Imposters are us

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Have you ever felt like a fraud? That you aren’t good enough, experienced enough or smart enough to be doing what you’re doing? Join the club.

Anxious you’re about to be found out?

Feeling like a phoney

On the outside you appear confident, composed and on top of your game. But on the inside you are wracked with self-doubt. You feel like a fraud and as though someone is about to tap you on the shoulder and ask you what you think you’re doing. You’re sure your inadequacies and incompetency are just about to be revealed. Hello Imposter Syndrome.

In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes described this phenomenon among high-achieving women. Five years of research had highlighted how many successful women believed their success could be attributed to luck, chance or errors in selection processes. These women were sure their abilities had been overestimated. Clance went on to create a scale to quantify the experience of imposter syndrome.

Researchers have been studying the imposter syndrome ever since and we now know a lot about it. Despite the fact the imposter syndrome was first described in women, we now know men are just as likely to experience it. One study among University academics (a profession in which the imposter syndrome is rife) found men were even more likely than women to experience imposter syndrome.

Research suggests 70% of people will experience feelings of being an imposter at some point in their lives. And it’s worth pointing out this phenomenon doesn’t qualify as a syndrome according to the medical definition. According to Clance, if she could go back she would call it the Imposter Experience since nearly everyone experiences it and it’s not a mental illness.

Come one, come all

An important aspect of the imposter syndrome is the fact each of us tends to think we are the only one suffering from it. We listen to the monologue of self-doubt going on in our own heads and mistakenly assume it’s just us. But the truth is most people feel this way at least some of the time. When Olivia Fox Cabane asks incoming students at the notoriously highly-selective Harvard Business School each year ‘How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake the admissions committee made?’, two-thirds of the students put up their hand.

(And of course, it’s somewhat terrifying to consider the possibility everyone around us is just winging it. We like to think the people out there flying planes, performing surgery, making decisions in court and running our governments are highly competent.)

There are a number of common features among people experiencing imposter syndrome. The vast majority of ‘imposters’ are able to successfully fulfill their work requirements despite their perceptions of incompetency. In fact, many ‘imposters’ are high achievers who fail to internalise their success. Despite ample objective evidence of their achievements, ‘imposters’ still feel like they are making it up as they go along and fear they are about to be unmasked.

Other features of imposter syndrome are a fear of failure; a tendency to attribute success to luck, error or charm; and the feeling of having given others a false impression. People experiencing imposter syndrome often experience anxiety, may be perfectionists and may also fall victim to procrastination. ‘Imposters’ often feel they need to stand out and be the very best compared with their peers. Interestingly, people suffering imposter syndrome crave praise and acknowledgement but feel uncomfortable when they receive it (because they feel they don’t deserve it).

Although men and women experience imposter syndrome in equal numbers, they do respond to it differently: women commonly work harder to try and prove themselves whereas men tend to avoid situations in which their weaknesses might be exposed.

Fake it ’til you make it

The most common advice we hear about how to deal with feelings of inadequacy is to ‘fake it ’til you make it’. Pretend you feel confident and assured and ignore the nagging doubts. It’s not bad advice, but we may be waiting for a long time to feel like we’ve ‘made it’. The frustrating irony of imposter syndrome is the more experienced and senior you become, the more likely you are to find yourself being required to do new things, and therefore feeling like you are winging it. Getting better at your job isn’t a guaranteed way of making your imposter syndrome go away.

There is plenty of other advice for coping with imposter syndrome. For example, learn to accept compliments, talk with the people around you about how you feel and remember that feeling like a fraud is completely normal. It can also be useful to focus on what you’re learning, rather than how you’re performing. This is mindset theory: if you focus on how you’re performing, you see any mistakes you make as evidence of your inadequacy. But if you have a growth mindset, your mistakes are simply part of the inevitable learning process.

And if all else fails, take heart from the words of an expert in the field:

Impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors –Associate Professor Jessica Collett

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1 Comment

  1. When I shared this with my work colleagues at work this week (you must be beginning to think that I don’t actually do any work in the office, but I do! I share on our daily ritual walk to the coffee shop), we concluded we all were imposters. Makes me wonder how the other 30% live…

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