Have you ever achieved something great but felt like you did not deserve it and you are not worthy of everyone’s praise? This may be a small part of the Imposter Syndrome (IS). The term “Imposter Syndrome” may not be a common term known to most. The growing phrase has many aspects to it that need to be unpacked. IS can be a cause of much frustration and anxiety, which lead to other underlying health complications. This article will explore what the imposter syndrome is and why everyone should understand it and its effects.
To begin, the term must first be defined. The imposter syndrome is not merely a lack of confidence as some have understood it to be. This condition refers to “an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be” (Cuncic, 2020). When you have this condition, feel as though you are not the true reflection of your achievements. As the term “imposter” implies someone taking over the image of another, an individual with IS will feel this way about themselves. Constant worry dawns on them as they are afraid that the world will soon realise that they are not as great as they believe them to be. According to McGee (2017), research says that about 70% of high achievers have experienced Imposter Syndrome at some point in during their success.
What does Imposter Syndrome feel like?
Sakulku and Alexander (2011) have highlighted five characteristics that people suffering from Imposter Syndrome possess.
- The need to be special, to be the very best.
- Superwoman/Superman aspects – the urge to be perfect.
- Fear of failure.
- Denial of competence and discounting praise.
- Fear and guilt about success
The Imposter Cycle
The Imposter Cycle illustrates how this can start and begin to constantly repeat itself.
This cycle begins when one is confronted with an achievement-related task, where the thought of achieving the final result may trigger feelings of anxiety, self-doubt and worry. These intense feelings push one to over-prepare and/or procrastinate, both leading to high levels of stress and anxiety. Once this stage is done, when one completes the necessary tasks, a feeling of relief is felt like the hardest about doing the work is over. by accomplishment, a feeling of relief, the discounting of positive feedback, followed by perceived fraudulence, increased self-doubt, depression and anxiety.
Famous people with Imposter Syndrome
Many people suffer from Imposter Syndrome, some who we may know but not aware of this. Some famous people who suffered from this syndrome as outlines by McGee (2017) are listed below:
- Albert Einstein did not believe that he was as much a genius as people saw him be. He left a famous quote: “The exaggerated esteem in which my life is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler” (Google, 2020).
- Maya Angelou also left a quote: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, “uh oh, they are going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out” (Google, 2020).
- Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO) sometimes wakes up feeling like a fraud.
- Meryl Streep thought she could not act even though she is amazing.
From the outside, we as fans may praise what these famous individuals are doing in the world and they are genuinely doing a great job. Unfortunately, they may not always feel like they are worthy of anything.
How do you know if you have Imposter Syndrome?
According to Young (2020), imposters feel a chronic sense of self-doubt and low self-confidence. Unlike people manoeuvering through life normally, individuals suffering from Imposter Syndrome do not take applause and words of praise as encouragement. Rather, when this happens, they tend to brush it aside and make comments as though they did not deserve it and it could have been “pure luck”.
Cuncin (2020), advises that one should ask the following questions when trying to discern whether or not they have Imposter Syndrome:
- Do you agonise over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
- Do you attribute your success to luck or outside factors?
- Are you very sensitive to even constructive criticism?
- Do you feel like you will inevitably be found out as a phoney?
- Do you downplay your expertise, even in areas where you are genuinely more skilled than others?
Young (2020) outlines that you may find yourself telling demeaning things to yourself, such as:
If I were really intelligent, capable, competent…
- I should know everything in my field
- I should get it right the first time
- I should excel in everything I do
- I’d always know the answer
- I’d always understand what I’m reading
- I’d always feel confident
- I’d never make a mistake
- I’d never be confused
- I’d never need help
If you find yourself ticking the boxes for most of these phrases and questions, then maybe it is time to start seeking help on how to go about it.
What causes imposter syndrome?
Generic causes of Imposter Syndrome include coming from a family that highly valued achievement or had parents who flipped back and forth between offering praise and being critical. This may confuse within oneself. Another angle of looking at Imposter Syndrome is when someone enters a new role or position (Cuncic, 2020). This can be starting university or a new job, where you feel you are not good enough to be there and are incapable of producing genuine good results. Looking back at the Imposter Cycle, either one of these situations may be a cause of anxiety and frustration.
Imposter Syndrome and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) are highly linked (Cuncic, 2020). To understand what may cause IS, it may be good to begin by understanding what Social Anxiety Disorder is and where it stems from. Someone suffering from SAD may feel that when they are conversing with someone else, that person may discover that they have this disorder. Both the IS and SAD have feelings of not uncovering one’s true self, which may over time, negatively affect that person.
While the symptoms of social anxiety can fuel feelings of Imposter Syndrome, this does not mean that everyone with imposter syndrome has social anxiety or vice versa. People without social anxiety can also feel a lack of confidence and competence. Imposter syndrome often causes normally non-anxious people to experience a sense of anxiety when they are in situations where they feel inadequate.
Perfectionism plays a significant role in impostor syndrome. You might think that there is some perfect "script" for conversations and that you cannot say the wrong thing. You probably have trouble asking for help from others and may procrastinate due to your high standards (Cuncin, 2020).
Five types of Imposters
- The Perfectionist – This imposter’s primary focus is on “how” something is done. This includes how the work is conducted and how it turns out. One minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance or 99 out of 100 equals failure and thus shame.
- The Expert - The Expert is the knowledge version of the Perfectionist. Here, the primary concern is on “what” and “how much” you know or can do. Because you expect to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge denotes failure and shame.
- The Soloist – This imposter cares mostly about “who” completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it has to be you and you alone. Because you think you need to do and figure out everything on your own, needing help is a sign of failure that evokes shame.
- The Natural Genius also cares about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. But for you, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. The fact that you have to struggle to master a subject or skill or that you’re not able to bang out your masterpiece on the first try equals failure which evokes shame.
- The Superwoman/Superman/Super Student – This kind of imposter measures competence based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role — as a parent, partner, on the home-front, host/hostess, friend, volunteer — all evoke shame because they feel they should be able to handle it all — perfectly and easily.
Who is more likely to have IS?
How do I overcome imposter syndrome?
Whenever you are faced with something negative, whether external or internal, you will try to find ways to cope with whatever it is you are faced with. Cuncin (2020), highlights some ways that one can cope when being faced with the Imposter Syndrome.
To begin this, you need to ask some difficult questions, like:
- "What core beliefs do I hold about myself?"
- "Do I believe I am worthy of love as I am?"
- "Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?"
By finding an answer to these questions, you may begin to notice yourself calming down. These questions help in many situations and are a part of self-affirmation.
Once you have asked yourself these questions, start to venture out for help (Very Well Mind, 2020). Some things you can actively do outside of yourself can be to:
- Share your feelings. Talk to other people about how you are feeling. These irrational beliefs tend to die down when they are hidden and not talked about. Other people may offer a different and more positive perspective to yours.
- Focus on others. While this might feel like it may go in the opposite direction, try to help others who may be in the same situation as you. If you see someone who seems awkward or alone, ask that person a question to bring them into the group. As you practice your skills, you will build confidence in your abilities.
- Assess your abilities. If you have long-held beliefs about your incompetence in social and performance situations, make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your accomplishments and what you are good at, and compare that with your self-assessment.
- Take baby steps. Don't focus on doing things perfectly, but rather, do things reasonably well and reward yourself for taking action. For example, in a group conversation, offer an opinion or share a story about yourself.
- Question your thoughts. As you start to assess your abilities and take baby steps, question whether your thoughts are rational. Does it make sense that you are a fraud, given everything that you know?
- Stop comparing. Every time you compare yourself to others in a social situation, you will find some fault with yourself that fuels the feeling of not being good enough or not belonging. Instead, during conversations, focus on listening to what the other person is saying. Be genuinely interested in learning more.
- Use social media moderately. Very Well Mind (2020), outlines that the overuse of social media may be related to feelings of inferiority. If you try to portray an image on social media that doesn't match who you are or that is impossible to achieve, it will only make your feelings of being a fraud worse. This may also worsen your feelings of bringing out your true self when you have to face people in reality.
- Stop fighting your feelings. Sometimes, the problem that many people face, is to try and brush the fact that they are not feeling okay. Don't fight the feelings of not belonging. Instead, try to lean into them and accept them. It's only when you acknowledge them that you can start to unravel those core beliefs that are holding you back. It is like overcoming an addiction, the first step is to accept that there is a problem.
- Refuse to let it hold you back. No matter how much you feel like you don't belong, don't let that stop you from pursuing your goals. Keep going and refuse to be stopped. Whatever you are facing should not be an obstacle in your way. It is okay, whatever you are feeling or facing, you will be okay and there is nothing wrong with you.
The Imposter Syndrome may be something that is not very familiar to you but something important to understand. This is for your own benefit and even if you are not facing this, you may be able to help others. Always remember to be kind to yourself. Talk to others and seek help where necessary.
Thandeka Madziwanyika is a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and human resources consulting firm.
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