Imagine that it is the first day of your new job and you’re expected to bring your skills to the table. However, there you are, wracked by insecurities… What if they see through you? What if you only think that you know what you’re doing, but actually don’t? You convince yourself that this feeling will eventually go away once you get comfortable with the job, but a few months later, that familiar, nagging doubt still sits in your head.
This feeling has a name–Impostor Syndrome.
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
A famous quote by Charles Bukowski observes that, while stupid people are full of confidence, the intelligent ones are full of doubt. This, in a nutshell, is Impostor Syndrome.
Despite their many achievements and accolades, people experiencing this syndrome stick to the strong belief that they are not intelligent. In fact, they are convinced that they have been able to fool anyone who thinks otherwise, and are therefore afraid of being exposed as a fraud or an impostor, once the others recognize their supposed incompetence.
They constantly question their abilities and consider themselves inadequate, even though they have objectively been proven to be capable and competent. They attribute their success not to their own abilities, but to external factors, such as timing or luck. That’s why they often reject praise or recognition, and repeatedly doubt if they truly deserve what they receive or earn.
We have all doubted ourselves at some point or another. Does that mean that we have experienced Impostor Syndrome? Let’s find out who can get Impostor Syndrome and what that may look like!
Who Can Experience Impostor Syndrome?
Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, who first used this term to describe highly successful Caucasian women, initially thought it only affected women. It was later found that anyone can have this syndrome, although being a minority at school or work (in terms of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, etc.) may intensify such impostor-type feelings (Source).
Some evidence links Impostor Syndrome to childhood experiences, including a parental emphasis on achievement and societal pressure to succeed. Kids that grow up in households where they are praised for their innate intellectual ability or natural talent, but not so much for hard work, cultivate a warped view of success. Their focus on natural ability as the cause of achievement continues to grow with them into adulthood, where they often face societal pressure to succeed.
What Are The Symptoms Of Impostor Syndrome?
Feeling like an impostor and the constant fear of being ‘found out’ is lonely and burdensome. People with Impostor Syndrome equate their self-worth with their failures, and therefore do everything in their power to avoid the possibility of failure, sometimes even by avoiding opportunities. When they do take up some amount of work, they procrastinate endlessly because they have a fear of finishing their assignment, only to find that the end product is not good enough.
They spend hours over-preparing, planning, and thinking about everything that can go wrong. Impostor Syndrome makes people work too hard in order to make up for their perceived inadequacy, at the expense of self-care and a healthy work-life balance. Their need for perfection makes them micromanage everything, while also feeling shame for taking so much time to complete the task.
In times of trouble, people experiencing Impostor Syndrome avoid asking for help because, if they do, others will know that they aren’t really perfect. Insecurity is horrible by itself, but this entire exercise of over-thinking can leave them depressed or increasingly anxious, as well as physically and emotionally drained.
So, when Maria’s manager assigns her an important project that she will then present to the company, she feels anxious and worries that this project will be the one that exposes her as the fraud she feels she is. When this happens, she will likely react in one of the two ways: procrastinate or over-prepare.
After the presentation, Maria feels relieved for a while, but the positive feelings wear off and she begins to attribute her success to luck (if she procrastinated) or hard work, by telling herself that anyone could have done it after over-preparing. When people praise her for her accomplishment, she belittles all the positive evaluations because she worries that she might not be able to live up to their expectations for her in the future.
This cycle repeats itself every time Maria is faced with a responsibility, because, for her, achievement does not indicate ability.
The feelings and fears of people experiencing Impostor Syndrome therefore appear to be quite contradictory: on the one hand, they fear being exposed as incompetent, unintelligent and phony, but on the other hand, they belittle their achievements, reject praise and thus ultimately accuse themselves of being incompetent and deceitful.
Do People Fake Experiencing Impostor Syndrome?
A study was conducted to investigate if there were different types of Impostor Syndromes. Two groups of people could be discerned in the sample of managers studied – “true impostors” who suffered from pervasively negative self-views, and “strategic impostors”, who were largely unaffected by psychological impairments.
The true impostors, apparently, are those that were originally described by Clance and Imes; these are the people who really doubt their abilities, and believe that they deceive others regarding their achievements.
On the other hand are the people who claim to experience Impostor Syndrome, although they don’t actually suffer from the corresponding self-perception. These people had a fairly positive self-evaluation and appeared overall to be carefree and unstressed. They neither showed perfectionist nor procrastinating working styles.
This is a more strategic form of self-presentation (as opposed to actual self-perception), and it is practiced in order to profit from an advantage of attribution. They downplay their achievements and abilities in order to appear more modest and keep others’ expectations as low as possible, so they turn out successful, despite their assumed incompetence. They do not internalize their behavior, but are well aware of their real abilities and competences.
However, the struggle is real for the “true impostors” who are actually haunted by profoundly negative self-views.
How Can You Manage Impostor Syndrome?
Having to deal with Impostor Syndrome can be overwhelming and exhausting, but remember these key things:
1. You earned your spot – There were no mistakes in recruitment. You were selected for the job because people thought you were the best person for it and that you would do good work.
2. Relieve stress – Make time to do things that make you happy. Take cooking lessons, find a good gym, take walks in parks, watch your favorite TV shows, and meet up with your favorite people. Do these activities without feeling any guilt. You deserve the time off!
3. Set healthy expectations – Realize that perfection is not a realistic expectation—for anyone. Set healthy expectations for yourself and focus on meeting them, instead of chasing some unattainable idea of perfection.
4. Internalize accomplishments – Instead of beating yourself up about the few things you failed to achieve, internalize the accomplishments and give yourself due credit. Find a way to own your achievements when you feel anxious about being “found out”. For example, you could use tangible elements like meaningful letters of recommendation or awards as reminders of success.
5. Failure does not define you – Approach challenges with a growth mindset and realize that failure is a natural part of the learning process. Without failure, there is no space for improvement. Although internalizing this message can be difficult, recognizing the importance of failure can be effective when combating the symptoms of Impostor Syndrome.
6. Be kind to yourself – In the face of failure, we often become our own harshest critics. It is very important to be kind to yourself, utilize daily affirmations and accept that mistakes happen to everyone.
7. Everyone feels the same way – Although you might think that everyone else around you belongs here, realize that most people in a similar situation probably feel the same way. However, you can only find this out by talking to others, particularly those with similar interests, backgrounds and goals. Create a safe place to share your feelings and fears, so that together, you can determine which ones are legitimate and which ones don’t deserve the space you’re giving them in your head.
To sum up, believe in yourself and do your work with all your heart. However, when mistakes inevitably happen, take accountability and be kind to yourself. Take ownership for the things you can control, and let go of the things you can’t!