Do you often feel scared of being found out or worried people will notice that you’re not as competent as you claim to be? Do you feel you don’t belong or that you’re a fraud? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you’re in good company. According to a study in the International Journal of Behavioural Science, 70 percent of us will feel like an imposter at some point in our lives (Sakalku and Alexander, 2011). Imposter syndrome is an internal experience in which one believes oneself to be less competent than others perceive them to be.
Some common signs you may be experiencing imposter syndrome:
- Setting unrealistic or incredibly high targets
- Chronic self-doubt
- Anxiety related to not living up to expectations
- Inability to realistically assess your skills and competence
- Downplaying of your achievements
- Highly self-critical
- You’re an over-achiever
- You tend to over-work
- Attribute achievements to just being ‘lucky’
Five categories of Imposter Syndrome have been identified:
The perfectionist is never satisfied with their work, always feeling it could be better. This person is more focused on their mistakes and shortcomings than on their strengths, resulting in high levels of anxiety and a tendency to be controlling, often micro-managing those around them.
These people never feel they know enough, constantly reading to fill gaps in knowledge, signing up for courses and under-valuing their skills and expertise. Competence for the Expert is based on what and how much they know but, no matter what that is, it’s still never enough.
Superheroes believe they need to succeed in all aspects of their lives, setting themselves up for some serious disappointment when they inevitably fall short in some aspect. Their inadequacy pushes them to work long hours and demand more and more of themselves.
Since this person’s self-worth is based on their productivity, accepting offers of assistance is seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Therefore, soloists tend to work alone and have a more individualistic mindset.
The Natural Genius
This is the person who believes that their competence is based on the ease and speed at which they accomplish things. They set high goals and then expect that they should achieve these on the first attempt. Failure to do so leads to feelings of shame and inadequacy.
So, how does Imposter Syndrome develop?
People with Imposter Syndrome usually have a background marred by criticism and judgement. This may be due to growing up with parents who were highly critical or who compared them to their siblings, cousins or friends. It may also be the result of bullying or severe exclusion as a child. Imposter syndrome also flourishes in families which value accomplishments and expect their children to be high achievers. Children then internalise the belief that they’re only worthy of love if they perform to a high standard.
Since Imposter syndrome also relates to a sense of belonging, growing up in a situation or with people who are very different from how one sees themselves can lead to feeling like an imposter. This may include growing up in a different culture or going to school with children of a different socio-economic background. Entering new situations, such as starting a new job or taking on a new, higher position at work, can trigger Imposter Syndrome.
Recovery from Imposter Syndrome
Now that we have a better understanding of Imposter Syndrome and how it develops, you may be wondering if there’s any hope for people who experience it. Thankfully, like most interpersonal issues, this can be worked on. Here are some tips to get you started:
Identify your core beliefs – We all have a set of core beliefs which developed through our experiences growing up. These are usually handed down by important people in our lives through what we’re told or based on how we’re treated or what we experienced. For the ‘Imposter’, it’s likely that their core belief is ‘I’m not loveable unless I achieve’ or ‘I’m not good enough’.
Question your core beliefs and your everyday thoughts – If you notice yourself getting anxious that you’ll be seen as a fraud, start to question this. ‘Based on my experience and qualifications, am I really a fraud?’, ‘What evidence exists that I don’t belong here?’, ‘Am I really only worthy of love if I do well at things?’, ‘Do I only love my family and friends because they are high-achievers? If not, then why do I apply such rules to myself?’.
Examine the evidence – Write down your strengths and accomplishments and then realistically assess if your self-doubt is justified. If you find this difficult, enrol someone you trust to help you out. Alternatively, ask yourself – ‘If someone presented me with such experience and credentials, would I think they’re unworthy or incapable?’
Seek internal rather than external validation – Whilst accomplishments and praise can be satisfying, no amount of success or admiration can replace your own approval and love for yourself. When you feel that you don’t belong, are inadequate or a fraud, remind yourself of your worth. You may feel silly doing it but tell yourself ‘I’m worthy and enough just as I am’.
Stop comparing yourself to others – Comparisons are unfair and inaccurate. If limiting social media use is necessary in order to reduce the temptation to compare, that would be a wise choice.
Seek professional support – Since Imposter Syndrome indicates the presence of underlying issues, seeking the guidance and support of a psychotherapist may help you work through these with more ease.
If you recognised yourself in any of the above, bear in mind that the impact of Imposter Syndrome on your physical and emotional well-being can be substantial. With some effort and support, however, you can start to see your capabilities more realistically and slowly start to trust in yourself and your worth.