What is imposter syndrome and how are we feeding it?

by Karla Cloete

Have you ever found yourself sitting in an important meeting, feeling like you didn’t belong at the table? Maybe you received an award that you felt must have been a mistake? Perhaps you silently worry that everyone will find out that you’re a fraud, a fake, a crook who has tricked your friends and family into thinking you’re smarter and more talented than you really are. 

Maya Angelou is one of the most celebrated writers of our time. She received over 50 honorary degrees, a Pulitzer Prize, three Grammys, a Tony and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And yet she was plagued by these nagging doubts too: 

“Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great,” she said. “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.”

This feeling is called imposter syndrome and it’s more common than you think.

Imposter syndrome isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather it’s a deep-seated belief that we are inadequate and undeserving. It’s an emotional experience and a faulty thinking pattern. You may feel that everyone thinks you are more talented and qualified than you really are, that you’ve pulled the wool over their eyes and that your deceit will surely be discovered when you fail. When you fail, you fully accept responsibility. But when you succeed- you can’t accept the praise. You attribute your success to your team, luck, timing or to some mistake. You secretly feel you don’t deserve anything you’ve achieved in life. 

If you have imposter syndrome your inner life might sound like this:

“I must not fail.”

“I’m a fake.”

“I just got lucky.”

“My successes aren’t a big deal.”

Harvard Business Review defines imposter syndrome as: 

“A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.”

No amount of external proof can seem to uproot the deep-seated self-doubt. 

The cause of this feeling? An inability to internalize success with one’s identity. Perfectionists and high achievers are prone to this feeling, as are young people just joining the workforce. If you are a woman, an academic or a member of a marginalised group in your field then your chances of experiencing imposter syndrome increase too.

The imposter syndrome phenomenon was first discovered in 1978 by Dr Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Their original study followed 150 highly successful young women. This phenomenon has been confirmed universally by other studies, across race, gender and age and in multiple disciplines. 

Imposter syndrome is a defect of the first-person perspective. You are intimately familiar with your messy inner life, your failings, your procrastinations, and your self-doubt. While you rarely witness other’s struggles and only their success, you, therefore, pale in comparison. 

According to Dr Clance and Imes, there are 4 things we do that maintain imposter syndrome: 

-Diligence and hard work

It sounds funny, but hard work can be the root of imposter syndrome. In a vicious cycle, a person might believe they are an imposter, worry that they’ll be discovered, work incredibly hard and succeed. This success feels hollow which restarts the process till they inevitably burn out. 

-Intellectual inauthenticity 

Believing they are phoney, someone with imposter syndrome may hide their ideas and opinions and rather tell others what they want to hear. This avoidance of intellectual vulnerability deepens their belief in their falseness. 

-Charm and perceptiveness

If you spend your whole life trying to hide that you are undeserving, you get pretty good at reading people. Being likeable, easy to get along with and charming covers up these insecurities and in turn strengthens our doubts about our abilities. 

-The consequences of confidence 

The authors note that women specifically face negative consequences for being ‘too confident’, ‘too independent’ or ‘too focused on achievement’. That wasn’t just true in 1978. The social messages we receive from our community, as a woman or as a member of a marginalised group, can externally validate internal private doubts and deepen them.

What can be done about imposter syndrome? 

Multi-modal therapy is very helpful in tackling the origins of these beliefs. 

Open and vulnerable communication in the workspace can break down the barriers of the first-person perspective. By hearing first-hand that our colleagues wrestle with these doubts too we can begin to dismantle them. 

A useful personal exercise is to keep a record of praise, accolades and accomplishments. Seeing all these listed together may temporarily bolster one’s self-esteem. The next step is to record all of the reasons you didn’t feel you could accept or didn’t deserve the achievements on your list. Listing these deflections and denials can help us to identify our patterns. Next, in a third column, list the reasons you perhaps did deserve your triumphs.

Imposter syndrome is a burden placed on our shoulders by ourselves and by our societies. It can rob us of the joys of our victories. Addressing it and speaking openly about it helps us and others like us.

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