What is Imposter Syndrome and Why You Might Have It
Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Have you ever suffered from debilitating self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy or fear of failure at work? Like your friends or colleagues are going to discover you’re a fake, and you don’t actually deserve your job and accomplishments? Have you ever felt like you are a fraud and at any moment you will be ‘found out’ and exposed for being incompetent and under qualified for your position? Then you may have experienced a phenomenon known as ‘imposter syndrome’. An estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science. Impostor syndrome affects all kinds of people from all parts of life: women, men, medical students, marketing managers, actors and executives.
WHAT IS IMPOSTER SYNDROME?
According to research journals, imposter syndrome has been defined as ‘the crippling feeling of self-doubt, intellectual inadequacy and anticipated failure that haunts people who attribute their success to luck or help from others rather than their own abilities’. The term originated in 1978, when psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first noticed the phenomenon whilst interviewing successful female professionals and university students. Despite their significant achievements, many of those amazing women lacked self confidence and reported feeling incompetent and like an imposter.
Since then, more research has been carried out to study both men and women. Further research has shown that both men and women experience impostor feelings, and Clance published a later paper acknowledging that impostor syndrome is not limited to women. In addition, she also created an impostor syndrome test. Today, impostor syndrome can apply to anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes,” says psychologist Audrey Ervin.
Psychologist has also found patterns in people who experience impostor feelings:
“Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.
“Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or training to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.
When the “natural genius” has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.
“Soloists” feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.
“Supermen” or “superwomen” push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.
Other common traits include:
A difficulty accepting praise and recognition for personal accomplishments
A reluctance to seize opportunities and take initiative
A reluctance to accept promotions or new assignments because of not feeling ‘ready’
A reluctance to highlight personal contributions to projects
Trouble delegating, due to a need to ensure everything is done to impossibly high standards
Individualism and a difficulty accepting help
Procrastination caused by an immobilising fear of failure
Workaholism stemming from a feeling of incompetence and a perceived need to work harder in order to keep up with contemporaries
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
One of the first steps to overcoming impostor feelings is to acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective. Simply observing that thought as opposed to engaging it can be helpful. We can help teach people to let go and more critically question those thoughts. It’s good to ask yourself, ‘Does that thought help or hinder me?’
You can also reframe your thoughts. The only difference between someone who experiences impostor syndrome and someone who does not is how they respond to challenges. People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or competent or capable than the rest of us. It’s very good news, because it means we just have to learn to think like non-impostors. Learning to value constructive criticism, understanding that you’re actually slowing your team down when you don’t ask for help, or remembering that the more you practice a skill, the better you will get at it can all help.
It can also be helpful to share what you’re feeling with trusted friends or mentors. People who have more experience can reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal, and knowing others have been in your position can make it seem less scary. If you want to delve more deeply into these feelings, we recommend seeking out a professional psychologist.
Most people experience moments of doubt, and that’s normal. The important part is not to let that doubt control your actions. The goal is not to never feel like an impostor. You can still have an impostor moment, but not an impostor life.