“Who Me?” How To Beat Imposter Syndrome
“I have written 11 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.’” ~Maya Angelou
I can’t count the number of times that the topic of Imposter Syndrome has come up in my years of counselling. For those who study this phenomenon, it is estimated that 70% of the general public will experience at least one occurrence of it in their lives.
I am no stranger to this either, experiencing this throughout most my post-secondary education, particularly once I got the hang of university and my grades improved. One would have thought that getting encouraging feedback and marks would be experienced as a good thing, however, for me, it was a relentless cycle which started with intense anxiety and insecurity about my abilities, brief happiness when I did well, the feeling that this was a one-off fluke and then anxious all over again. But I didn’t have the awareness at that time to know that imposter syndrome existed and was actually common.
Imposter syndrome, or “the experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities” only to be ultimately exposed as a “fraud” was first identified by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Please note, that in this article I use “Imposter” or “Imposters” in quotes to identify those experiencing imposter syndrome. I don’t actually believe that people are imposters!
Pauline Clance went on to write a book about the Imposter Phenomenon, identifying common qualities seen in folks with imposter-related anxiety. According to Clance, at least two of the following are typically present, however, not everyone who feels like an imposter experiences all of the following:
This cycle is frequently triggered by an achievement-related task or request. The cycle plays out as such:
- The task sparks intense anxiety and the “imposter” responds by either over-preparing for the task at hand or avoiding it initially through procrastination.
- The task is completed and evaluated by a third party who typically provides positive feedback.
- The “imposter” experiences brief happiness.
- Others’ positive feedback is rejected by the “imposter” and personal competence is denied.
- The “imposter” who has over-prepared will attribute their good result to “hard work” (and not ability) and “imposter” procrastinators typically attribute their favourable outcome to luck.
The Need to Be Exceptional and Unique
“Imposters” may have a secret desire to be special—to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Clance says that this can become especially problematic when we find ourselves in settings with other outstanding people—such as universities—and notice that our talents are not necessarily unique. This realization may crush us and we may tell ourselves that our accomplishments and talents are invalid, or worse, that we are invalid. In other words, we negate our achievements when we no longer feel unique or the very best.
This relates to a perfectionistic expectation to be able to execute all aspects of our lives flawlessly. Such high, near-impossible standards can leave us feeling overwhelmed and disappointed and we may label ourselves as failures when unable to fulfill them. Such negative self-perceptions may also reinforce the notion of personal ‘fraudulence’—not feeling like the successful person others see us as, since social recognition and positive feedback may still fall below the expectations we have for ourselves.
Fear of Failure
I relate very personally to this quality; for me the fear of failure was the match that lit a bonfire of anxiety, that fuelled my imposterism. This fear was so strong, and I was so unaware of it at the time that I would automatically default into fight-or-flight mode, working in a frenzy to get my work done in hopes of preventing failure. I clearly did not see mistakes and failure as growth opportunities back then! These were not fun times.
Denial of Competence/Discounting Praise
“Imposters” often have tremendous difficulty internalizing successes and accepting others’ praise as legitimate. We may see our success as caused by luck or external factors (for example a teacher who is an “easy” marker, a “sympathetic audience” when giving a presentation, etc.). Sometimes this is interpreted by others as “false modesty” but more typically it is not, and is often related to feelings of inadequacy, fears or perceived luck.
Fear and Guilt About Success
While success and brilliance may be sought after, success and its consequences may also be feared. Examples could include: success that sets us apart from family and friends (and makes us feel more disconnected), guilt about being in a better position than others, increased responsibility once a standard of excellence has been met or set, and/or even higher expectations from others that may come with our success. While we may not be aware of it, it can be easier to disavow our success rather than face all the things that can go with it. Not only may such success-denial serve as a buffer against pressure from ourselves or others, it also allows us to be “right” if our “flaws” are later unmasked.
Who’s At Risk?
There is a lot of speculation in the research about what makes some of us more vulnerable to imposter syndrome than others. While not causes in and of themselves, some things may put us at greater risk:
Guardedness or Lack of Emotional Openness
When we keep important aspects of our personality under wraps, this may give rise to the idea that the world does not see us for who we really are, a defining aspect of the imposter experience.
A Need To Please Others
For some of this, people-pleasing started when we were young, developed to help ensure our physical and emotional safety. This pattern of people pleasing can make us chronically hungry for praise in our adult lives, particularly in performance-related activities, so part of the imposter syndrome cycle.
If our nervous system is already off-kilter, in an anxious state, achievement tasks and pressure to perform may push us into panic, leading us to over-prepare or additionally, struggle to objectively analyze our performance or talents.
Reliance on External Validation
Related to the need to please others, we may take most of our cues from what others tell us, to the point where trusting our own internal wisdom may be very difficult or seem impossible.
When we have a fixed, as opposed to a growth mindset, we subscribe to the idea that we either have a trait—such as intelligence—or we don’t, with no middle ground, making anything less than perfection (i.e the full actualization of the trait) a failure.
Now that we have a more complete grasp of imposter syndrome, what can we do about it? Again, we are all different in terms of what works and what doesn’t but some options may include:
My personal experience with imposter syndrome was like walking blindly in a field of landmines, over and over again. Back in my 20s, when my imposterism was at its peak, I had at best only minimal awareness that I was in a cycle—a cycle that didn’t make sense to most people around me. And without the awareness I couldn’t develop the perspective to know that it was happening and and that I could develop a plan to short-circuit it.
Opening up to people you trust is one of the most powerful things we can do when it comes to decreasing shame and stigma, key components of reigning in the anxious energy that fuels imposterism. And perhaps more importantly, chances are good that someone that you trust is in the 70% too. Knowing that others have experienced this too can help us feel less alone and more understood.
If you’re in a performance-based situation, are there aspects of the situation that you want to connect with, so you are not a passive victim in a horrible anxiety spiral? For example, I used to reassure myself that I was studying psychology because of a true desire to want to help others—to make the most out of my time on this earth—which helped provide some counterbalance to the multiple achievement-related tasks and assignments I faced on the road to getting my degree.
A principle used in dialectical behaviour therapy, taking opposite action to accept praise and positive feedback can be hard. We want it but it can make us feel vulnerable, especially when these feelings turn into panic that we have tricked others, or, that we now have a lot to lose. Being gracious and thanking the person helps to disrupt the imposter cycle described above, which traditionally gets reinforced when we follow its typical script.
When we practice accepting our accomplishments as our own, even if we don’t believe them at first, we can help make it real over time. It’s also important to be mindful of our tendencies to attribute our success to others, or situations, and to work on discontinuing this dialogue, particularly if we want to get to a place where we can take responsibility for our successes.
Finding a therapist you trust that you can dig into this issue with in a deep way can be very valuable. What might imposterism be about for you personally? Where does the emotional pain associated with it come from? How might you be able to re-author your story and chart a new path?
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