Impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that affects many people, even those who are professionally accomplished and arguably successful.

It is estimated that 70% of people will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives, but – despite this – impostor syndrome is not currently recognised as an official diagnosis by the DSM-V. In the following we will detail some signs that can be recognized and some factors that predispose or contribute to the development of imposter syndrome.

What is impostor syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is generally manifested by a deep sense of inferiority which can occur in various areas of life and comes with a lot of self-doubt, self-criticism, fear of being exposed and publicly shamed, even if there is plenty of evidence demonstrating competence in the targeted area of activity. A generally negative attitude about oneself, symptoms of depression and anxiety often accompany impostor syndrome.

People with this syndrome tend not to give themselves credit for their work and to downplay/underestimate their personal contribution when they get something right. They attribute success to external sources rather than acknowledging their competence, they tend to believe that they got lucky, had help or simply the task was not hard enough. Therefore, they believe they don’t deserve credit or praise for their work, and if they do receive it they feel embarrassed and uncomfortable because they live in constant fear that someone might see that they are not that smart or competent and would be publicly exposed.

 

Signs of imposter syndrome and factors that predispose or contribute to its development

Dr. Valerie Young (co-founder of the Impostor Syndrome Institute) has divided people who may develop impostor syndrome into 5 categories:

1. The perfectionist

Perfectionist traits predispose to the development of imposter syndrome by believing that you could always do better, and when others congratulate you on your work, you don’t think it’s good enough, so the fear that you’re not as good as others think is activated.

2. Expert

People who reach the rank of expert are often aware that they don’t know everything there is to know in their field. The impostor syndrome in this case occurs when experts feel that they cannot call themselves experts if they do not know absolutely everything there is to know in their field.

3. People with higher intelligence

These people usually manage to do things of low or medium difficulty perhaps faster than the rest of us and may not need to put in so much effort. When they encounter something harder that they need to practise for, it takes more effort and more time than normal, they may feel they are not good enough. The basic belief is that if it takes more effort, time or practice you are not smart or competent enough.

4. The lonely

When this kind of person receives help to achieve something, he feels like an impostor because he feels that success was due to the help he received and that he would not have succeeded on his own, and this makes him question his intelligence and competence.

5. Supraomul

The belief that you have to excel in everything you do and in all areas of life without much effort, and if you can’t, you’re not a successful person but just an impostor.

People who experience imposter syndrome generally have the following characteristics:

👉 worry a lot about the flaws in their work, even if we’re talking about small mistakes

👉 attribute success to external factors (luck, low task difficulty, received help, etc.).

👉 sensitivity to criticism, even if it is constructive

👉 they have the impression that others could discover at any time that they are not so competent or intelligent and live with this fear

👉 downplay their skills and are modest about their performance

👉 fail to assess their skills realistically (they tend to think their skills are much lower than they actually are)

👉 fear of disappointing and not living up to others’ expectations

👉 the desire for above-average, superior results

👉 sabotaging your own success

👉 self-doubt

👉 setting extremely high goals and being disappointed when they can’t achieve them

Some people with impostor syndrome may feel that the feeling that “you’re not good enough” helps them to progress and keep their motivation at high levels, but this comes with a constant anxiety. Of course, if you are convinced that you are not good enough, you will train harder and work harder to compensate for the lack of skills you think you have, but in the long run the anxiety will increase and symptoms of burnout or even depression will appear.

From this experience, our mind learns that it cannot rely on its own strength and the only reason you have been successful in the past was because you worked yourself to exhaustion. The problem is that this belief is perpetuated, even if you have achieved the desired results the belief that you are not good enough, smart enough or competent enough does not change. Basically, the more successful you are, the more you will feel like an impostor.

Causes and predisposing factors for impostor syndrome

👉 The family we grow up in and its dynamicsInfluences us a lot in general. Research shows that an overprotective and controlling parenting style that requires children to always perform exceptionally well has negative effects that continue into adulthood. The child may develop perfectionism and a sense of inadequacy because he cannot live up to those impossible standards imposed by his parents. It is humanly impossible to always have exceptional results and not make mistakes. Also, comparisons between children’s performances are just as toxic because the message that reaches the child is that if he wants to be appreciated and loved he must always be above everyone else. Therefore, it is quite easy to end up feeling that you are not good or competent enough since it is human for performance to fluctuate and mistakes are part of the learning process.

👉 A history of failure and rejectionCan predispose a person to believe they are not good enough. If you had demanding teachers in school who humiliated you in front of the class for not knowing certain things, if you were criticized and rejected by peers, parents or teachers, you may come to believe that you are generally not the smartest person and everything you have achieved in the past was pure luck. This can exacerbate impostor syndrome because you can cling to tangible things from your past that in your mind validate the idea that you don’t have to underperform and that it’s awful if someone sees that you’ve had a failure.

👉 Impostor syndrome can still occur when you’re just starting out – when you start a new job, start college or get a promotion and you haven’t yet gotten used to your new position. The pressure to do a good job, coupled with inexperience in the new role, can make you feel like you’re not good enough.

Recommendations for dealing with impostor syndrome

Look for evidence in reality

The mind of a person with imposter syndrome is invaded by thoughts such as “I don’t deserve this praise”, “I haven’t done anything special”, “if others knew how little I actually know, they would reject me and consider me incompetent”. Some of these thoughts might have evidence in reality (mistakes you’ve made in the past or failed projects that are a natural part of the learning process), others are just the result of anxiety and fears that you’re not smart or competent enough.

Therefore, we can’t rely on what our minds tell us about ourselves, that’s why it’s important to look for evidence in reality, ask for feedback from people we have worked with or are working with, from mentors who know us and can help us to assess our level of expertise more carefully. Tangible evidence can combat imposter syndrome.

Stop comparing yourself to other people

In general, we as human beings tend to compare ourselves to others in many contexts, which is why you need to control the tendency to compare yourself to others gradually, taking small steps.

Start by paying more attention to yourself and notice when you start to compare yourself. Then observe and write down the emotion you are feeling at that moment, and on a scale from 1 to 10 rate the intensity of the emotion felt (e.g. I compare myself to my office mate, she has done more tasks than me today, anxiety, 8). Once you manage to identify your emotions, confront the comparisons you make (a comparison is generally made between two identical or similar products – is there a similarity between you and the person you are comparing yourself to? have you gone through exactly the same life experiences? do you have the same energy level? have you had to do the same tasks? have you had the same mood? have the same problems at home? → if any of the answers to these questions is NO, it does not make sense to make this comparison, and any conclusions you might draw about yourself from this comparison ARE NOT VALID).

You are not what you think

It integrates the idea that our mind produces an awful lot of thoughts in a day, some grounded in reality, others born of invalid conclusions our mind sometimes draws when we are not thinking rationally. Therefore, don’t believe everything you hear in your head and don’t identify too strongly with what you think. We are not our thoughts → imagine your self as an empty Word document into which your mind puts thoughts, you only contain those thoughts you are not those thoughts. Our mind tells us many things that can help or hurt usso instead of blindly believing everything we think about ourselves, we might approach these thoughts with curiosity (e.g. if you make a mistake and notice that you criticize yourself a lot, you might ask yourself: is this mistake so bad that I can’t fix it and learn not to do it again? does this thought really reflect reality or does it come from my fears and insecurities?).

Set realistic goals

Learn to set realistic goals. It’s not wrong to wish for great things, but when you have imposter syndrome, you want to make sure that no one finds out you’re an imposter, so you set very big goals to prove your competence. Break the big target you set into smaller targets (preferably SMART goals) that are easier to digest and work at a moderate pace to avoid burnout.
A SMART goal is:
Specific – as clear, simple and specific as possible
Measurable – you have chosen quantitative and qualitative indicators by which to monitor your progress
Affordable – achievable, moderate difficulty
Time-bound – can be achieved within a time limit you choose according to the difficulty of the goal.

In general, working on your own person is not the easiest task, and imposter syndrome is no exception to this principle, especially if you’ve been dealing with it for a long time. If you feel you need help, don’t hesitate to seek professional help to help you address the issues associated with impostor syndrome, such as symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Author: Psih. Cristina Roncea – Psychotherapist

Bibliography:

  1. Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: theory, research, practice, training, 30(3), 495.
  2. Young, V. (2011). The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: And Men: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It. Currency.
  3. Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., … & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: a systematic review. Journal of general internal medicine, 35, 1252-1275.
  4. https://impostorsyndrome.com/rethinking-impostor-syndrome/

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