Even after writing eleven books and winning several prestigious awards, Maya Angelou couldn’t escape the nagging doubt that she hadn’t really earned her accomplishments.
Alber Einstein too experienced something similar, he described himself as an ‘involuntary swindler’ whose work didn’t deserve as much attention as it had received.
Accomplishments at their level are rare, but their feeling of fraudulence is extremely common. In fact, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science an estimated 70% of people experience these feelings of being an imposter at some point in their lives.
It’s common for those with imposter syndrome to share the following thoughts:
“I’m a fake”
Imposters often believe their success and accomplishments are unwarranted and that others have been deceived into thinking they were worthy of them in the first place. Deep down they believe they lack the experience, knowledge, and expertise — or simply that they don’t have what it takes.
This plays into the imposters’ own feelings of fear and guilt, as they are scared someone will unmask or discover that they were only giving the impression that they’re competent.
“Failure is not an option”
The imposters’ fear of being caught as a fake means they put themselves under a tremendous amount of pressure to maintain the status quo. They simply can’t fail or everyone will know how ‘incompetent’ they truly are.
Interestingly, imposters don’t see success or accolades as a contradiction to their fears of fraudulence either. Just as with Angelou and Einstein, there is often no threshold of accomplishment that put these feelings to rest. This leads to an inability to enjoy success.
“Success means nothing”
Imposters have a tendency to make light or discount any success they may achieve. They have a hard time taking compliments because they don’t believe the success was a consequence of their own work — they had everyone fooled. They would rather attribute their success to luck, good timing, or support from others.
Where do these feelings come from?
Psychologist Pauline Rose Clance was the first to study this unwarranted sense of insecurity in 1978. Together with colleague Suzanne Imes, the two studied impostorism in female college students and faculty. Their work established pervasive feelings of fraudulence in this group. (She also created this impostor syndrome test.)
Since the first study, research has established its occurrence across gender, race, age, and a huge range of occupations, though it may be more prevalent and disproportionately affect the experience of underrepresented or disadvantaged groups.
When we call it a syndrome we actually detract from how universal it is, because it’s not an abnormality nor is it necessarily tied to depression or anxiety. If anything it’s a commonly shared paradox high achieving, highly successful people suffer from, so imposter syndrome can’t be a result of low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers would rather link it to perfectionism
These researchers theorize that parents can program their children with messages of superiority. In this scenario, both the parents and the child believe that he or she is perfect or superior.
Ironically this results in a miss-match once the child enters the real world, the supportive parental aspect no longer applies and the now grown-up child is left with a constant need to be ‘perfect’, yet they never feel like they are.
Another theory postulates that the roots of imposter syndrome could be found in childhood psychology and the labels parents attach to members of the family. It is not uncommon for parents to label one child as the ‘sporty’ one while labeling the other as the ‘intelligent’ one. These labels become part of the child’s self-identification and can leave them reeling in order to live up to an expectation they just ‘can’t’ seem to fulfill.
Interestingly, these feelings aren’t necessarily shared by just highly skilled individuals either. There’s a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance and we’re all susceptible to it. Generally, we all tend to doubt our selves privately and because no one else shares their doubts we believe we’re alone in thinking that way.
This phenomenon can make it hard to gauge the performance of our peers because It’s difficult to know whether they find a task difficult, or just how much they doubt themselves, and consequently, there’s no easy way to dismiss feelings that we’re less capable than those around us. And this is a problem because feelings of impostorism can prevent people from sharing their ideas or applying to jobs where they would excel.
There are, however, things you can do when you find yourself feeling like an imposter.
It’s important to stay mindful of your thoughts. When you’re aware of your thought patterns you will not only become better at recognizing imposter feelings but you will also be able to counter them before they have a chance to evolve.
2.Realize you’re not alone
A good start would be to watch this video from v.proud.tv on Time magazine of female professionals sharing their own feelings of impostorism.
3. Get out of your mental rut
Once you have a handle on recognizing these feelings you can actively counter them. Whenever you find yourself thinking you don’t deserve success or that you don’t know what you’re doing—remind yourself that it’s normal to not know everything, most people feel this way, and that you will learn and grow more as you progress.
4. Talk about it
When you open up about your feelings you may be surprised to learn how the people around you feel like imposters too. This will provide an incredible sense of relief. It’s better to have an open dialogue than keeping your negative thoughts bottled up.
5. Take a step back
It’s normal for anyone to experience moments or occasions where they don’t feel 100% confident or competent. We have to step outside our comfort zone to grow, and most of the time when we do so, we find ourselves somewhat outside of our own depth. It’s quite natural for these moments to be filled with self-doubt as a consequence. If you catch yourself thinking you are useless, take a step back and reframe it. Rather than telling yourself, you are useless, remind yourself that you are not—you’re merely growing.
6. Failure does not exist
While you’re at it reframe your thoughts on failure too. Failure is an aspect of any learning curve. Whenever you feel overwhelmed by the thought of failure, remind yourself of simple ways in which practice (and failure) makes perfect. Just imagine all the failed attempts the barista had to make in order to master the ‘foam art’ in your morning coffee. Likewise, no one has ever made the perfect omelet after their first (or in my case tenth attempt) Once you truly realize that failure is nothing more than an opportunity to learn, you may be able to let go of your own perfectionism and in doing so you may just find a new sense of joy in what you’re doing.
7. Be kind to yourself
Remember that we’re all entitled to make some mistakes on occasion and that failure is part of the process. Treat yourself like you would treat a friend whenever they’re in doubt or have made a mistake—with kindness and forgiveness.
Everyone needs help every now and then. Realize that you don’t have to do everything alone. Seeking assistance will allow you to talk through your feelings and adjust your perspective.
9.Think big picture
Imposters tend to get stuck in the moment. Rather than focusing on how ‘incapable’ you are in the moment, visualize a successful outcome. You will feel much calmer and focused when you focus on completing the task, presentation or meeting the deadline.
10. Keep track of the facts
You can combat your own imposter syndrome, by collecting and revisiting positive feedback. One scientist kept blaming herself for problems in her lab, and in an effort to change what she had been doing wrong she began documenting the causes every time something did go wrong. To her surprise, she eventually came to realize that most of the problems came from equipment failure, and not her incompetence.
We may never be able to banish these feelings entirely, but we can have open conversations about academic or professional challenges. With increasing awareness of how common these experiences are, perhaps we can feel freer, to be frank about our feelings and build confidence in simple truths: you have talent, you are capable, and you belong.