06 Feb

Name and Overcome Impostor Syndrome 

What is one thing that many highly accomplished individuals like Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou, John Steinbeck, and even Emma Watson and Meryl Streep all have in common? Aside from their name ringing a bell at the mere mention of it, not to mention their level of fame and achievements, they all seemed to possess an unbelievable sense of doubt in themselves, even amidst all the accomplishments and recognition that they have earned. 

This nagging feeling of doubt has been found to be extremely common, not only amongst famous personalities but also more ‘ordinary' individuals, who are often classified as high achievers themselves. This so-called phenomenon is commonly known today as Impostor Syndrome. 

Impostor Syndrome is also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, or impostor experience. It is a psychological pattern where people are unable to internalize their accomplishments and are plagued with doubt regarding their achievements. People who experience impostorism have an incomprehensible fear of being exposed as a fraud. 

Despite the lack of evidence to the claims, those affected strongly believe that they do not deserve the success they’ve achieved and in fact, greatly attribute their successes to luck. Worse, they often feel as though their success results from duping other people into thinking that they are more brilliant than they actually are. 

The term ‘impostor syndrome’ was devised by clinical psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 and was first introduced in the research article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” 

After conducting interviews with a sample of 150 high-achieving women, Clance and Imes concluded that despite all the external evidence available to support and justify their success, people with impostor syndrome see themselves as undeserving and a fraud. 

Though early research was targeted on the prevalence of impostorism amongst high-achieving women only, today, impostor syndrome is widely recognized as affecting both men and women equally. 

It Happens to the Best of Us 

We know an impostor to be the kind of person who pretends to be someone he or she is not. It is an act committed out of the intent to take advantage of somebody. 

The people who suffer from impostorism have no similarities to this devious behavior. In fact, they could be one of the most brilliant individuals that we know, but inside their minds, they believe themselves unworthy - a fraudulent being who deceives people. 

It’s incomprehensible to most people how those with impostor syndrome manage to see the worst in themselves. It can seem incomprehensible that some of the most accomplished people throughout history could think so little about their achievements, despite the seemingly obvious. 

Real-world Examples 

Here’s what most of us didn’t know about the real struggles and inner sentiments of some of these people. 

Maya Angelou, famous poet and writer often felt a nagging sense of doubt about her accomplishments despite having penned several well-received books and even after receiving several prestigious awards. She was once quoted saying, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” 

Albert Einstein, the world-renowned genius who also received a Nobel Prize in Physics for his massive contribution to theoretical physics, once described himself as an “involuntary swindler” whose work didn’t deserve all the attention it had received. 

How to Move Forward 

Learning more about Impostor Syndrome, discussing and talking more about our experiences, seeking counsel from a certified mental health professional, challenging negative thoughts, and keeping tabs on our achievements and celebrating wins are just some of the positive and proactive ways of dealing with Impostor Syndrome. 

Since it is an experience that seems to occur randomly, there is no absolute way of stopping it, but there are a multitude of ways to cope, seek and provide support to current and potential bearers of this peculiar psychological experience. 

Signs of Impostor Syndrome 

People battling with an impostor phenomenon can find it debilitating as they’re consistently plagued with deep, incessant negative feelings and beliefs about themselves, even amid any successes. Researchers Clance and Imes determined the following symptoms as indicators of Impostor Syndrome: 

Debilitating Self-doubt One of the worst things about Impostor Syndrome is the debilitating self-doubt that fuels a constant worry and anxiety of not living up to the expectations of others. While those in the public’s eye are obvious candidates, it also affects high achievers who aren’t so ‘famous.’ Almost everyone has an audience of some size, even if it is restricted to family or the workplace. 

Self-doubt is normal to a moderate extent, but when people consciously avoid handling new and bigger responsibilities that may be key to their growth due to doubt and lack of trust in themselves, then it becomes a destructive force that works against sufferers of impostor syndrome. 

People who experience the impostor phenomenon are stuck in a vicious cycle of continually doubting themselves, especially when they experience a success. Instead of celebrating their wins, they are unreasonably scared of being exposed for what they think they are - a fraud. They find it impossible to own their success positively. 

Low Self-Esteem and Confidence A correlation of impostor syndrome is low self-esteem and low self-confidence. Falling short of the unreasonable standards they set for themselves causes a mix of uneasy emotions, affecting their confidence. They tend to self-sabotage themselves and deny their competence and worth, despite adequate evidence to the contrary. 

Fear of Failure  Their public may see them as good, successful, almost perfect, but to people experiencing impostor phenomenon, their public persona is a false façade, hiding their unnecessary flaws and imperfections. Due to the very high standards that they feel they must live up to, they are in constant worry of disappointing others and have the greatest fear of failure, and of being seen as one. 

Deny Their True Worth and Attribute Success to Luck When a person who experiences impostor syndrome has an achievement, they believe themselves ‘lucky’ and attribute it to external factors such as outside help or a good network. Fueled by their impostor feelings and tendencies, they unhealthily deny their worth and true capacity, attributing any sort of victory to outside forces, and never taking credit or seeing the value of their efforts and accomplishments.

 Feelings of Depression Impostorism is intertwined with and can worsen feelings of worry, the tendency to isolate themselves, feeling misunderstood and alone, and is very closely linked to anxiety and depression. People with impostor syndrome continuously try to achieve more than they have accomplished, in a seemingly endless pursuit of perfection. 

Generalized Anxiety  The endless pursuit of success and the vicious cycle of impostorism often puts sufferers in a near-constant state of anxiety. They’re never really comfortable with other people because they are afraid of being exposed as a fraud. They hide behind massive walls of seeming perfection and excellence, and yet are unable to recognize themselves as their own agents of success. 

How to Stop Feeling Like A Fraud 

Have you ever once felt so concerned by what people will think when they discover that you are a fraud? You have not committed any criminal act or engaged in intentional deception, and yet, here you are feeling sorry for your inadequacy, and feeling apologetic to others over something you think you are and feeling worried about being exposed. 

It doesn’t even matter where you are or what you’ve accomplished sometimes. The nasty feeling that seems to make us believe that we’re betraying people around us and ‘keeping up appearances,’ seems to creep up on just about everyone at one time or another.  It can happen at work while needlessly comparing ourselves to other people or feeling incompetent at our jobs. 

This horrid feeling can happen to anybody, but impostor syndrome has been shown to be more prevalent amongst people considered to be high achievers. 

It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of the population (that’s more than half of humanity) experience a feeling of fraudulence at some point in their lives. We normally don’t go around parading our feelings, announcing to everyone that we feel that we are fake. 

In fact, it’s something most people conceal (unless they are asked or made to feel safe enough to confide about it) and that’s what can make it a little tricky to address. Feeling like an impostor exists alongside feelings of guilt, worry, anxiety, shame, and potentially other negative emotions that hinder us in life. 

We often hear good advice like, “be authentic,” “be yourself,” and “be true to who you are,” but this doesn’t make sense to a person with impostor syndrome. There are many ways to help someone beat their feelings of impostorism, but it always starts with awareness. A person who seems unaware of what they’re feeling and who seems blatantly accepting of this mindset and behavior would be challenging to help. 

If you or someone you know is going through Impostor Syndrome, take heart. 

Here are actions you can undertake to help alleviate the uneasy anxiety behind the feelings of impostor phenomenon. 

Talk About It 

Whether it’s you or somebody you know going through impostor syndrome, start the healing process by talking about it. If you’re the one who needs help, seek the counsel of a good friend or a health professional if you can’t find someone to trust enough with your sentiments. If somebody you know has opened up to you, lend an ear to understand the person. 

People who experience impostor phenomenon tend to isolate themselves, especially emotionally, due to anxiety and the constant worry of being exposed and called out as a fraud. But you cannot properly address something that is not acknowledged, right? So, this is step one (after becoming self-aware of it, of course). 

Get Educated 

The impostor phenomenon became known as such because of research by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970’s. In more recent studies, impostor phenomenon is not classified as a mental health disorder, but a psychological phenomenon that is triggered by some external circumstances. 

Overcoming it entails some knowledge and understanding of what impostorism really is. This knowledge will help alleviate some of the fear and unnecessary worry that may come with the awareness that the phenomenon affects you. With education comes increased objectivity. This will empower you to address your mindset consciously and monitor and reflect on your behaviors and emotional responses. 

Challenge Negative Thoughts 

Feelings of impostorism will be triggered and exacerbated by negative thoughts. Make it a point to mindfully monitor your inner voice and examine your thought patterns. Challenge your thoughts. Are they rational? Whose voice is behind them? 

If your self-talk is supporting the conviction that you’re never good enough, correct that. If you start comparing yourself with others, stop. If you keep aiming for perfection, let go of perfectionism and appreciate your efforts more. Challenging negative thought patterns is vital to overcoming impostor syndrome. 

An opportunity for Management 

Emotionally mature people leaders can help spot imposter syndrome through observation, active listening, and frequent two-way dialogue. Reinforce an employee’s value and talent. Help individuals see how their individual efforts have contributed to the big picture success.

 Document for Posterity and Accountability 

People going through impostor syndrome may find it difficult to fully distinguish reality from perception. To address that, it’s helpful to find and hold onto tangible evidence of your own accomplishments and successes that help verify reality for you in moments of doubt. 

Impostor phenomenon makes it very difficult to acknowledge and accept your own accomplishments and achievements. Balance this by consistently documenting, for the sake of posterity and accountability, just how far you’ve come to remind yourself of the truth of what you have done. 

Some people experience impostorism because they have not yet come to terms with the fact that they can be so powerful in their own right. You are capable, and more often than not, you are even stronger than you think. You need to start from that belief, and just in case nobody has ever told you yet, truly, you’re a force to be reckoned with.

 Shawna Lake is the Founder of Deep End Talent Strategies, an HR consulting firm for business and career coaching practice for professionals. Schedule a free call with us to talk about your unique situation.