Imposter Syndrome

Scenario A: You are a businessperson working on a project for your boss. You have put in hours of concerted effort into producing the best work you can, and once you hand it in you believe that you are not worthy of any positive feedback that may come. You worry that you will be seen as someone who doesn’t know what they are doing or talking about, despite the amount of work you put in.

Scenario B: You are hanging out with a group of your best friends. There are 6 of you and you spend every Friday night together playing games. Someone suggests you play a game that involves 3 teams, so everyone needs to get into partners. Your friend Emily says she wants to partner up with you, and your first thought is that you are not deserving of this because she is better friends with other people, or that some of the other people there may be a better fit for her.

Sound familiar? It is highly likely you have been in a similar situation to the one above. This is a concept called ‘Imposter Syndrome’, and a study by the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that 70% of people experience this at one time or another.

Imposter Syndrome was defined in the late 1970s by Pauline R Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. They found that many high-achieving women believed that they were not intelligent and that they were over-evaluated by others. Over time more studies have been completed to understand that this is a universal belief, rather than only in women, and the Journal of Behavioral Science has allowed us to now define Imposter Syndrome as an experience of:

“Intense feelings that their achievements are undeserved and that they’re likely going to be exposed as a fraud.”

The term ‘achievements’ can be easily seen in the vein of goals/accomplishments, and it is important to note that it can also be seen as achievements within connections with others, self image, and physical traits. For example, we can believe that we are not deserving of our friend groups/work group/romantic partner, or our house/car/etc that we may own. Imposter Syndrome can fit any situations in which we feel we may not deserve what we have. The term ‘fraud’ seems to be one that comes up for people, as they believe others will realize that they do not have the knowledge that they are attempting to convey.

So how does Imposter Syndrome form?

So how does Imposter Syndrome form? Stanford Professor Carol Dweck believes that it starts at an early age through unintentional speech. When our parents praise us with sentences like ‘You’re so smart’ or ‘You’re so pretty’, it causes us to believe that as a fact, so when we get a low grade in test, or that person we have a crush on rejects us we believe that the original praise was unwarranted and maybe we’re not what we think we are. Then as we get older Social Comparison starts to enter our mindsets and we look at each other and evaluate how they are different to us. When we feel out of place, Imposter Syndrome kicks in as we don’t believe that we belong in the environment we are in. That can speak true when navigating situations that are unfamiliar to you, or with those who are close to you. For example; if you are the first person in your family to go to college, this might feel out of place or undeserving because you are taking a road that is unknown to anyone around you, so you may have the mindset that ‘people like you’ don’t get the opportunity to go to college.

The image below sums up what Imposter Syndrome can look like for most people:

There are five different characters of Imposter Syndrome that may arise:

 

  1. The Perfectionist – Someone who sets excessively high goals for themselves, and then experience major self-doubt when they are unable to achieve them.
  2. The Superhuman – Someone who pushes themselves to work harder and harder because they believe that the people around them are better workers than they are (this can also lead to a major burn out).
  3. The Natural Genius – Someone who judges their competence on ease and speed, and believes that competency comes naturally rather than over time/practice.
  4. The Soloist – Someone who believes that asking for help will cause people to think they are incapable of doing things on their own.
  5. The Expert – Someone who measures themselves by the amount of knowledge they hold, and believe that they will never know enough to be anything other than inexperienced.

Each of these categories hold a different characteristic of Imposter Syndrome, and it is possible to hold more than one. A lot of people that experience these characteristics chalk-up their accomplishments to chance, charm, connection, or other external factors, rather than their own skill or knowledge. When holding this mindset, we remove the opportunity to offer positive affirmations, or give yourself the desired credit, and instead brush our achievement off as if it was undeserved.

Now What?

Alright, so we know about how Imposter Syndrome is formed, and what it looks like…so how do we shift away from it? In essence, a shift comes when we acknowledge our own thoughts and feelings and put them in perspective. . The emotions that surface are instinctive, and when we push them away it can lead us not acknowledging our own emotions. We don’t need to engage these emotions, but we can allow them to be present and observe them.

When looking to shift away from the Imposter way of thinking, these are four tools that can help:

  1. Own your achievements – if you put a lot of effort into a task, it is highly unlikely any kind of achievement you receive related to that effort is a fluke. Accept that the things you are competent in are a skill that you have achieved. Focus on your success, and view it as what it is…a personal and positive achievement.
  2. Focus on the value you provide – everyone holds value; you are in the position you are in for a reason. You offer something unique, and you are important for that reason. When participating in anything in a large group it can be easy to lose this thought, and it is an important factor to continually revisit.
  3. Stop comparing yourself to others – [see Social Comparison] now this is much harder than it sounds. Essentially, if we can avoid looking at the values and achievements of others against our own, we can focus on our personal achievements and strengths.
  4. Keep a record of the nice things people say about you – this can be a great strategy when feeling Imposter Syndrome in a heavy way. It can be easy to focus on the negative comments rather than the positive, so having a place to remember the positive moments can help quiet the negatives.

It is also important to note that Imposter Syndrome does have value, as do all of our thought processes. It can be dangerous for us to believe that we were capable and deserving of everything we wanted. Imposter Syndrome offers balance and keeps us grounded, and so its presence can be beneficial to us. The key is to be aware of our growth zones, and honor the achievements that do come up.  

And, like social comparison, it is important to note that social data and comparisons CAN hold valuable and relatively accurate information.  Believing that you are the only purveyor of truth and accurate assessment is equally destructive.  Living without social comparison would be like living without feelings – it can’t be done, and shouldn’t be tried. 

Imposter Syndrome holds the core idea that one’s worth and achievements are primarily measured using social, external data.  We choose to let external factors define our achievements. It is something that is ingrained in us physiologically and culturally, and because of this, it can be quite a challenge to shift.  Remember, this is a part of us; so, don’t curse its existence. Listen to it, observe it, and challenge your thought process. 

If we are all frauds, then none of us are…

Review Your Learning

What/Why is it?

  • Imposter Syndrome is the inability to believe that one’s success is deserved.
  • It can be wrapped into our sense of identity, and is especially affected by how we are raised to identify with our abilities.
  • Doubt is shed on our sense of competence by unrealistic expectations of ourselves and overestimation of others.

Solutions

  • Own your achievements, Focus on the value you provide, stop comparing yourself to others, and record affirming things others tell you.
  • Understand and be thankful for the good behind Imposter Syndrome: it’s dangerous to think we deserve everything we have.