Some people manage to have great success and rather than enjoying the fruits of their labor, they spend their time completely disillusioned. This is called impostor syndrome and it’s when a person doubts their own success and fears being outed as a fraud. Was it mere luck, they wonder? The irony is, they should be enjoying a boost in self-esteem, rather than wallowing in fear and paranoia.
First discovered in 1978 by U.S. psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, impostor syndrome is defined as a “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” It’s important to note that impostor syndrome isn’t in the DSM V—the manual of all psychological disorders. Even so, psychologists and other mental health experts agree it’s very real and can weigh heavily on your life.
A 2011 study, published in the International Journal of Behavior Science, found that 70% of the professional women studied experienced the syndrome, also called impostorism or the impostor phenomenon. The women experienced fear, anxiety, and dissatisfaction as a result. At first, it was only thought to affect female professionals but studies throughout the ’80s and ’90s found that most people experience it at some point in their lives. There is evidence, however, that women and minorities might be more prone to it.
Immediately after a huge success or for a couple of weeks after starting a new job, it’s normal. When does it become a problem? When the feeling persists for far longer. The most susceptible are those who grew up in a household that put a strong emphasis on personal achievement. Many sufferers gain self-worth through accomplishment. Often their parents lavished excessive praise on them when they did achieve growing up and overwhelming criticism when they missed the mark. So as adults, they associate love and self-worth with a sense of accomplishment.
Growing up with an over-achieving sibling may also make one prone to impostor syndrome. It instills feelings of inadequacy that the person takes with them into adulthood. The weight of an office or an overwhelming success may bring it on as well. It’s said that most presidents, when spending their first day in the Oval Office, get the sneaking suspicion they don’t belong there. Maya Angelou once wrote, “I have written 11 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.'”
Those who really suffer from the syndrome are usually more than capable of handling the tasks before them. It’s really their inability to accurately judge their own talents and skills that allows this fog of self-doubt to cloud their vision. Fortunately, there are ways to handle it. One of the best is to consult with a mentor. Usually, a good mentor can give you a more accurate assessment of your abilities, dispel your fears, and even let you know that they felt the same way.
Mentor someone else. Sometimes you don’t realize how much knowledge you have until you pass it on. Writing a blog surrounding your expertise may help too. Come to realize that it’s impossible to do a perfect job and indeed, perfection itself is an abstract concept that doesn’t actually exist. Shoot for well done or even meeting expectations. Learn to celebrate your accomplishments. Reflect too, on what you did to reach your goals. What were the steps? Concrete evidence of one’s efforts is hard to ignore.
Challenging negative thoughts is the most important thing. Those who cannot effectively do so might need to see a therapist and perhaps undergo cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). For those who are going through a period of impostor syndrome, remember that perception doesn’t equal reality. Combat negative voices by inviting them in and using evidence to dispel them.
Want to see if you suffer from impostor syndrome? Take the quiz.
(Leary, Patton, Orlando, & Funk, 2000)
Read each of the following statements and evaluate how much each pertains to you.
(Scale: 1 = Not at all like me. 2 = Slightly like me. 3 = Moderately like me. 4 = Very much like me. 5 = Extremely like me).
1) Sometimes I fear being found out for who I really am. _____
2) I often feel like a fraud. _____
3) I’m afraid important people in my life will find out that I’m not as talented as they believe. _____
4) In some situations I feel like an impostor. _____
5) Sometimes I fear that others will find out how much knowledge or ability I lack. _____
6). In some situations, I feel like a “great pretender,” like I’m not who others perceive me to be. _____
7) Sometimes I act like an impostor. _____
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