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?
If so, you’re in good company. These feelings are known as Imposter Syndrome, or what psychologists often call impostor phenomenon. An estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science.
So what exactly is imposter syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments or talents and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “Fraud“. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. These individuals attribute their success to luck, or interpret it as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women, impostor syndrome has been recognised to affect both men and women equally.
Simply speaking, Impostor Syndrome can apply to anyone ‘who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes’ or people who downplay their own expertise in areas where they’re more genuinely more skilled than others.
Expert on the subject, Dr. Valerie Young, has categorized it into subgroups: the Perfectionist, the Superwoman/man, the Natural Genius, the Soloist, and the Expert. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Young builds on decades of research studying fraudulent feelings among high achievers.
Types Of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome can appear in a number of different ways. A few different types of imposter syndrome that have been identified are:
- The Perfectionist: Perfectionists are never satisfied and always feel that their work could be better. Rather than focus on their strengths, they tend to fixate on any flaws or mistakes. This often leads to a great deal of self-pressure and high amounts of anxiety.
- The Superhero:Because these individuals feel inadequate, they feel compelled to push themselves to work as hard as possible.
- The Expert: These individuals are always trying to learn more and are never satisfied with their level of understanding. Even though they are often highly skilled, they underrate their own expertise.
- The Natural Genius: These individuals set excessively lofty goals for themselves, and then feel crushed when they don’t succeed on their first try.
- The Soloist: These people tend to be very individualistic and prefer to work alone. Self-worth often stems from their productivity, so they often reject offers of assistance. They tend to see asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence.
For an in-depth analysis and better understanding of these types and to identify if you fit under any of these types, click here.
Imposter Syndrome and Mental Health
If you often find yourself feeling like you are a fraud or an imposter, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist. The negative thinking, self-doubt, and self-sabotage that often characterise imposter syndrome can have an effect on many areas of your life.
Impostor syndrome and social anxiety may overlap. A person with social anxiety disorder may feel as though they don’t belong in social or performance situations. You might be in a conversation with someone and feel as though they are going to discover your social incompetence. You might be delivering a presentation and feel as though you just need to get through it before anyone realizes you really don’t belong there.
Impostor syndrome also occurs in the context of mental illness and its treatment. Certain individuals may see themselves as less ill (less depressed, less anxious) than their peers or other mentally ill people, citing their lack of severe symptoms as the indication of no or a minor underlying issue. People with this form don’t seek help for their issues, seeing their problems as not worthy of professional attention.
Why do people experience imposter syndrome?
There’s no single answer. Some experts believe it has to do with personality traits—like anxiety or neuroticism—while others focus on family or behavioral causes. Sometimes childhood memories, such as feeling that your grades were never good enough for your parents or that your siblings outshone you in certain areas, can leave a lasting impact. “People often internalize these ideas: that in order to be loved or be lovable, ‘I need to achieve,’”.
Factors outside of a person, such as their environment or institutionalized discrimination, can also play a major role in spurring impostor feelings. “A sense of belonging fosters confidence,” says Young. “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.”
This is especially true “whenever you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence,” Young adds, including racial or ethnic minorities, women in STEM fields or even international students at American universities.
Coping With Imposter Syndrome
- Share your feelings : Talk to other people about how you are feeling. These irrational beliefs tend to fester when they are hidden and not talked about.
- Focus on others : While this might feel counterintuitive, try to help others in the same situation as you. If you see someone who seems awkward or alone, ask that person a question to bring them into the group. As you practice your skills, you will build confidence in your own abilities.
- Assess your abilities : If you have long-held beliefs about your incompetence in social and performance situations, make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your accomplishments and what you are good at, and compare that with your self-assessment.
- Take baby steps : Don’t focus on doing things perfectly, but rather, do things reasonably well and reward yourself for taking action. It is all about finding yourself and building yourself up.
- Question your thoughts : As you start to assess your abilities and take baby steps, question whether your thoughts are rational. Does it make sense that you are a fraud, given everything that you know?
- Stop comparing : Every time you compare yourself to others in a social situation, you will find some fault with yourself that fuels the feeling of not being good enough or not belonging. Instead, during conversations, focus on listening to what the other person is saying. Be genuinely interested in learning more.
- Use social media moderately : We know that the overuse of social media may be related to feelings of inferiority. If you try to portray an image on social media that doesn’t match who you really are or that is impossible to achieve, it will only make your feelings of being a fraud worse.
- Stop fighting your feelings : Don’t fight the feelings of not belonging. Instead, try to lean into them and accept them. It’s only when you acknowledge them that you can start to unravel those core beliefs that are holding you back.
- Refuse to let it hold you back : No matter how much you feel like you don’t belong, don’t let that stop you from pursuing your goals. Keep going and refuse to be stopped.
A Personal Note
Remember that if you are feeling like an impostor, it means you have some degree of success in your life that you are attributing to luck. Try instead to turn that feeling into one of gratitude. Look at what you have accomplished in your life and be grateful.
Don’t be crippled by your fear of being found out. Instead, lean into that feeling and get at its roots. Let your guard down and let others see the real you. If you’ve done all these things and still feel like your feeling of being an impostor is holding you back, it is important to speak to a mental health professional.