Have you ever felt like where you are now in life is a product of pure coincidence and luck, and not your hard work and competence? Has this idea ever become so burdening that you keep perceiving yourself as a fraud?
Well, you’re not alone. This way of thinking has a name: the impostor syndrome. Although impostor syndrome used to be most often associated with marginalized social groups, research conducted over the past several years has revealed that it’s a much broader issue— it’s a social problem.
There are certain things we can do as individuals to overcome this kind of stigma and live a rather fulfilling life. But first, let’s get acquainted with the phenomenon, as it’s the first step towards overcoming it.
Impostor Syndrome Explained
Impostor syndrome is the idea that your success in life is only due to pure luck, accidental circumstances, or someone else’s mistake, and not due to your competence, talent, hard work or qualifications.
It was first recognized as a behavioral pattern by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and her colleague Suzanne Imes all the way back in 1978. Their initial theory was that the only ones to be affected with this syndrome were women. In their opinion, the reason for this was hiding in early family dynamics and societal sex stereotypes. Soon enough it was discovered that the same behavioral and cognitive pattern is present among different kinds of minorities: racial and ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities, immigrants, etc.
Excessive perfectionism, self-doubt, a sense of low self-worth: this state of mind makes you think that whatever you do is inappropriate. You either feel like you’re not enough, or that you’re too much, you feel like you yourself are a made-up lie, and that sooner or later someone’s going to find out, and your world will crash in shame and humiliation like a house of cards.
Luckily, this isn’t true, but this type of self-limiting belief has its own social and personal background. Whether it’s the society’s deeply rooted stereotypes about certain population groups or the way you were born and raised by your primary caretakers, the good news is: it’s possible to recognize, rationalize, and overcome these burdening ideas.
Impostor Syndrome Patterns and Manifestations
Here are some of the most common “symptoms” of impostor syndrome. Do you recognize any of these in your own (or someone you know) behavior?
Hard Work and Diligence
Most people who suffer from impostor syndrome are hard workers. Not so much because they enjoy it, or because they’re “workaholics”, but in order to hide their “incompetence”.
Feeling Like a Fraud
You’ve made it (landed a high-paying job, earned a title, won a prize, etc.), but it’s all a lie. It was either someone’s omission or the fact that you have somehow managed to trick everyone.
According to Clance and Imes, those suffering from the impostor syndrome have the initial belief that they’re not brilliant or smart, which is why they often reach out for charm, perceptiveness, and other subservient behaviors, since they believe that this the only way they could win their interlocutor/authority figure over.
This can take many forms. From accepting obscene offers to listening about the other person’s feelings and personal problems, or assisting them at their other projects that have nothing to do with you.
Fearing That Your “Stupidity” Will Be Discovered
Everything you do basically revolves around hiding your “stupidity”. You work hard, charm your environment, and come up with a variety of “stupidity cover-up strategies” because you are constantly anxious that at any given moment your “incompetence”, “stupidity”, or “incapacity” might be discovered.
Devaluating Your Efforts and Worth
Feeling bad for charging your work, lowering the price, offering to do things for free, being available to others at all costs, and many other self-disrespecting behaviors fall into the range of manifestations of impostor syndrome.
Undermining Your Expertise
Believing that you’re not qualified for something (but with the impostor syndrome attitude, you’ll most likely never become - for your standards), not acknowledging or not mentioning your real title, undermining the importance of your professional experiences, and so much more can be a part of feeling like a fraud.
It’s usually completely illogical and disconnected from reality, but you can’t stop feeling that way.
Types of “Impostors”
In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, the author and expert on impostor syndrome, Valerie Young, describes 5 types of people suffering from this self-debilitating syndrome.
“I need to know every single piece of information before I can start doing anything.”
“I need to meet all the criteria of a job posting if I am to apply.”
“I don’t want to pose a question or speak up in a group context (meetings e.g.), as it will make me look stupid and uneducated.”
No matter how minor the mistake, it’s a good occasion to question your worth and competence.
Not meeting all the goals you’ve set turns out to be another good occasion to question your worth and abilities.
The constant need to question yourself lurks at every corner.
If you’re talented and meant to do this job, you shouldn’t be struggling to accomplish any tasks.
If you need to put in the effort, it proves that you’re an impostor.
“Asking for help proves that I’m an impostor.”
“Only by working alone can I appear as a non-failure. Otherwise, everyone will think that I just latch onto others.”
“I have to work harder than anyone else to prove that I’m not fake.”
“I also need to succeed in all of my efforts, otherwise, I’ll come out looking like an impostor.
Why Does It Occur?
Psychology rarely offers linear, singular, straightforward answers. Usually, the reasons behind our behaviors, habits, and beliefs are multifactorial. That means that several sources define and shape the same occurrence.
According to recent research, the prevalence rates of impostor syndrome symptoms were the highest among ethnic minority groups. It was equally common for men and women alike, and across all age groups: adolescents and adult experts alike.According to the same research, impostor syndrome is often comorbid with anxiety and depression. It’s also linked to impaired job satisfaction, performance, and burnout. Other authors, like the ones we mentioned previously, attribute the occurrence of impostor syndrome to modern-day social pressure. Another possible explanation is that impostor syndrome occurs due to the way we were raised–by internalizing conditioning messages. “The only way for me to be loved is to achieve success”.
The reality is that probably all these factors get combined to create insecure, anxious individuals who believe that they’re never good enough, but only good enough at tricking other people into believing they’re good enough.The impostor syndrome is like living with undeserved, toxic guilt for telling a lie you have never told. That’s why it’s vital to act. Free yourself from old narratives and identify who you truly are.
Dealing With Impostor Syndrome
Here are a few things you can do that can help you overcome impostor syndrome. Problem awareness is the first step to the solution, while accepting your reality and acting towards making a change comes right after.
Acknowledge and Reframe Your Thoughts
Dealing with difficult thoughts, such as those that define impostor syndrome, can be challenging. That’s why we often neglect them, put them aside. Take a moment and allow these thoughts to exist in your mind. What do they sound like?
Very often, the only difference between people who don’t have this syndrome and people who do is the way they approach challenges. Differentiating constructive criticism from toxic criticism can be crucial for the way you perceive yourself, as it leaves you enough space to choose if you want to react to it or move on.
Not knowing how to do something, the need for clarification or personal uncertainty over a specific topic are not signs of unprofessionalism, lack of intelligence, or fraud. They are a normal part of every learning process.
Share Your Feelings
Sharing how you feel with your mentor or supervisor can be of great help. They can give you an objective insight into your real abilities, your strong sides, and your weaknesses. Once you put it all on the table, it will become less scary and weird. Once revealed, the monster becomes a mouse.
Track Your Success, Thoughts, and Feelings
Use a journal to track your moods, thoughts, and feelings. It can help you gain insights into the way they change and evolve over time, but, also, you might discover some useful patterns. For example, some situations might trigger the feeling of being an impostor more than others.
You can use your journal to capture good moments and keep track of good things, too. Whenever you achieve success, regardless of how minor it is, write a few words about the experience. How did you feel? What did you do to get there? Analyze the situation as realistically as you can.
Accept New Opportunities but Know That It’s Also Okay to Say “No”
Some people who suffer from impostor syndrome tend to say “yes” to everything, as a way of devaluating their time, effort, or expertise, while others shy away from new and unfamiliar opportunities.
Accepting new opportunities gives you a chance to learn new things, reinvent yourself, and prove to yourself once again that you can do it. At the same time, learning when, why, and how to deliver a polite “no” when necessary is what helps you build self-respect. Try balancing the two.
Reframe Failure - Adopt a Growth Mindset
An important part of changing our toxic perfectionist habits and beliefs is learning to redefine the failure. Not every failure leads to success, yet success is hardly possible without failure. The more we fail, the more likely we are to succeed. Mistakes help us grow, become braver, and stronger. Overcoming them means learning from them and growing as people.
Acknowledge and Celebrate Your Wins
Create a list of all the things you’ve achieved in life, ever. All the accolades, awards, “thank you-s”. List all the items–they don’t need to be all work-related. You can list anything you consider an accomplishment, no matter big or small.
Read it. Then read it again, this time more mindfully. Remember how you felt when you hit those milestones. Sit with this feeling. Savour it. You did all of this. Celebrate who you are.
Talk to a Therapist
If things are really going south, and you feel like you can’t put your puzzle together, the option of seeking professional help and talking to a therapist should always be on the table. Once again, asking for help and seeing a therapist is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of growth and intelligent change.
It may sound like a new-age snowflake problem, but it’s far from that. Impostor syndrome hits hard at all social groups, almost equally. Depending on the context and the zeitgeist, some social groups might be more at risk than others, however, the pain of being unable to believe that you’re capable of succeeding in life, worth investing in, and worth loving, is undeniable.
Impostor syndrome is real, and if you feel like this article is hitting a painful spot within you, perhaps it’s time to take action.