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Understanding the Imposter Syndrome

Have you ever found yourself in a space and thought to yourself, I do not belong here. Everybody here is smarter, more experienced or better positioned than I am. Most of the time, if you got in that room using the proper criteria, you are qualified and deserve to be there. Unfortunately, our brains trick us into thinking that others are more deserving than we are.

You are not the only one to ever feel this way. Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein have all felt the same at given times in their lives. After having written over 17 books, Maya Angelou wrote that she feels as if she has been running game on the world, and one day she will be discovered.

Initially, Imposter Syndrome was thought to be an issue that only affected women. When Dr Pauline Rose Clance started investigating this phenomenon back in 1978, she did so because of her female clients, who, although well qualified to hold their positions, often felt inadequate and undeserving. But today, it is known to affect both men and women. It is so prevalent that up to 70 per cent of people will experience imposterism at least once in their life.

The imposter feeling not only occurs when you feel out of place; it also occurs when you have achieved something, but think it was either by a stroke of luck or through tremendous effort. Although the effort is necessary, attributing your success to overworking or luck results in the feeling that you did not deserve it. This is to imply if luck ran out or you didn’t outwork everyone else, the success would disappear.

This is why Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou felt like imposters to their thrones of success. Einstein struggled with why he should be the one making science altering discoveries. Angelou questioned why she should be the one writing such profound plays, poems and books. Both individuals could not reconcile their worth with their achievements.

While it might be thought of as being humble, it is not. These individuals were indeed humble, but these feelings were not. They wanted to appear courteous or down to earth, but there were underlying psychological struggles they were dealing with.

If these feelings go unchecked, they might reach clinical levels leading to anxiety or depression. People with these feelings may start sabotaging themselves.

This goes to show the importance of accepting one’s success, privilege and achievements. By no means does this give you bragging rights. It only allows you to be present to what is happening in your life at that particular moment and be grateful that you are in such a space. Please acknowledge that you are there because you deserve to be. Enjoy it, have fun and graduate to the next level.

What exactly is Imposter Syndrome?

Dr Clance defined Imposter Syndrome as an internal experience of intellectual phoniness in individuals who are highly successful but unable to internalise their success.

Side note: The word syndrome does not accurately describe the issue since imposter syndrome does not serve as a symptom of a given disease or disorder. Although it can cause depression and anxiety at severe levels, in many cases, it does not and cannot be pointed out as the cause in other anxiety and depression diagnoses.

Imposter Syndrome leads to the feeling that one’s achievements are undeserved. They worry that they will be exposed as a fraud. It can be subtle at times but also very intense to a level it might require clinical intervention. When it is mild, one can easily be able to carry out required tasks.

Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome (IS)

1. The Imposter cycle

The cycle starts when an achievement-related task is assigned. This sets off anxiety-related symptoms in an individual. They either over-prepare, or they procrastinate and then follow this up with drastic over-preparation. They finish the task, but when they are complimented later if they over-prepared, they discount their success to hard work; if they procrastinated, they attribute their success to luck. This is because, according to their mechanics of success, effortful success is not real success. This, in turn, creates a cycle of self-doubt, which triggers anxiety every time a task is assigned, and the cycle is repeated.

People with this syndrome tend to overwork and believe if they stop working, all of their success will be discovered to be a scam. Overworking is understood as putting more effort than required for a given task to a level where it affects other areas of your life. Worst of all, the repetition of success reinforces their feeling of fraudulence. These people make an unreasonably low assessments of their performance.

2. The need to be special or the very best

They need to be the very best amongst everybody else. They might have been the highest achievers in school, but now in a vast world and highly competitive environments, they realise many others are as good as them. This makes them discount their abilities and think of themselves as failures or stupid.

3. Superman/superwoman aspects

This refers to perfectionism tendency. They set very high evaluation standards for themselves and expect to complete them flawlessly (like the superhero). Hence often, they feel overwhelmed and unable to hit their goals. This, in turn, emphasises their preconception of incompetence.

4. Fear of failure

Any possibility of failure is a nightmare to IS people. They think this reflects highly on them hence harbour feelings of shame and humiliation. They do not tolerate mistakes and overwork to ensure nothing goes wrong.

5. Denial of competence and discounting praise

Not to be confused with false modesty. They have a harder time internalising success and accepting praise; they attribute this to external factors.

6. Fear and guilt about success

This might occur if one is more successful than the people around them. They think they do not deserve what they have. They feel guilty for being different. Since they do not attribute their success to themselves, they fear that they might not maintain that level of success since their luck might run out. They also shed themselves from more responsibility because they think they cannot keep it afloat. They worry that higher demands or expectations may reveal their intellectual phoniness.

NB: Some feel like imposters even in areas such as social interactions, family relationships, friendship or romantic relationship.

How to know if you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome

If you constantly grapple with any of these thoughts, there is a possibility that you might have Imposter Syndrome.

  • If I were really smart, I’d know everything
  • If I were really smart, I wouldn’t need anyone else
  • If I were really smart, I’d never question my abilities
  • If I were really smart, things would come easily to me
  • If I were really smart, I’d push myself to do more
What contributes to Imposter Syndrome?

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck outlines two types of mindset; Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset. Growth mindset, people do not think of their abilities as finite. They know they can always learn and adapt as and when required. On the other hand, fixed mindset individuals think of their abilities as static; hence they judge themselves by those abilities only.

For instance, if two people took a maths test and performed the same, a growth mindset person will think these are the results today; how can I improve in the future? A person with a fixed mindset will think they are either dumb or smart, depending on the outcome. Fixed mindset people believe math capability is innate and one either has it or doesn’t. A growth mindset person thinks it doesn’t matter whether I am gifted in math or not; I can constantly improve.

The fixed mindset is a significant contributor to feelings of imposterism. When one feels like a fraud and is afraid that they might be discovered, they are operating from a fixed mindset arena. They have concluded that their skills and contributions are innate. If one finds that they are not as smart, gifted or knowledgeable, then their stint is over. They do not think that effort is a big part of accomplishment and achievement. That is why they struggle with previously highlighted questions.

Also read: Failing Forward: The Difference Between a Fixed and Growth Mindset

In addition, feelings of imposterism can also result from one’s upbringing. This is because upbringing shapes how one perceives success. Socialisation in later years can also influence this perception. Suppose one’s family placed great emphasis on innate talent. In that case, they might face these feelings when they find themselves in highly competitive environments where they are forced to apply themselves. They end up thinking that I am not enough for this space if I have to do this much to keep up. If they end up outperforming their peers, then it is not because of their effort; it is either because of luck or just favourable circumstances.

One’s personality can also be a significant influence on whether they experience imposterism. Personalities that require people to like them, acknowledge them, or approve of them are more susceptible to this feeling. If at any one point they do not get the affirmation they require, then they think they do not belong or deserve their success. Ironically, on the other hand, if they achieve, they tend to deflect the praise since they feel they don’t deserve the achievement. Therefore introverts are more likely to suffer from imposterism than extroverts. The extroverts tend to validate themselves; they do not depend on external factors to feel accepted or approved. They might be performing even worse, but they do not feel out of place.

This phenomenon can be explained through the relative deprivation theory. The theory roughly stipulates that one feels deprived of certain things when comparing themselves with the current group they exist in. For this theory to explain imposterism, it is imperative to understand that it is human nature to compare ourselves with others. We compare our weakness with other people’s strengths.

We know ourselves inside out, but we know others from what they allow us to see, which is usually their strengths. Suppose I am a writer, and I am among other high performing writers. In that case, I will read their work and think they are so much better at one thing, and since I am not as good, I will disqualify myself. It does not mean I am less good; it is only that they are good at that one aspect. But for me, that is the one thing that will bother me, and I will discount everything else I am good at.

Hence relative deprivation shows that we compare ourselves to our peers and feel deprived of given skills, experience or knowledge. But in reality, we are not. We are just making a very subjective comparison. The subjective comparison then leads to imposterism.

How to overcome Imposter Syndrome
  1. Acknowledge that it is there and be aware of it when it is happening. Traditional methods such as journaling can help you understand yourself and where the feelings stem from.
  2. Set a high goal that will serve to provide you with intrinsic motivation rather than external validation. For instance, pursue your passion.
  3. Learn how to break down large tasks into small manageable activities to avoid the exhaustion of undertaking mega projects.
  4. Repeat Affirmations that remind you that you are deserving of your achievements and successes.
  5. Get a group of friends that believe in you and call you out when you start thinking like an imposter will go a long way.
  6. Learn how to cultivate a growth mindset.
  7. Learn to accept compliments and give out compliments.

This paper was produced by ‘Living The Dream’ and written by Stephen Kimani.

Stephen Kimani

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