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Do you suffer from imposter syndrome?
“I don’t know what I am doing. I am making this up as I go along.”
Does this sound familiar?
For many of us, there are times in our life where we have been shocked by the depth of fear that we have had.
The best way to describe it is as an overwhelming worry that people are going to ‘find out’. At any point, someone is going to shout “Oi! Hang on a minute…..!” They are going to realize that you are a fraud. That you don’t know what you are doing and that you don’t know much about anything.
A client recently came to us and said:
“I feel like I am the odd one out, I’m not like everyone else. Everyone else is more intelligent, creative, successful, funny, witty, beautiful. Their lives look like the contents of a glossy magazine. I’m not like this. I just pretend. I play along doing my best trying to fool everyone that I fit in but, deep down, I know I don’t. My life is a sham – I make it up.”
Sound Familiar? Well, that’s probably because like us, our client, and an estimated 70% of the population, you suffer from a touch of imposter syndrome.
Recently, Michelle Obama told a group of school girls at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London that she still feels imposter syndrome and that “it never goes away”.
Michelle Obama is not the only one:
Albert Einstein: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Maya Angelou: “I have written eleven 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.”
Phew! We’re in good company then! But what the heck is imposter syndrome and why do we have it?
Imposter Syndrome Definition
Imposter syndrome is that feeling that you are not as capable as people think you are. It is that deep-seated belief that, despite the evidence indicating your success, you are really an incompetent fraud who does not deserve to be in your role or position. You are only where you are because of luck – or because people haven’t recognized that you are a fraud yet.
No matter how many accolades some people receive, they cannot accept that they are deserving of their success.
These feelings of intense doubt can occur in both our personal and professional lives, but they are more common in the latter.
In a nutshell, imposter syndrome is that feeling that you get when you feel like you don’t belong, don’t deserve your success, are a fraud, and don’t know what you are doing, and are worried that you are going to be ‘found out’ or ‘exposed’.
Many highly successful people hide the fact that they really don’t feel like they deserve their success. They live in fear that at some point the rest of the world is going to wake up and realize this.
Some people wake up in the morning worried that they ‘can’t do it!’ – and really have to push themselves to get up and at ‘em! They perceive that others have all the skills that they do not.
Imposter syndrome is an internal voice. If you listen carefully, you can hear it. You might hear it say things like:
• Why would they hire you?!
• You didn’t deserve to win that award! You were just lucky!
• S/he will never go out on a date with someone like you!
Where Does The Term Come From And Who Does It Affect?
Imposter syndrome was first introduced into the lexicon of modern society in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes from a study being conducted at Georgia State University Entitled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. Dr. Clance had been observing behavior in some of her students who, despite excelling academically, were unable to recognize their success.
Although initially thought to be more common in women, later research published by Dr. Clance, and furthered over time by other researchers, has proven that it affects both sexes equally.
In fact, some would argue that societal pressures make it harder for men to talk about and admit, meaning that many of them suffer in silence.
An article published in The Journal of Behavioral Science estimated that at some point in our lives 70% of us will suffer from the feelings associated with imposter syndrome. It can apply to anyone in any situation who is unable to accept their own success from the millionaire entrepreneur to the person whose cakes sell out first at the school bake sale.
It is believed that younger adults suffer more from imposter syndrome due to their lack of life experience, however, any one of us can suffer at any point in our lives.
Why Do Some Of Us Suffer From Imposter Syndrome?
There is no one common answer to this question. There are some possible causes, but this list is not definitive. Reasons include:
- Personality traits;
- Environmental factors;
- Childhood experiences;
- Looking or being different than others.
Imposter Syndrome Symptoms: The Cycle
Studies have proven that those with imposter syndrome suffer from a cycle of similar behaviors that looks something like this:
- You set about doing what you do, you do your best and you work hard but on the inside, you cannot shake that feeling of being a fraud.
- As you work, self-doubt, anxiety and worry start to creep in.
- Your response to this might be one of two things:
- Either, over-preparation and the investment of effort at a disproportionate level compared to the task
- Or, to procrastinate and waste time, before then putting in an 11th-hour marathon to get the job completed at the last minute.
- You accomplish the task/goal. You may even believe that this was through luck. However, you enjoy a brief respite as you feel relieved to have got it done.
- However, then you start to resist any positive praise or feedback that comes your way because on the inside you know that you don’t deserve it because you know that you are a fraud.
- The cycle starts again.
The Different Types of Imposter
In her renowned book ‘The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It’, Dr. Valerie Young categorizes sufferers of imposter syndrome into 5 groups. Each of these groups exhibits a common set of behaviors in respect of imposter syndrome:
Perfectionism and imposter syndrome, as we have seen from the cycle above, go together like a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Perfectionists set unreasonably high targets/goals for themselves and constantly question their self-worth. They must also be in control and struggle to delegate. When things don’t go their way, they haul themselves over the coals because this is clearly a sign that they are just not good enough. It all has to be perfect.
These folk are on a mission! They push themselves to work harder than everyone else to prove their worth! Really, they are trying to hide the fact that they are a fraud and to cover up their inadequacies. It goes without saying that this behavior poses risks to their physical and mental health. These people can also struggle with relationships as working hard dominates their lives. They struggle when they are not working and become addicted to the sense of validation they get from working hard.
The Natural Genius
People who fall into this group judge themselves on their ability to achieve things as a matter of course because it is built in them as a result of natural skill or talent. If they need to work hard at something in order to master it, they are embarrassed and ashamed as this is an indicator of their weakness. It is important that they get things right the first time. They are nervous to try new things in case they fail.
These people need to accomplish everything on their own. Asking for help is seen as a sign of their inability to cope or failure. They will often tell you that ‘they don’t need any help’.
The clue is in the title. Experts measure their worthiness on what they know or can do. They must be secure in their knowledge or ability or they are a failure. Experts never feel like they know enough and that they will get caught out. They shy away from situations that potentially could expose their lack of knowledge, such as applying for a job with a challenging set of duties/responsibilities or answering questions on their specialist area in a public forum. They worry about looking stupid and play safe as a result.
Imposter Syndrome Test
If you identify with the feelings outlined in this article so far then it is possible that you suffer from some form of imposter syndrome, after all the majority of us do. However, if you are looking for something a little more scientific hop over to Test Yourself Psych Tests and sit their Imposter Syndrome Test. This will take approximately 10 minutes of your time and will give you a final score out of one hundred – the higher the score indicating the greater prevalence of imposter syndrome.
Want to find out how to fix your imposter once and for all? Great. Head over to the article on How to Get Rid of Your Imposter.
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Disclaimer – This article is not intended to be a replacement to professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or therapy. I am not a medical professional. If you have any concerns about your physical or mental health and/or wellbeing you must always consult with your doctor or other appropriate health care professional