What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is rooted in feelings of intense doubt in your abilities and feeling like a fraud. There is an internalised belief that you are not as competent as people believe you to be. This is often accompanied by the intense anxiety that you will eventually be found out that you are not clever, kind, smart, or capable.
“I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out”.Maya Angelou
Her 50-year career saw civil rights activism, 36 books, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and being the first female inaugural poet in U.S. presidential history. Despite her achievements, Maya Angelou still felt intense feelings of fraudulence and like she was going to be ‘found out’.
These feelings are not limited to the emotions and anxieties of Maya Angelou. Imposter Syndrome is universal. In fact, 70% of women and over 50% of men have said that they have experienced feelings of being a fraud in 2019.
The Imposter Phenomenon
Originally termed the ‘Imposter Phenomenon’, two psychologists – Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes – developed the concept of Imposter Syndrome in 1978. Whilst we know now that imposter syndrome can affect a vast range of people, the founding study focused on high achieving women. The study found that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise”.
Since this study, it has become clear that imposter syndrome does not discriminate based on gender, race, age, sex, or occupation. However, it is important to acknowledge that it still does disproportionately affect the experiences of disadvantaged groups.
Often people who experience feelings of imposter syndrome have an unwarranted sense of insecurity. Where you can’t shake the feeling that you haven’t earned your accomplishments, or that your ideas, opinions, and skills aren’t worthy of other people’s attention. You often attribute accomplishments to luck rather than ability or intelligence. However, even when you receive positive feedback, it doesn’t ease feelings of fraudulence
Imposter Syndrome: 5 Categories of Competence
Dr. Valerie Young came up with the 5 different competence types. She found that not all people who experienced imposter syndrome experienced it in the same way. Instead, that it was based on our competence types. This is understood as how they define their own competence, and if they don’t meet the expectations they set for themselves, then they are an imposter.
As a Perfectionist, you demand perfection in every aspect of your life. However, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Perfection isn’t a realistic goal and thus when you (understandably to all others) can’t achieve it, you feel like a failure. Often, perfectionists avoid trying new things, so you won’t put yourself out there for fear of rejection, failure, or being caught out as a fraud.
The Natural Genius
As a Natural Genius, you believe that you need to get things right and that this should come really easily. Often, you were ‘gifted and talented’ at school and were top of the class. Or throughout earlier life, you would pick up new skills with little effort. The transition from school to the outside world makes you see that things are more competitive. Thus, when things are hard or if things don’t come easily to you, you are embarrassed and ashamed. You have a deep-rooted belief that competent people can handle anything with ease and if you don’t feel this way, you are a fraud.
The Soloist (or Rugged Individual)
As a Soloist, you feel like you have to do everything on your own for it to count. If you have to ask for help or rely on anyone else, then you are a failure. Sometimes this occurs even if help is given to you, as you are admitting to your imperfections and showing yourself as a failure/as weak.
Often, as a Soloist, you believe that the only work you do that is truly successful is the work that you do completely alone.
As the Expert, you feel as though you have to ‘know it all’ before you begin something. Often you have to do all the research or finish the manual before you start on something. However, if you don’t get it right on the first try, then you feel like a failure. As you tend to put so much pressure on knowing all the answers, when you don’t get everything right, it brings up feelings of failure and of being a fraud.
As the superhero, you are the perfectionist on overdrive. You believe that you should be perfect in every single area of your life and in every role you hold. Failing to navigate the demands of all of these roles often means that you are an imposter and a failure. Even if everything is going right, you still experience feelings of insecurity such as ‘I should be doing more’ or ‘I should find this easier’.
Can Self-Doubt be Helpful?
Imposter syndrome is wrapped up in other concepts like perfectionism, insecurity, self-doubt, over-work, procrastination, and self-criticism. All of these work to make you feel like an imposter. In small doses, all of these concepts can be helpful to us. For example, self-doubt can protect us, to help us to reflect on our role in situations. However, excessive experiences of any of these forms of emotions can turn negative.
The combination of all these emotions, culminating in imposter syndrome, often prevents people from sharing great ideas, applying for jobs or a promotion, or offering valid opinions. The heady combination of intense self-criticism means that so many talented people are stuck in fear, unable to achieve their potential. For those who are in a position where they are succeeding, they are often crippled by the constant questioning of whether they are deserving of their accolades.
How to Combat your Imposter Syndrome
Talk to your Mentors and your Peers
It is easy to want to avoid talking about it. It is natural to feel afraid that your fears may be confirmed. However, avoidance is the maintenance of any problem.
Sharing feelings of being an imposter/a fraud can make them feel less overwhelming and can help you to get some outside context on the situation.
Often opening up to your peers, opens up a conversation and encourages them to do the same thing. It helps to see that people who you see as successful (and in the same position as you) feel the same way.
Doing this can help you to build connections and a network of mutual support. This network can help to validate your strengths and be a firm base of people who support and encourage your efforts and want to grow. A want that is often squished by the negative internalised voice of your imposter syndrome.
Challenge your Doubts
You may believe that you are fooling everybody, that you’ve managed to hoodwink them into thinking you’re capable. However, it is likely that you believe the very same people you’ve ‘hoodwinked’, to be intelligent, capable, and astute. So why, with all these accolades of intellect, are they so easily fooled by you. Perhaps, your belief is not true.
People don’t praise, encourage, promote or respect simply out of pity or from an unfounded sense of capability. If people tell you that you are smart, hard working, and doing well, it probably is because you are.
Avoid Comparing Yourself to Other People
Whilst talking to your peers and having an open dialogue is beneficial, comparing your experiences like-for-like can be detrimental. We all have different strengths and for good reason. Our society wouldn’t work if every single person was world-class at tennis, debating, quadratic equations, or poetry. We thrive in different ways and that is a beautiful thing. To quote Theodore Roosevelt, comparison is the thief of joy. If you spend your life believing you’re no good because you cannot do what someone else can, it limits you and your experience.
It is ok to need time to develop, it is ok to not be good at something and it is ok to be really good at something else (and believe it).
Remember What You Do Well
One practical and helpful way of visually seeing what you do well is to make a ‘life CV’. This is an exercise where you write down a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your experiences, from your work life, social life, and your family life. Having a visual reminder of what you have achieved can be a positive way of reinforcing that you are not a fraud.
Talk to a Therapist
A therapist can offer support with:
- Challenging unwanted beliefs
- Helping you to recognise how pervasive imposter syndrome can be
- Recognising anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues
- Overcoming feelings of fraudulence, inadequacy, and insecurity.
At Hope Therapy, we have a range of therapists who deal with imposter syndrome.
Therapy can help you to explore what makes you feel that you aren’t deserving of your success. We help you explore such things as self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-belief. Through this, can come a sense of owning your successes and feeling deserving.
We’ll leave you with a positive affirmation to challenge your feelings of being an imposter:
Other blog posts that may be of interest:
- How to Protect your Mental Health at University
- Depression: Everything you need to know
- Treating Anxiety without Medication
Owner and lead counsellor of Hope Therapy & Counselling Services. Ian draws upon various approaches including CBT, Person-Centred Counselling and Mindfulness.
To book a session with Ian or one of the ‘Hope’ Team just get in touch.