Imposter Syndrome: What Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, and André 3000 have in common

In 1991, The Addams Family hit movie theatres.

The plot of the film followed the macabre family reuniting with uncle Fester Addams. Thought lost, Fester returns with the help of a psychiatrist and works to find his way back into the family.

It’s all a ruse, kind of! Fester is suffering from amnesia and thinks his name is Gordon Craven. His adoptive mother, a con artist, hatches a plan to extort money from the Addams family by having Gordon pretend to be Fester.

All kinds of Addams’s family-esque antics ensue. Throughout, Gordon struggles with pretending to be someone he isn’t. People remind him of many conquests and adventures, but he has no memory.

Not until struck by lightning at the end of the movie does he remember who he is and he reintegrates back into the family.

What Gordon experiences while pretending to be Fester is a strong example of imposter syndrome.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome describes doubting your accomplishments and feeling like a fraud. Described in 1978 as something unique to women’s experiences, it’s now understood that men and women experience these feelings at similar levels, albeit in different contexts.

If you have high expectations of yourself, see yourself as a high performer, or tend to push yourself further in search of growth and achievement, then imposter syndrome is likely something you’ve experienced.

This doesn’t mean that imposter syndrome is ONLY experienced by high achieving (or aiming) individuals.

Social media (yes, blaming Instagram here) pushes polished and unrealistic images of perfection into our lives every hour of every day. The images don’t even need to be from the hottest celebrity; they could be from a close friend or colleague. This can cause people to feel like they aren’t achieving or don’t measure up.

Social media is today’s version of keeping ups the Joneses, but the impact is one thousand times worse.

Cue the anxiety, depression, fixation, and obsession over the lack of achievement or feeling that you have disappointed yourself or your family.

Expectations suck, especially when they are imaginary and self-imposed.

Below, we will explore three well-known, high-achieving icons and how imposter syndrome affected them, despite the uniqueness of their contributions and their experiences.

Maya Angelou – Civil Rights icon worried “…they’re going to find out.”

Maya Angelou was quoted once as saying “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

Angelou was an integral part of the American Civil Rights Movement. Her first book I know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a revelation for African-American women, often relegated to the periphery of storytelling, negating their personal experiences. Caged Bird changed that and allowed Black female writers to personalize their stories while exploring them.

Throughout the 1990s Angelou was a lecturer and at the inauguration of US President Bill Clinton in 1993 she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning”, making her the first poet to read at an inaugural address since JFK was sworn in back in 1961.

It is hard to believe that someone of this caliber, who fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, blazed a trail for Black freedom and justice in the US during a time of considerable turmoil, felt that she was a fraud.

It is common for people who deal with feelings of inadequacy to fear being “discovered or “found out”.

Expectations suck, especially when they are imaginary and self-imposed.

Elected by 18,678 voters to the School Board in Victoria in 2018, I came in guns blazing. There was something to prove. A political organizer who had worked in the back rooms getting people elected and designing campaign strategies (sometimes winning, losing), the time was now to take on the world.

The phrase “In over your head” is an understatement. There was a lot to learn.

Unlike being a political staffer in a well-funded legislative office or on a flush election campaign, as a Trustee, there was nobody to turn to. No paid political staff and with such a low payment, no capacity to hire any extra support.

Feeling outmatched and outclassed right out of the gate made for a stressful and frustrating for years. Feeling like a fraud was not far behind.

“You’re a fake” the voice kept ringing. “Keep it together or people will find out!”

In meetings trying to digest new bits of information, often getting the sense that everyone is leaving me behind. Facilities plans, budgets, equity scans, literacy outcomes, and assessments; completely flummox me from the outset.

Hanging on by fingernails would be an understatement; more like adrift out to see without any land in sight.

Add in the delightful cocktail of all kinds of social media trolling and it’s easy to see how one feels like they aren’t fooling anybody.

For Angelou, the struggle was real and inescapable. No matter how hard you try, you never shake the feeling that next time, the truth will come out.

Tom Hanks – the Nicest guy in Hollywood battles self-doubt

Who does not love Tom Hanks?

Growing up we owned a copy of Forest Gump on VHS (to those born after 2003, a VHS is what we once put movies on, and they looked like a cassette tape on steroids…what is a cassette tape? Never mind!).

That VHS tape got well used. It started to get damaged and would get all fuzzy and grainy in spots because it made so many appearances in the VHS player.

The strength of Hank’s performance as a below-average IQ Alabamian who meets many historical figures throughout his life is legendary.

Hank’s won the Academy Award for Best Actor for this role, one year after winning it for Philadelphia (and what a performance that was). He’s only the second actor since Spencer Tracy to win back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Actor.

You would think that Tom Hanks, beloved master of his own craft, would be secure in who he is and in the performance of his craft.

Yet in an NPR Fresh Air interview, Hanks comments that “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?”

What!?!

The Nicest guy in Hollywood, one of the most successful and beloved actors of his time, thinks he is a fraud? How is that possible?

Nobody can escape the feeling that despite their accomplishments, they might not measure up. Those who live so much of their lives in public are more susceptible to this feeling.

When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?

– Tom Hanks

Still, you do not need to be a public figure to experience imposter syndrome.

In a 2011 article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, the authors conclude that 70% of people will feel imposter syndrome at some point during their lives. Status and achievements do not matter. This feeling is a human feeling and it spans all socio-economic indices.

André 3000 – Brilliant musician and rapper says he is not a good musician or rapper

Shake it like a Polaroid picture, hey ya!

If you were listening to music in the fall and winter of 2003 and 2004, you cannot help but remember “Hey Ya!”.

Rap has never been a favored genre of music for me.

At this point, deep into my AFI and emo phase, there wasn’t much room for anything else. Nothing touched my CD player in my 1997 Cavalier unless at least one person in the band had black hair and black nail polish.

The one exception was “Hey Ya!”.

The song had me hooked from the first time a friend played it for me.

Nothing could describe why this song grabbed me so hard right away. Could it be the acoustic guitar? Possibly the strong backbeat?

Maybe it was that my first serious romantic relationship was hurtling towards a cliff, ending for good early in the summer of 2004.

I never totally dedicated myself to anything. I have always been a jack-of-no-trades…

– André 3000

Whatever it was, “Hey Ya!” had me from the first “1, 2, 3, uh.”

It even has a strong presence on my Spotify Liked Songs playlist today.

Everyone was loving this song. It topped the charts for 9 weeks, topped Billboard for 17, was the first song on Apple’s iTunes to reach one million downloads, and almost grabbed a Grammy at the 46th Grammy Awards, losing out to Coldplay.

André 3000 (also known as André Benjamin) has a unique and brilliant talent and hip hop was his vehicle.

The hip-hop duo he co-founded in 1992 (Outcast) was popular and many of their songs hit mainstream radio.

It is curious then that in an interview with GQ in 2017, Benjamin remarked “I never totally dedicated myself to anything. I have always been a jack-of-no-trades…”

This shocked me the first time I read it.

Whether it was “Ms. Jackson,” “Bombs Over Bagdad,” or “So Fresh, So Clean,” Benjamin and Outcast were creating music that would last. The style, sound, and mix of genres were themselves genre-defying.

Still, Benjamin insists he is not great at writing or rapping, feeling like he was “less than everybody else…”

This is the plague of imposter syndrome.

No matter the extent of your achievements, successes, acceptance, and reverence within your chosen field, the feeling that you are “faking it” never goes away.

How to combat imposter syndrome

The struggle against imposter syndrome is real!

Thoughts pop into my head about not being as good as (insert admired person OR a friend who has achieved a goal I have always wanted to achieve).

Not being on par with these folks, or achieving more, means being less than and therefore worse.

Not a little bit either. Much worse.

So how to combat these feelings?

Through a habit of asking two important questions when self-doubt creeps in and fixation takes hold:

  1. Is it helpful?
  2. Is it kind?

The obvious answer to both is “NO!” but the point is to stop the negative thinking in it is tracks and direct my thoughts towards something else. Analyze the negative self-talk by asking the above questions, and coming out with clear “NO!” answers, then it becomes even more obvious that the thinking is not aiding in moving forward. This helps reframe the thinking.

Then, replace the negative emotions with gratitude for yourself and others.

For example, imagine this: you see a post of a friend on a beach in Mexico while you have not been on a vacation in five years.

Thoughts of “Why am I not there? Is it because I did not apply myself enough? Is it because I am not worthy?” arise.

Let us apply question one to the above.

Are these thoughts helpful?

No! The past doesn’t change therefore, answers will never come. Fixating and ruminating serve zero purposes and are unhelpful. Instead, be happy for the people you’re looking at and show gratitude or have people in your life who are able to share these experiences.

Second, are they kind?

No, because the thoughts are causing immense pain from focusing on past decisions. The thoughts get in the way of living in the here and now and focusing on how to move forward. Instead, show gratitude for yourself and how much you’ve accomplished to get yourself to today. Don’t allow negativity to pull you down and cause you to self-destruct.

You’ve made it so far. Thank yourself, thank your body, thank your will, and your perseverance.

Reflecting on these two questions and engaging in gratitude helps put the negativity into perspective.

Focus on the now and the future

Angelou, Hanks, and Benjamin were never held back. Despite the imposter syndrome they felt, they pressed forward believing they had meaningful and important work to do.

There is power in focusing on the present and the future.

Focus on the now and how to move forward.

How best does one walk through this world?

Treat our friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, and random strangers with kindness.

Focus on what matters. On our spouses and partners, children and loved ones, and on the limited time, we have on this small planet and the impact we can make.

Take a page out from Maya Angelou’s book when she said:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.