Imposter syndrome – what is it, what to do about it


  by QW+ staff writer

Imposter syndrome – what is it, what to do about it

A wonderful piece written by QW+ database member Marie-Noelle Nwokolo on Imposter Syndrome.

“While the impostor syndrome is not unique to women, women are more apt to agonize over tiny mistakes, see even constructive criticism as evidence of their shortcomings, and chalk up their accomplishments to luck rather than skill. They often unconsciously overcompensate with crippling perfectionism, overpreparation, maintaining a lower profile, withholding their talents and opinions, or never finishing important projects. When they do succeed, they think, Phew, I fooled ’em again.” Valerie Young, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women (2011)

Disclaimer: I am an actual badass! I just struggle to show it sometimes.

I’ve heard many people talk about the impostor syndrome and I can emphatically say, “I identify”. When I first looked it up, I came across an article by Time Magazine which started out with these questions: Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Like your friends or colleagues are going to discover you’re a fraud, and you don’t actually deserve your job and accomplishments? My response was “Yes and yes”. At first, I was disappointed that I was so quick to join what felt like a pity party.

As I read more about this phenomenon, I discovered it is quite common, and many people deal with. So, if you can relate, hang with me. If you don’t, learn with me.

The impostor syndrome may have several definitions but comes down to a feeling – largely unfounded – that you don’t deserve what you have or don’t belong in the spaces you currently occupy.

It manifests in many ways, such as holding back in conversations because “What if I say the wrong things? Everyone will know I am not that smart” or, “What if I write another article and it is not that great? Everyone will know I was lucky that one time,” etc.

One who suffers from the impostor syndrome disqualifies their achievements through statements such as, “I made it because so-and-so likes me” or my personal favourite, “the computer or someone must have made a terrible mistake, I should not be here!”

According to the Abigail Abram Time article, “Impostor syndrome—the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications—was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.” A review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that an estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at one point or the other in their lives. Although it was originally believed to affect just women, it does affect all sexes…

In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Dr. Valerie Young identified some patterns of people who experience this phenomenon. One pattern I found interesting was the “natural genius”. These people often think they are not good enough when they must struggle or work hard to accomplish a task. After all, it should come easy. Thus, when these natural geniuses must put in some effort, they must – oh my goodness – be a total impostor. The bar these folks set for themselves is near impossible. They not only judge themselves based on these ridiculous expectations, but also on the expectation that the first try at anything must be a success.

Another pattern I identified with were the “experts”. These folks, the Time magazine stated, “feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or trainings to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.” Honestly, I felt attacked. That sounded like my autobiography in a paragraph.

Why do we experience these doubts?

I kid you not, the answer sounds a lot like the LSE rhetoric “it depends” [shout out Development Management!]. There is no single answer to why we experience the impostor syndrome.

Broadly, some associate it with internal causes and look to family or behavioural factors, and personality traits. Those who look beyond the person cite factors such as environment or institutionalized discrimination. Young added that “A sense of belonging fosters confidence.” “The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.” I like that; it resonates.

Are these feelings unfounded? Yes, and No. There are different kinds of people and we all internalize differently.

Psychologists identify a situation called pluralistic ignorance. Privately, we second guess ourselves but tend to think we are alone in these feelings simply because no one else voices their thoughts. Since we have no sure way of knowing how hard everyone else works, or how challenging they might find certain things, we are stuck in a wheel we do not delight in.

What should you do?

From a fellow aspiring intellectual and world changer, I would say talk about it. Many people struggle with the impostor syndrome and hearing that others have experienced, and dealt with it can be relieving and reassuring. It is normal to feel a bit like an impostor. It is really what you do with it that matters. We may never be able to banish this frame of mind. However, with the increasing awareness of how common it is, and through open conversations with friends, family, peers or mentors (I hate the pressure of this word sometimes, ask me about it!), we can start to move the needle. If you find it overwhelming and borderline destructive to your well-being, do seek some professional help. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact I bet you did not know that Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein supposedly experienced this as well.

It really does happen to all of us.

Some useful ideas to bring yourself out of this state include:

  • acknowledge these feelings and understand that it’s normal to feel that way sometimes;
  • take a moment to reflect through your experiences and draw on the positive feedback you’ve received in the past;
  • embrace your perfect rest and relaxation activity, and indulge;
  • keep a compliments or positive feedback diary for those odd days; and if it persists beyond what you feel you are capable of handling, seek help.

This is not to say you should walk around with your nose turned up, thinking everyone is doubting themselves so you can misbehave, or parade arrogance. No, do not do that please.

You have worked hard to achieve your success – however little, or big, you think they are. Cut yourself some slack and let self-awareness be your shield.

Over time you will start to grasp that you are so deserving of your accomplishments.

This post was originally published on Noelle Wonders and is republished with their permission.

Picture: Randy Fath on Unsplash