A defining characteristic of imposter syndrome is that no matter how good you do it doesn’t make you feel any less a fraud.
When I was an undergraduate looking toward graduate school, a professor pulled me aside and suggested that I apply to a very prestigious, out of town, graduate program. My reaction was simple, I thought he must have had a very warped view of who I was. There wasn’t a chance in hell I would be admitted. So I didn’t apply.
I realize now that I was suffering from what has been called imposter syndrome. I could not imagine that I was capable or worthy of attending an elite program. I felt as if I had fooled the professor into thinking I had the intelligence and capacity to truly excel.
I know that many of you feel the same way. I hope this piece can help you navigate your feelings and overcome that sense that you are not good enough. It’s never too late to accept the challenge of accepting the talents and skills that can propel you forward.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is the subjective experience of feeling that you are not as good as others think you are. It’s the feeling of being a phony, a fraud or incompetent. More deeply, it’s the sense that you don’t belong where you are (job, school, relationships, etc.) and that it was only by chance or luck that you are there, in spite of evidence to the contrary.
A very unsettling aspect of imposter syndrome is living with the fear that you will be unmasked. Someone, a colleague, a boss, a teacher, will discover that you don’t make the grade. That you are a fraud.
Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance coined the term in the 1970s when they published The Imposter Phenomenon. They originally thought it was restricted to very high-achieving women but have since realized it is widely experienced in the population across gender, race, skill and educational level, expertise, or social class.
Imposter syndrome is not considered a clinical pathology in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It is state of mind brought about by cultural/racial marginalization, gender bias, overly competitive and hierarchical circumstances, and systemic inequality.
It is estimated that up to 70% of Americans experience some form of the syndrome.
This short Ted-Ed video sums it up nicely.
What are the signs of imposter syndrome?
· Feelings of self-doubt
· Getting down on yourself for your performance
· Constant overachieving
· A feeling that your successes are the result of outside forces, luck, fate, etc.
· Fearing that you will never live up to expectations
· Consistent sabotaging potential successes
· Setting highly challenging goals only to feel sadly disappointed when falling short
· Inability to realistically evaluate your competencies and skills.
A defining characteristic of imposter syndrome is that no matter how good you do or how well you perform, it doesn’t make you feel any less a fraud. You may have aced a presentation at work or school, but all your success does is make you feel more fraudulent, more of an imposter. This can drive you to even greater overachieving efforts and heightened anxiety or depression. It’s as if you can’t internalize actual success and so continue to feel as if you don’t belong.
Types of Imposter Syndrome
The imposter syndrome can be broken down into 5 types as developed by Dr Valerie Ung, Ed.D:
1. The Perfectionist – perfectionism and imposter syndrome go hand in hand. Work must be done perfectly, and the result must always equal 100 percent. 99 out of 100 is not acceptable.
2. The Superhero – the superhero must excel at every role and every task as parent, teacher, lover, etc. To not excel brings a sense of shame and disappointment.
3. The Expert – competence is based on how much you know. But it’s never enough.
4. The Natural Genius - these people believe they must get something right on the first try and with little effort. Anything less is seen as failure.
5. The Soloist – asking for or needing help to a soloist is tantamount to admitting you are a fraud. Doing it alone is the only acceptable way.
Do you find yourself in one or more of the 5 categories? Everything must be perfect. You feel you must be the best at all you are doing, all the time? That your competence depends on knowing everything about a topic or area? Feeling that if you must work hard at something you are flawed and inadequate? Having the need to do things alone, that asking for help invalidates your efforts?
Brenda Kerr of the Hustle created this diagram of how imposter syndrome works in the brain:
The consequences of these states of mind can have a negative impact on relationships, careers, education, and even hobbies. By habitually internalizing a sense of not belonging, imposter syndrome can remain undetected and unaddressed. It can influence many important life decisions: failure to seek a promotion, not living up to academic potential, hesitating to make relationship commitments, among many other things. It can also lead to overachieving, never being satisfied no matter how you excel.
All of this can lead to depression, anxiety, and chronic procrastination. It can make it difficult to achieve your dreams or rise to the level of competence and success that you deserve. Conversely, imposter syndrome can make it nearly impossible to enjoy your dreams if achieved.
Caveat: You Are Not to Blame
Although imposter syndrome is an internal state of mind, it’s important to recognize its social roots. It’s easy to blame yourself if the social conditions that produce these symptoms are not understood. Often the emotional issues from which we suffer have their genesis in the social and economic conditions under which we have lived. These conditions can lead to specific pressures on individuals and groups that manifest as psychological symptoms.
This is especially true of imposter syndrome. It’s important to affirm, while dealing personally with the consequences of imposter syndrome, that it is not your fault. And to understand it is not some personal flaw or defect that is causing the problem.
Imposter Syndrome Upside?
Recent research out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Basima Tewfik, assistant professor of Work and Organization Studies, indicates that those with imposter syndrome often do as well or better than those without it. Tewflik’s research validates that the perception of being less competent than others is unsubstantiated and can, in fact, propel people forward. The issue becomes how to harness the motivation to excel while sidestepping the negative emotional components of feeling fraudulent, less competent, and undeserving.
The task is to reframe your feelings of incompetence or a lack of skills and make them work for you.
Let’s take a look at who is affected by imposter syndrome and what can be done about it.
Who is affected by imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is especially prevalent among high achievers across the board. It can be found among business professionals, college students, creatives, members of minority groups and women, among others.
College students are prone to imposter syndrome. Many first generation students suffer deep feelings of being unworthy, of not fitting-in and of being inadequate. I recall in my time as a career services professional encountering many students that felt it was a fluke that they were in college or that the college that accepted them must not be a good college, felt over their heads, and unworthy of even being deemed college students.
The NASPA web site describes the experience of first generation college students:
Impostor syndrome is a persistent self-doubt and fear of exposure as a fraud that causes many first-generation students to doubt their own abilities, discount praise, generate additional anxiety, opt for easier pathways, and to experience increased dissatisfaction with their lives.
A recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that the imposter syndrome in first generation students is “associated with less engagement, lower attendance, more thoughts of dropping out, and lower course grades.”
Michael Sarrao, assistant director for Career and Employer Engagement at the Brooklyn College Magner Career Center told me that “students struggle with believing that they can be the career professionals they see at events, on television or even members of their own family. This is especially common in first generation students who feel an extra pressure to succeed. The most common explanation they give is that they don't see the value in their earlier work experiences at a fast-food restaurant, retail store or medical office.”
Students see themselves as outsiders, lacking legitimate experience.
Millennials make up about 35% of the workforce and include people between the ages of 23 to 38. They seem especially prone to imposter syndrome. Millennials are many of the people we interact with in public life, such as bank managers, car salesmen, social workers, etc.
Aimee Bateman, founder and CEO of Careercake.com says that nearly “half (49%) of millennials struggle with imposter syndrome and just 24% strongly agree that they feel confident in their performance.”
Careercake found that millennials expressed feelings of ‘not being good enough’ or being ‘found out.’ They felt this way although they were qualified to perform their work roles.
Millennials may be suffering from imposter syndrome because of a few interacting events:
1. The past twenty years has seen immense technological change. Nothing seems to be solid. The workforce and life itself seem to be in constant flux with new and dynamic changes taking place at an unprecedented rate.
2. Millennials are a part of Trophy Culture. They are accustomed to being rewarded for everything, even losing. That’s not the way the world works.
3. Social media places unprecedented pressures on presenting the best self to the public, leading to a sense of not living up to standards both personally and professionally.
There are also major economic issues with millennials incurring huge college debt, a housing market that is astonishingly overvalued, and something called “The Great Recession” that disrupted millions of jobs and career trajectories.
Although imposter syndrome is widely experienced in the workplace, women and women of color may be more likely to experience it.
In explaining the dynamics of women experiencing imposter syndrome, Sheryl Nance-Nash, writing for BBC.com quotes New York based psychotherapist Brian Daniel Norton:
“When you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or underserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur.”
A particular kind of work-place culture lays the foundation for many to experience imposter syndrome but especially does so for women. The lack of representation in corporate culture, board rooms, and leadership positions creates a susceptibility for women to harbor feelings of unworthiness and being out of place even though one may possess the credentials and experience.
These feelings can be heightened when you experience a strongly held perception by peers that you are too emotional, not good at math and science or you were hired because you are a woman or a woman of color.
Even today, as women have gained a greater foothold in upper echelon professional positions, the feelings of inadequacy can be a specter haunting them despite tremendous success. This correlates with current research pointing to the high degree of career success experienced by those harboring imposter syndromes.
Nance-Nash quotes Maureen Zappala, a former propulsion engineer working for NASA in the 80s and 90s:
“For years I thought NASA only hired me because they needed women. I felt under-qualified and in over my head. I worked long hours to try to prove myself. I was too afraid to ask for help because I thought if I'm really as smart as they think I am, I shouldn't need the help, and I should be able to figure this out on my own."
If it can happen to a rocket scientist, it can happen to anyone.
What can you do about imposter syndrome?
Initiating a strategy of self-care can be very effective in challenging your feelings of unworthiness. You will need to put in the time and effort to overcome the negativity and fear. For some this will be an ongoing process, but well worth it.
Below are suggestions on how to address your feelings and perceptions of who you are and your place in the world.
Imposter syndrome is not a medical diagnosis, nor is there a specific recommended therapy. However, Psychology Today offers practical recommendations to counteract it. To compensate for feeling less competent than others you may need to:
· acknowledge your expertise and accomplishments by reminding yourself that you earned your place in your chosen academic or professional environment.
· stay focused on measuring your own achievements, instead of comparing yourself to others.
· work at reducing the perfectionism that fuels the cycle of always having to be flawless and perpetuates the idea that you are not good enough.
· stay in touch with colleagues and co-workers, whether they be women, people of color, students, fellow millennials, etc., and share your feelings of fear and inadequacy
· identify people who support you and your efforts within and outside the work place
· visualize success. Take time to imagine yourself being confident and assured
· separate feelings from facts. Just because you feel like an imposter doesn’t make you one.
Impostersyndrom.com lists ten actions you can personally take to overcome your feelings of unworthiness and fear.
Lou Solomon is a CEO, author and communications expert who is also a survivor of the Impostor Syndrome. It's worth taking the time to watch her video.
Finding a Therapist
It may be helpful to find a therapist to assist you in managing your feelings and help you move forward. There is no shame in seeking help.
Psychology Today offers dependable therapy resources.
WebMD has an excellent article on finding a therapist and what to expect during the therapeutic process.
Mental Health America provides an exhaustive list of organizations and providers offering therapy.
Institutions play a role, as well:
What colleges can do to help.
The institutional roots of imposter syndrome.
Nick Pizzardi, Director of Leasing of Commercial and Industrial Real Estate at Heartland Business Center in Edgewood and the 240-acre Heartland Executive Park in Hauppauge, NY, related to me in conversation an incident of imposter syndrome:
While he was working at a film manufacturing company, a female colleague complained to him of her frustrations of not being listened to and not feeling a part of the otherwise all male team. Much of the frustration centered on team meetings where she rarely spoke up. Pizzardi suggested that she jump in and take control of the meetings.
Some months later, Pizzardi relates that “she stopped me in the hall and told me she finally took over a meeting – she said they were all stunned, her boss, her lab group, everyone. She was so excited that she mastered her fear and changed her life. As a side note - less than a year later she took a leadership job with a huge chemical company – her break-out took her to a new world.”
The task is to reframe your feelings of incompetence so they can work for you. Make them your ally. You may never be able to rid yourself entirely of these feelings, but you can put them in perspective. Feeling you don’t know enough or are not as competent as others can be a stimulant to gain the knowledge and skills you need to succeed. You can use these feelings to motivate you, but they don’t need to diminish your sense of self-worth. Doing this can reduce the intensity of the negative emotional states you experience.
You can accept the need to know more or acquire better skills without unleashing your harsh internal critic. Accept the need to improve and grow without accepting the negative and judgmental thoughts you may be generating. Put aside the internal critic that makes for so much emotional suffering. Put things in balance.
With a commitment to ongoing self-care, you can overcome the negative consequences of feeling like a fraud or of being undeserving. Feeling this way is just that, a feeling. It can nag at you, result in less than helpful decisions, and dramatically reduce your sense of self-worth. It’s ok to feel you need to know more and be better at something without harshly criticizing yourself.
Keep in mind, these feelings were learned and can be unlearned. You are not to blame for having these perceptions of yourself. With some serious reflection, your world can dramatically change. You can learn to navigate life’s vicissitudes and attain greater personal happiness, professional success, and emotional resilience.
It’s time to get started.
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