09/05/2013 12:12 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

Do You Suffer From Impostor Syndrome?


I'm super insecure about my vocabulary. In fact, I submit my use of the word super instead of a more elegant word as evidence of my less-than-sophisticated vocab. I'm especially insecure about this particular shortcoming because I have a journalism degree, two graduate degrees, and I'm a writer. If anyone should have a strong command of the English language It should be me.

I once had to look up the definition of the word fatuous while reading an article. It means, and I quote, "dense, dull, dim-witted." I took my having to look up its definition as a personal jab, further reinforcing the shame I felt for my inadequacy.

Impostor syndrome is the fear of being found out or discovered as stupid or unworthy. I first became familiar with this phenomenon when I began my PhD. It is so pervasive in academia that administrators gathered us to explain that this feeling was common and likely shared by most of our colleagues. I was grateful for this. I don't consider myself to be someone with especially low self-esteem, but I have often felt like an impostor among very intelligent and accomplished people, and especially around individuals with elegant, show-stopping vocabularies.

I once dated a man who regularly used only the most expensive words. I would nod as though I was following, but I had no idea what he was saying half of the time. I should have just asked him to fill me in. Instead I grew bored of our conversations.

Similarly, an acquaintance of mine is known for launching into snooty one-directional conversations -- monologues, really. His orations are exhausting, more akin to public lectures than anything resembling an actual conversation. I'm certain I could leave the room without him noticing, leaving him to enjoy the soothing echo of his own voice. Sadly, for a long time I let people like this make me feel bad about my own less-than-impressive vocabulary.

Now instead of sulking in the shadow of my own shame I simply ask people what the heck they're talking about. Revolutionary, right? Why on earth hadn't I done this before? I may not appear as brainy or sophisticated as I would like, but at least now I'm a part of the conversation. Since I started doing this I can't remember anyone laughing or snubbing me. At least not to my face. Usually people will simply explain what they mean, or occasionally (and to my delight) fumble for an explanation, suggesting that they have no idea what they're talking about either.

It's been a learning experience for me. I learned that if you openly expose your insecurities, it's not likely that anyone is going to take advantage of you; at least nobody who's worth the emotional investment.

A friend and I regularly had reading dates at Starbucks. Yes, we live on the edge. Often I'd come across an unusual word, ask her what it meant, and she'd pull the definition from her memory. The woman is like a human dictionary, and handy for a gal like me to have around. is now the website I use most, second only to Google. I also use a dictionary app for my phone so I can easily look up words while on the go.

In addition to being more open about my insecurity, I'm also trying to play devil's advocate and think of ways that this 'inadequacy' may not be a deficit after all. My down-to-earth writing style is not only more authentically me, it actually makes me accessible to readers. Who wants to stumble overly extravagant jargon just to make it to the end of a sentence out of breath? Not me. Probably not you either, or you'd be reading a stuffy 19th-century Russian novel instead of this. My vocabulary is what it is: vanilla, but authentic. Sometimes it's a blessing and sometimes it's a curse. I may never win a game of Scrabble but I'm okay with that.

Published at Aspire.