Overambition, fear of failure and impostor syndrome: welcome to my brain

by Hanna Nykowska

Seemingly, listening to other people talk about their struggles and how they deal with or even overcome them is actually quite helpful. At least it seems like you’re not alone in having problems. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of my experience and maybe, just maybe, this post will help someone ease their everyday life.

I’m not a person who easily talks about their feelings. Most likely, I’d do my best to maintain a poker face of happiness and lightheartedness to everyone, and I mean everyone, keeping all those dark thoughts to myself. (That is not to say that I fake my happiness and I’m miserable, I do feel happy, but happiness is a more complex concept to me.) It may sound crazy then to write a publicly available blog about those repressed feelings, yet it is so, so much easier to write from the comfort of my own room, looking only at my laptop screen rather than talking to another human being (oh, the millennial’s life). Those few people that I shared my insecurities directly with should feel very privileged.

One might think that the combination of overambition, fear of failure and impostor syndrome is a sick joke. Could not agree more. Add the intermittent wish to be somewhere else (e.g. climbing, skiing, surfing or chilling with my family) and the paragraph above and you’ll almost know what it’s like to be me.



Since I can remember, I have always wanted to excel at things. It could be that a lot of things came easily to me and this triggered my parents’ high expectations of me, which in turn evolved into my own high expectations. Whether that’s true or not, here I am, enjoying the recognition for my achievements but also feeling awkward when I get too much recognition, because that is what I should have achieved. And don’t even get me started on what’s going on in my head when I don’t reach my own goal. Needless to say, I sometimes can’t fall asleep thinking about something from years before that didn’t go quite as well as I wanted.

It’s good to set yourself goals so that you keep learning new things, improving the abilities you already have and pushing your limits. The important part is that those goals are achievable. You may think that’s nothing new, and I’ve heard it so many times myself, yet still tend to put too much on my plate. Seems that you just need to keep hearing that until it comes true for you, and even then, it doesn’t hurt to get a reminder: your goal must be achievable.

Another way of dealing with overambition, which is what I tend to do recently, is to set yourself whatever goals you like, but allowing yourself to fail in reaching them or not specifying the expiration date. I’m aware that sometimes, the challenge is to do something within a specified time (see my post on my own alteryx challenge). In case you can’t make it, the chances are people will still be supportive and acknowledge your effort, if they don’t, my advice is to find a better environment. Nobody needs unwanted negativity in their life.

On the other hand, it is such a good feeling to do something that others couldn’t do. (As you may have guessed, I’m a bit competitive.)


Fear of Failure and Impostor Syndrome

A frustrating thing is that even when I succeed and accomplish something I was working towards, I mostly feel relief. I feel also proud of myself (duh!), but it’s mostly relief because I know how bothering a failure would be. After a while, the doubt creeps in. Maybe there was a mistake and I shouldn’t get that grade (whether that’s school, uni or some other certification)? Maybe the employer will change their mind and decide not to hire me after all? (This is why I’m quite eager to sign the contracts so that they can’t get out of giving me a chance.) Maybe I’m not that smart as I thought I was? Maybe it’s just all luck? Or maybe it’s just all pretending and the only thing I’m good at is pretending that I’m good at almost everything?

These moments are difficult. I remember having one of them when talking to my dad (who doesn’t seem to doubt himself, ever). He told me:

‘How could it be all luck, all these years? What do you mean, you’re not good enough? (come on dad, you have to tell me that I’m good enough, that’s your job)
Did you finish your high school with distinction? (Yes)
Did you finish your bachelors with distinction? (Yes)
Did you get into one of the top universities in the world? (Yes)
And did you finish your masters ther with distinction? (Yes)

(There were a few more of those, but this post is not about bragging. Well, maybe a little.)

Whenever I have these moments again, I try to remind myself of all my accomplishments, and they seem too many to all result from luck. So, I guess I’m not as bad as I sometimes could think.

It’s interesting how these thoughts often creep in when I need to deliver. Even though my high expectations themselves trigger a fear of failure at some level, and I really don’t need more of that, those doubts have the power to build up that fear. Thankfully, I’m rather good at suppressing my feelings and tend to decide that I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself because I have a job to do. As long as there’s time to work, I’ll try to make it my best effort with an occasional moment of panic. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I plan. I plan to see how much I have to do per day or per week to achieve my goal, to foresee the best and worst scenarios in order to prepare myself (hope for the best, prepare for the worst is definitely what I do), all just to know where I stand.

What seems to help me maintain a peace of mind, is to make sure I have some time for myself. I use that time for climbing, which is a great activity: it builds up your strength and agility whilst forcing you to be in the moment and focus on that one thing, if you don’t – you fall. Even going climbing just for myself can be tricky, it’s sometimes hard to keep it casual and make sure that it is something that brings me joy rather than constant frustration. I suggest finding something you take pleasure in doing and do it as often as you need to. If you feel stuck, it’s good to go and do that one thing that you love and, apart from a lovely break, it might actually help you get things done.

You might have noticed that my way of dealing with these problems may not be the healthiest, but it works for me. I’m 24 and keep succeeding without having mental breakdowns (an occasional cry doesn’t count right?). If all that I wrote sounds rubbish to you, find out what works in your situation.

In summary:

  • set yourself achievable goals or allow yourself to fail
  • keep reminding yourself of your achievements
  • find something you enjoy and keep doing it for fun.

My name is Hanna, I’m part of DS13 so you’ll see more of my blogs in the future. They’ll tackle technical and maybe personal topics, we’ll see.

What inspired me to write this post: Ewa Macias and her talk about impostor syndrome and The Guilty Feminist podcast.


Hanna Nykowska

Fri 24 May 2019

Thu 23 May 2019