“I’m not qualified for this job, I just got lucky.”
“I feel like everyone else in this class is smarter than me.”
“If people really knew how little I know, they would think I’m a fraud.”
“I’m afraid to speak up because I don’t want to sound stupid.”
“I feel like I’m faking it and it’s only about time before someone finds out.”
Have you ever caught yourself thinking along these lines in relation to your workplace, your academic position, or even your personal life? If so, there is a chance that you might be experiencing the phenomenon of imposter syndrome. In this article, we will delve deeper into what constitutes imposter syndrome, who experiences it, and what can practically be done to overcome or work through it.
So What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome can best be described as an individual’s internal belief that their success is not a result of their ability, intelligence, or effort, but rather a mere stroke of luck or contingency. What underlies this belief is a feeling of inadequacy or self-doubt, and the fear that one day the individual may be exposed as a ‘fraud’ or ‘impostor’, despite evidence to the contrary.
What can follow is a diminished sense of belonging for the individual in academic or work-related environments. Individuals inflicted with imposter syndrome often tend to reject or undermine compliments paid to them by peers, colleagues, and mentors. They begin to perceive people who praise them as being ignorant of reality or having been deceived by their tactics.
As a result, they tend to feel the need to exert superhuman effort to perform at a normal level. In some instances, they even unconsciously self-sabotage their own chances of success.
Who Experiences Imposter Syndrome?
If you were to question your social circle, you might find that many of your colleagues have had experiences that involve imposter syndrome to some degree. Imposter syndrome is surprisingly common, with research suggesting that up to 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives. It can be especially prevalent among high-achievers, including those in leadership positions or in highly competitive industries.
Furthermore, it is particularly relevant to individuals from racial, ethnic, and gender minority groups. This is especially true in professions that do not have clear and objective measures of success, such as the creative arts.
What Are Some of the Reasons Behind It?
So, what causes imposter syndrome? Well, there is no one true answer. Feelings associated with imposter syndrome can be the result of a variety of factors, including perfectionism, fear of failure, childhood expectations, and change.
The imposter cycle may begin in one’s familial upbringing. For instance, a child labeled as “pretty” may grow up feeling that their achievements are solely attributed to their physical appearance. Similarly, a child labeled as a “high achiever” may become a workaholic to maintain that persona.
Children who invest a great deal of their identity in these roles may be afraid to perform them in any way that is less than perfect. Although not all children who receive childhood labels are guaranteed to develop imposter syndrome, a child’s familial upbringing may provide the ideal backdrop for it to develop.
Moreover, imposter syndrome can arise when an individual experiences a significant life transition, such as graduating from school, starting a new job, or being promoted in an organization. These events have the potential to shift a person’s perspective and disrupt their sense of stability and competence.
Furthermore, research has indicated a link between the personality trait ‘perfectionism’ and high levels of imposter syndrome. Those who exhibit perfectionism tend to set unachievable high standards, have a fear of making mistakes, feel inadequate, and are highly self-critical.
Okay, But It’s Just a Temporary Feeling Right?
Not necessarily. Unchecked imposter syndrome can have significant implications on one’s mental health. Research suggests that high feelings of imposter syndrome are related to lower reported self-esteem, lower reported quality of life, and considered struggles with anxiety, self-doubt, worries, and depression. The inability to internalize success can lead to considerable emotional distress for those suffering from this particular condition.
Even more worryingly, the fear of failure persisting from imposter syndrome can limit one’s career growth and satisfaction, create conflicts, and undermine one’s academic self-concept.
How Do I Work Through it Then?
Vying for perfection is impractical
What truly counts is progress, not perfection. By focusing on your progress and internalizing the idea that errors are natural and part of the learning process, you can experience personal growth and satisfaction.
Rewire your cognitive attributions
Identify stable and positive characteristics associated with your accomplishments. This would help in preventing you from attributing your success to luck or mitigating factors.
Pay attention to your self-talk
Your internal dialogue is pivotal to re-affirming the feelings that are tied to imposter syndrome. Try to assess whether your thoughts are empowering or disabling. If you catch yourself thinking “I’m the wrong person for this position”, reframe your thoughts to say” I have a lot to offer in this position”
Share your feelings with a trusted mentor/colleague
Discussing your feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt with someone you trust and respect can be beneficial in distinguishing reality from your perception of insecurity.
Create a list of your positive qualities and abilities
Construct a written list that identifies your strengths and what you contribute. Take input from others around you as to what your personal strengths are. Refer to the list when in times of self-doubt. For instance, if struggling with a new role, remember you were chosen by your respective supervisor for one or more of the abilities described on your list.
Seek out professional help
Understanding that imposter syndrome can be quite deep-rooted and in some cases resistant to self-help, you may want to seek out mental health services from trained professionals in order to overcome feelings of unworthiness or perceived fraudulence and pursue healthy self-growth in work-related environments.
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Mullangi, S., & Jagsi, R. (2019). Imposter syndrome: treat the cause, not the symptom. Jama, 322(5), 403-404. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.9788
Schubert, N., & Bowker, A. (2019). Examining the impostor phenomenon in relation to self-esteem level and self-esteem instability. Current Psychology, 38, 749-755. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-017-9650-4
Wang, K.T., Sheveleva, M. S., & Permyakova, T. M. (2019). Imposter syndrome among Russian students: The link between perfectionism and psychological distress. Personality and Individual Differences, 143, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2019.02.005
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