Even after writing eleven books and winning several prestigious awards, Maya Angelou often doubted that she had not earned her accomplishments. Albert Einstein also described himself as an “involuntary swindler” whose work did not deserve the attention that it had received.
The experience of feeling inadequate, unworthy, undeserving of success coupled with the fear of being exposed as a fraud is called the ‘imposter syndrome’. It can affect anyone regardless of their background, skills, or expertise. Research indicates that up to 70% of people have difficulty internalizing their success at some time or another. The California Institute of Technology Counselling Centre defines ‘imposter syndrome’ as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information indicating, that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.’
Imposter syndrome typically shows up as the following behavior in the sufferers. They –
– attribute their success to luck or outside factors
– fear that they will inevitably be discovered as phony
– downplay their expertise even when they are more skilled than others
– feel inadequate and doubt their abilities constantly
– are perfectionists and over-prepare for everything
– agonize over every small mistake in their work
– are extremely sensitive to all criticism
– sometimes do not take up more responsibility due to the fear of not being able to deliver
This complicates life as repeated experiences of doing well do not help relieve the anxiety and fear of exposure of people grappling with imposter syndrome. Their inner beliefs do not change despite the evidence to the contrary.
Valerie Young, an expert on Imposter Syndrome, highlights the patterns of people who experience feelings of being imposters –
“Perfectionists” set high expectations from themselves and always feel that their work could be better. They can only focus on flaws and mistakes and ruminate about them for days. It reflects in their behavior towards others. They are control freaks, micromanage and find it difficult to delegate.
“Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project. They fear they will never know enough. They are always on the quest for new certifications or training programs to learn more. Even if they are highly skilled, they undervalue their expertise. They do not apply for a job unless they meet all the criteria advertised for it. They hesitate from speaking up for the fear of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.
“Natural geniuses” get used to mastering new skills quickly and easily, and they feel ashamed and weak if they need to put in efforts to understand or accomplish something. They interpret, having to put in efforts, as proof of being incompetent and an imposter. They dislike the idea of taking help and even having a mentor. They may begin avoiding challenges for the fear that they may not crack the problem in the first try.
“Soloists” feel compelled to accomplish everything on their own. If they cannot achieve what they have set out without any help, they feel incompetent and fraud.
“Superheros” put in extreme efforts to succeed to prove that they’re not impostors. They cannot enjoy the leisure and do not make time to pursue any hobbies or interests other than work.
Being different from most of your peers, in any way, e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. can cause feelings of being a fraud.
Countering Imposter Syndrome
Knowing what impostor syndrome is and why it happens can help people spot the symptoms when they arise and apply strategies to overcome their doubts.
Acknowledge your feelings and observe them rather than engaging with them. Putting a distance between you and your feelings or thoughts can break their emotional hold on you.
Journal your feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy. Write down the feeling, why are you feeling that way, and if this feeling is a fact. Be specific about each situation.
Think of yourself as a third person when you find yourself holding back from raising your hand for a new project or promotion. Write down why you qualify for that project or promotion while wearing the hat of your boss, stakeholders, and peers.
Celebrate your successes and keep a record of your achievements, awards, and positive feedback from people you respect.
Share your feelings with your mentors, managers, and trusted friends. Knowing that you are not alone and people you respect have had to deal with the same challenge can be freeing and help deal with irrational beliefs.
Accept that nobody is perfect. Acknowledging that things can sometimes go wrong increases resilience. Mistakes open doors to new learnings. Henry Ford said – Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.
If you struggle with ‘imposter syndrome’, I hope that some of the approaches mentioned above help you. I would be keen to know the ones you successfully adopt. It is important to note, that while this is not a mental illness, talking about it to a coach or counselor is helpful.