The Expat Impostor

impostor syndrome expats

I’m here, but should I have come?

There’s a phenomenon often found in academia where people are flooded with thoughts of inadequacy, that their success is worthless, and that they are failures. In fact, a study shows that nearly 70% of Americans have suffered from what is called Impostor Phenomenon (or syndrome), which leaves them questioning their competence and writing off their own success as dumb luck.

I think if we were to repeat this study today, that percentage would be higher. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if nearly everyone has experienced some form of Impostor Syndrome in their lifetime. Moving abroad and living as “trailing spouse” to an academic, I can relate to feeling like an impostor.

I’m smarter in America

When I am speaking in English, it’s a simplified form. I am trying my best to minimize mistranslation and confusion. I haven’t truly been myself since I landed. Add the fact that I am taking a German course at a university I don’t work at or attend, in which all the students are either international PhD or employees of the university, it’s no wonder I have a complex. I feel like the dumbest person in the room, and it doesn’t help that I can’t even say that in German. And saying it in English doesn’t help because no one understands the nuance behind it.

modern family expat

I made a lot of changes to get here, sacrificed my career, quit a job I loved, and uprooted my family from a great community. I left a country and family that was mine for nearly 30 years. And we came here, to the unknown, where sure, people look like us, but they definitely don’t sound like us and they don’t act like us. But they expect us to act and sound like them. I left with confidence and after a month, I am pretty beat up.

Most of the time, I feel like I am surrounded by adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Sometimes, I can’t help but think that they are talking about me. Sometimes, they are, and I can’t do anything about it because I don’t know what they’re saying or how to respond. (this usually happens in the grocery checkout. Germans are very particular about grocery checkout, but that’s another story). I shut down. I spend my time in public inside of myself, avoiding others, avoiding conversation, avoiding anything German that could possibly lead me to make a mistake.

I know that I am a competent person. I know that I can do this, because I have done this before, just not on such a grand scale. But Impostor Syndrome likes to screw with you and tell you that you can’t. And being in a different country exacerbates these feelings.

“A sense of belonging fosters confidence,” says Valerie Young in an article with Time. Young is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. “The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.”

I knew every shortcut and secret parking spot in every city I lived in. I had great patient relationships and loved working with my coworkers. I valued friendships and community. And now I am struggling to do the most basic tasks of emptying the trash or ordering a pastry. I am too afraid to go to the library. I must relearn basic skills in a new language. I promise, I’m smart in America!

Expat the Impostor

Impostor Syndrome is similar to anxiety, stress, and depression, as you can see from my account, in that it preys on inadequacy and fear of failure, but it is not considered a mental disorder. Often, you will find it in academics because of the high-stress environment. For expats, this is also true, since moving to a new country can increase stress and anxiety, and immerses you into an unfamiliar environment.

The impostor in you will say:

“I just got lucky.”

“I feel like a fake.”

“I must not fail.”

Do these sound familiar to you?

What about comparing yourself to others?

Not being able to accept a compliment or praise?

Not telling anyone about a promotion or award because you didn’t feel like you deserved it?

You can take the Impostor Syndrome test to see where you land. This test was created by Psychologist Pauline Rose Clance, whose research showed that both men and women suffered from Impostor Syndrome. Impostor syndrome can apply to anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes,” says psychologist Audrey Ervin in an interview with Time.

impostor syndrome combat expat

How to Unmask the Enemy

Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we need to be able to fight it. If Impostor Syndrome leaves us feeling like failures and frauds, we need to be able to recognize how false that is.

Acknowledge that you’re not yourself. Are you being you, or is this an impostor? Observe but don’t engage. Be mindful and objective.

Find ways to be more like you. Channel your inner American (or home country). I found the English section of the bookstore. It’s disorganized and a little outdated, but I can read the books. Do something that makes you happy or connects you to your roots.

Accept. A big thing as an expat is the feeling of never belonging anywhere. We are no longer Americans, and we are definitely not Germans. I am stuck in limbo between two states where no one will really accept me. I need to stop seeing that as a failure and start accepting it as my new reality.

Be brave. I think it’s okay to take your time to get acquainted to your new surroundings, especially when that means learning a new language. But often, I use not knowing enough German as my excuse to not do things and that’s not okay. My own lack of confidence is going to hinder my ability to integrate and immerse, make friends and connect. You need to be able to rip the band-aid off and do something out of your comfort zone, even if it’s a little thing.

Talk to someone. It is a truth universally acknowledged that people suck at talking to each other about how they feel. Especially Americans. In Germany, you don’t ask “how are you” unless you truly want to know the answer. In America, you don’t expect to get a real answer when you ask. Talk to someone, be honest, and seek help if you need it.

Encourage. When I lack confidence, or when I am depressed, I find that the best way to right my situation is to serve others. When I need encouragement, I often can find it if I actively take myself out of the equation and focus on others. Write a thank-you note, acknowledge something amazing a coworker did for you, help a neighbor. Do something to encourage another and you just might find yourself uplifted in the process.

impostor syndrome encouragement

Me vs. the World

It’s normal to experience doubt. It’s normal to think to yourself, “I can’t do this.” That’s called being a human. But withholding everyday activities out of fear of failure, not allowing yourself simple joys because you don’t think you’re “good enough” is not normal. The biggest thing I have learned since moving here and dealing with my own struggles with Impostor Syndrome is that everyone is trying to unmask their own impostor. While I am busy comparing myself to others, worrying that they are talking about me when they are probably not, I forget that those people are too busy dealing with their own problems to think about mine.

To put it nicely, most people are too busy thinking about themselves to worry about you. That narcissistic fact about the world has brought me some comfort. But it also reminds me to be a little bit more aware of what’s going on around me because most people aren’t.

expat impostor syndrome mathonthemove

Since I moved to Germany, I felt like I was always under attack. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the rules or customs, and I got the side-eye every time I paid with a credit card. It was Me vs. Them and I was losing. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I know that I will have plenty of days where I will say “I can’t do this” or I will fail at something. But contrary to popular belief, I don’t have to be an expert in German within 2 months of living here (sorry Germans, I don’t). I will accept the fact that I don’t fit in here, and I will be brave. Yes, there will be plenty more scrapes and bruises to come, but at least I will have a story to tell.

So, come on, bring it.

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