FEELING LIKE A FRAUD IN YOUR OWN LIFE: THE INS AND OUTS OF IMPOSTER SYNDROME
A creeping sense of “I’m just not good enough”. A fear of success in your job, at school, or in some aspect of your life. A feeling that leads you to question your place and whether you’re worthy of it.
“I never negotiated salary because I was scared I would get ‘caught.’ I thought that I should prove myself before asking for more money.”
“It’s hard for me to give thorough/complete updates during scrum because I feel like I haven’t accomplished much. My teammates are usually the ones to point out [that I have].”
“I almost talked myself out of taking a promotion because I didn’t think I deserved it/could do the new job.”
“This feeling makes me want to leave my current career and has made me contemplate going back to school and taking on a different job.”
“Severe anxiety, an inability to be assertive with my boss, defensiveness. Self-reviews are the worst. I’m in senior management and I occasionally misuse my power when I feel like someone is going to expose me/challenge my decisions.”
“Self-doubt; inhibition; fear; dread; anxiety; [choosing] mundane tasks and not going for anything uncertain and interesting.”
This is imposter syndrome. It was first described in the 1970s by two American psychologists. It can manifest itself in many different professions, from office workers to artists to athletes and everything in between.
Imposter syndrome is something I’ve experienced many times. The first time I felt it was as a nineteen-year-old hockey player. I had crawled my way back from a pretty devastating knee injury and cracked a junior level hockey team. I wasn’t playing against boys anymore; it was a man’s game. And I felt like I was in over my head. The lack of confidence and anxiety really affected my confidence and my ability to perform at my best. I didn’t know it at the time, but lots of people have these feelings.
It’s quite prevalent in the general population and some pretty influential people – Charles Darwin and John Steinbeck to name just two – have felt it too.
If you’ve felt like an imposter before and are curious to learn more about imposter syndrome, keep reading. This article covers the different forms it can take, its psychological roots, the effects it can have on your psyche, and how you can overcome it. It’s an all-encompassing amalgamation of the best credible sources I’ve been able to find on the subject. For further reading and a list of the sources included in this article, check out “Sources” at the bottom of the page.
Different types of imposters
At the very heart of imposter syndrome is a general feeling of unworthiness. People cope with this feeling in different ways leading to different behavioral manifestations.
The following are the most common:
Imposters don’t feel as though they’re qualified for their current station in life. Because they don’t feel qualified, they think they’re going to fail and reveal to everyone, including themselves, what they knew all along: that they’re not capable and not worthy of where they are.
An imposter may compensate by going above and beyond, reaching perfectionist levels of preparation and thoroughness and spending way more time on a task than is necessary.
While useful in the short term, long-term and continual overcompensation can lead to unnecessarily long, stressful hours leaving the imposter vulnerable to the psychological and social side-effects of being a workaholic. Namely: depression, anxiety, and burnout.
You’re not actually good at what you do, so success couldn’t possibly be because of anything you’ve done, right? It must be luck. You were just in the right place at the right time.
This is the mindset of a never-take-credit-for-anything imposter. Everything good – accomplishments, promotions, trivial successes – are always because of something else. Never anything they’ve done.
This mindset comes along with a constant feeling of “on borrowed time.” In the mind of this type of imposter, it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops and the luck runs out.
Con artist imposters
The con artist imposter convinces themselves that they are getting by on irrelevant skills or personality characteristics.
A con artist imposter who makes a living as a writer, for example, may convince themselves that they’re getting by on their good looks, or charm, or ability to network rather than their ability to write.
Whatever the specific case may be, this type of imposter constantly deflects from the skills or qualifications that directly drive their success and instead believes they achieve through indirect means.
While a con artist imposter may feel like they’re getting ahead conning other people, the deception is really internal. They’ve managed to dupe themselves.
Any type of exposure is threatening to an imposter. Negative exposure validates your feelings of being a fraud and positive exposure draws attention and increases the likelihood that you will eventually be exposed (even though this probability is imagined).
Hide-in-plain-sight imposters do their best to stay out of the spotlight. In the general day-to-day this could take the form of blending into the background in meetings or in groups. On a larger scale it could mean remaining in positions that aren’t as public or avoiding advancement because certain positions, like managers and executives, get more attention.
On the one end of the spectrum we have workaholic, perfectionist imposters who cope by over preparing and being excessively thorough. On the opposite end are procrastinator imposters who avoid certain tasks altogether or put them off until the last minute.
Procrastinating or avoiding serves three purposes.
One: It eliminates any chance of failure. If you don’t try at all you can’t fail.
Two: It eliminates any chance of success. Success is attention and attention invites the possibility of being discovered as a fraud.
Three: It provides a scapegoat for failure, even if it’s a subconscious one. Failing on a task that was left to the last minute provides an excuse for not performing as well as you could have; you failed because you didn’t give yourself enough time, not because you’re not good enough to do it in the first place.
You’re most vulnerable to imposter syndrome during times of change
Imposter syndrome can reveal its ugly head at any time in your life. But, according to research, it’s particularly prevalent during times of significant change.
Change in an individual’s life – graduating, starting a new job, having a kid, etc. – can make you particularly amenable to experiencing the feelings of imposter syndrome. Your point of view and understanding of your life are rocked, the status quo is altered, and you find yourself trying to understand where you fit into this new place in the world.
Some people entering these new phases of their lives interpret their lack of experience as an indicator that they’re not qualified to be there. This can even occur despite objective evidence of achievement (aka. Promotion based on objective measures, acceptance to grad school based on merit, entry into medical school after getting stellar marks on the MCAT, meeting entrance requirements, and passing interviews).
Counterintuitively, objective evidence of achievement actually seems to exacerbate imposter syndrome. Instead of feeling validated and deserving, the imposter instead feels inadequate and driven to prove themselves.
How is an imposter created?
Research suggests certain childhood events have been linked to developing imposter syndrome later on in life. These include:
- Parental overprotection
- Being taught as a child that traits such as intelligence or athletic ability are natural gifts and positive results should flow natural from these “gifts”
- Parents sending mixed signals alternating between over-praise and criticism
- Labels received as children
Being identified as the “smart one” early on in life may cause a person to feel extremely insecure whenever they’re faced with a situation that conflicts with that part of their identity. People who fall into this category often turn into workoholics trying to maintain this part of their identity.
Dr. Frederik Anseel and his colleagues studied imposter syndrome by surveying 200 Belgian workers in finance, education, and human-resource management. Interestingly, they found workers who reported feelings consistent with imposter syndrome tended to score higher on measures of neuroticism and excessive perfectionism in personality tests. These results suggest perfectionism may be a coping mechanism and leave a person more susceptible to feeling like an imposter.
The ugly face of imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome and the coping mechanisms people use can have some pretty negative psychological effects.
Anseel’s study showed people who experienced imposter syndrome were not as happy with their jobs as their non-imposter syndrome colleagues.
Catherine Robinson-Walker, who specializes in leadership development and team, group, and executive coaching in healthcare, says imposter syndrome can:
- Cause moodiness and performance anxiety disproportionate to our capabilities
- Lead to overpreparing and overworking as we feel the need to compete harder and prove our self-worth
- Stifle our interest in speaking authoritatively, even when we are qualified
- Reduce pressure on us by influencing others to have lower expectations (it acts as a defense mechanism of sorts)
In my opinion, the most dire consequence of imposter syndrome: you quit before you even start.
Dr. Josh Drew is an evolutionary ecologist at Columbia University in New York City who has begun to bring some attention to imposter syndrome within his institution. Drew says he sees many students who shoot themselves in the foot. “They weren’t applying for grants and awards they would be competitive for” because they had already given up on themselves before they even gave themselves a chance to fail.
How to overcome imposter syndrome
Realize you’re not the only one feeling it
Draw on the support of others and share your experiences. Chances are anyone sitting within your line of sight at this very moment has felt it at one time or another.
If that’s not enough to make you feel better, know that there are some pretty accomplished people who have experienced it1. People like Charles Darwin – a man who has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history – complained, “one lives only to make blunders,” and John Steinbeck – the author of Grapes of Wrath and winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature – wrote, “I am assailed by my own ignorance and inability.”
Be aware of your own self-talk
Is it helpful or harmful? Nip unproductive internal conversation in the bud.
Take a step back and think of yourself objectively
Make a realistic list of your strengths and the things you’ve accomplished. Imagine someone else handed that paper to you claiming it was theirs, what kind of respect would you show that person? Show that same respect to yourself.
Think back to things other people have said about you
At the time you probably did everything in your mental power to not internalize that compliment and convince yourself that they were “just being nice,” but make the conscious decision to believe them. What kind of strengths have other people identified in you?
Accept that perfection is a costly and impossible pursuit
You’re not perfect, I’m not perfect, no one is perfect. And that’s okay. The only one who expects you to be is you.
Recognize that there still is room for growth and skill development
But approach it from a place of security and a willingness to learn and further develop your skills, not from a place of insecurity and constant feeling of lacking.
When all else fails, do it anyway
The feelings of imposter syndrome may never go away or may be triggered more strongly in some situations compared to others.
At these times, get comfortable with being uncomfortable and just do it anyways.
1. Woolston, C. Psychology: Faking it. Nature 529, 555–557 (2016).
2. Rakestraw, L. How to Stop Feeling like a Phony in Your Library: Recognizing the Causes of the Imposter Syndrome, and How to Put a Stop to the Cycle. Law Libr. J. 109, 465–478 (2017).
3. Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Feys, M., Fruyt, F. D. & Anseel, F. Fear of Being Exposed: The Trait-Relatedness of the Impostor Phenomenon and its Relevance in the Work Context. J. Bus. Psychol. 30, 565–581 (2015).
4. Robinson-Walker, C. The Imposter Syndrome. Nurse Lead. 9, 12–13 (2011).
5. Special feature: Darwin 200 | New Scientist. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/round-up/darwin-200. (Accessed: 27th March 2018)
Imposter syndrome quote source: https://medium.com/kip-blog/real-stories-imposter-syndrome-15bce02a5c1e