Have you ever felt like an imposter? Like all your achievements – your grades, promotions, successes – are a result not of your own determination and hard work, but of sheer luck or chance? That you are, in fact, a fraud, unworthy of your position or status and that one day someone is going to expose you to the world?
I used to think I was the only one who felt this way, that the self-doubt I experienced on a daily basis was just another personality flaw of mine to contend with. Then I began to speak more openly and honestly about myself to other people and I realised this feeling is actually incredibly common. So common, in fact, that it has a name: Imposter Syndrome.
“Imposters see themselves as incompetent and believe they have fooled others into seeing themselves as intelligent and accomplished”
First identified by psychologists Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes in a paper written in the 1970’s, imposter syndrome is essentially an inability to internalise one’s own successes, and is thought to have affected up to 70% of the general population at some point in their lives, although it is not officially considered a psychological disorder. According to Kevin Cokley, psychologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “imposters see themselves as as incompetent and believe they have fooled others into seeing themselves as intelligent and accomplished”. Associated with both anxiety and depression, this sense of inadequacy, coupled with the underlying fear of being exposed as an undeserving fraud, can be debilitating and leave sufferers feeling overwhelmed by the pressure.
Imposter syndrome can be particularly detrimental for students, and it’s certainly when studying for exams or working on college assignments that I suffer the most from this overbearing and critical condition. Despite consistently achieving high grades throughout my academic career, there is always a persistent, nagging feeling that the work I submit will never be good enough. That failure is inevitable. More than the failure, however, is the fear of being found out – of the wool finally being pulled from everyone’s eyes as I am exposed for the imposter I am. There are tears, all-nighters and anxiety attacks. Tense arguments with my husband who, supportive though he is, just does not understand how I can be so convinced of my ultimate failure when there is so little evidence to support that feeling. When my results come in, and I have not failed, he rolls his eyes – because he doesn’t understand that the cycle will repeat itself the very next time exams come around.
In their paper, Drs. Clance and Imes note how “numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief”. The evidence, in other words, rarely changes the mindset. I graduated with a First Class Honours degree from UCD and yet still feel like my academic achievements are the result of sheer good fortune and not my own hard work. For the imposter, such successes are often downplayed or brushed aside, the result of external factors such as luck or circumstance but not, ever, due to their own capabilities.
“The only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter”Valerie Young
Speaking more openly about feeling like an imposter has certainly helped me overcome some of the more intense anxieties associated with being exposed as a “fraud”, although not entirely. I still battle with feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty but I am starting, slowly but surely, to confront them differently in my head. As expert Valerie Young points out, “talking about imposter feelings is a start, but you can’t share your way out of imposter syndrome”. Recognising that completely overcoming imposter syndrome is not necessarily the most productive or achievable goal, Young argues that reframing your thinking is the key to managing those difficult feelings.
In fact, she suggests that “the only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter”. It might seem too simple to be true and yet some have argued that faking confidence, for example, can actually lead to increased levels of confidence. Even fake smiling has been shown to increase positive emotions in some instances. Fake it till you make, it seems, could be the secret to managing imposter syndrome.
Want to find out more about imposter syndrome? Watch expert Valerie Young below or follow the links for more information.