start again. But the real solution was easier than that: I could have just submitted it and improved later because it’s a lifelong journey. Prioritize your physical and mental health.

Journaling

You are what you think. I write a journal as a self-reflection exercise and try to navigate my thought patterns positively. Later when I reread it, my mind will be fulfilled with good energy. Self-reflection enables me to evaluate what I’ve been through and gain perspective on what truly matters to me. Besides, journaling helps me catch the negative thoughts crossing my mind, so I’m aware of them and change the way I think by positive self-talk.

Celebrate my success

This is an important part of accepting what I've done is already good enough. There will always be room for improvement in the future, but I can't be hard on myself for not making it perfect. None of us can. A ‘thank you’ with a smile when receiving compliments is one step closer to uplifting your mood and enhance self-belief.

There are many other ways of improving this situation that I found on the Internet including:

  • Separate feelings from facts
  • Take note of your accomplishments
  • Stop comparing
  • Turn impostor syndrome on its head
  • Say “yes” to new opportunities

In a nutshell

I appreciate my parents for teaching me to become a modest person to fit in the Vietnam society despite hating myself sometimes for downplaying my ability when I’m fully capable. I was not aware of impostor syndrome earlier because I thought that I was just simply modest, even though it's more serious than that.

I believe that suffering it in a limited time boosts my performance and nurtures my curiosity to keep learning for a lifetime. Like if you use cannabis for the right purposes, you'll be fine.

References

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Phuong Lu

Phuong Lu

product designer working in startups