Imposter Syndrome – Discover the signs and types of imposters!
Impostor Syndrome is a psychological term that is used to refer to the experiences of people who exhibit extreme self-doubt, in denial of their achievements and success, and people with a persistent but unreasonable fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Also known as impostorism (or imposterism), this phenomenon or experience can potentially happen to anyone, but with a greater likelihood of happening to successful individuals. Although it is not medically classified, impostor syndrome may also be accompanied by negative emotions strongly linked to depression and anxiety.
Most emotionally balanced people – as in those who are not suffering from impostorism - usually react positively to their own achievements. Successes and accomplishments are beneficial to self-esteem.
Few people are successful solely due to their own efforts, we are helped by others, and help different others as we go along. But we recognize that we have put in the efforts and deserve the rewards and appreciation.
However, people suffering from impostor syndrome perceive their success differently than others. Achievement is a double-edged sword that can impact them negatively and affect them in debilitating ways.
If you feel unworthy of your successes, or that somehow, any day, you will be found out to be a fraud, this eBook is for you. It will help you understand why you feel like you do, and how you can reconcile those feelings and help you feel more worthy of all that you have, and all that you are.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
What is one thing that many highly accomplished individuals like Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou, John Steinback, and even Emma Watson and Meryl Streep all have in common?
Aside from their name ringing a bell at the mere mention of it, not to mention their level of fame and achievements, they all seemed to possess an unbelievable sense of doubt in themselves, even amidst all the accomplishments and recognition that they have earned.
This nagging feeling of doubt has been found to be extremely common, not only amongst famous personalities but also more ‘ordinary' individuals, who are often classified as high achievers themselves. This so-called phenomenon is commonly known today as Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome is also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, or impostor experience. It is a psychological pattern where people are unable to internalize their accomplishments and are plagued with doubt regarding their achievements.
People who experience impostorism have an incomprehensible fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Despite the lack of evidence to the claims, those affected strongly believe that they do not deserve the success they’ve achieved and in fact, greatly attribute their successes to luck. Worse, they often feel as though their success results from duping other people into thinking that they are more brilliant than they actually are.
The term ‘impostor syndrome’ was devised by clinical psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 and was first introduced in the research article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.”
After conducting interviews with a sample of 150 high-achieving women, Clance and Imes concluded that despite all the external evidence available to support and justify their success, people with impostor syndrome see themselves as undeserving and a fraud.
Though early research was targeted on the prevalence of impostorism amongst high-achieving women only, today, impostor syndrome is widely recognized as affecting both men and women equally.
Researchers Clance and Imes believed that the impostor experience might have likely resulted from these possible factors - gender stereotypes, early family dynamics, culture, and attribution style.
It Happens to the Best of Us
We know an impostor to be the kind of person who pretends to be someone he or she is not. It is an act committed out of the intent to take advantage of somebody.
The people who suffer from impostorism have no similarities to this devious behavior. In fact, they could be one of the most brilliant individuals that we know, but inside their minds, they believe themselves unworthy - a fraudulent being who deceives people.
It’s incomprehensible to most people how those with impostor syndrome manage to see the worst in themselves. It can seem incomprehensible that some of the most accomplished people throughout history could think so little about their achievements, despite the seemingly obvious.
Here’s what most of us didn’t know about the real struggles and inner sentiments of some of these people.
Maya Angelou, famous poet and writer, often felt a nagging sense of doubt about her accomplishments despite having penned several well-received books and even after receiving several prestigious awards.
She was once quoted saying, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
John Steinback, author of The Grapes of Wrath and several other literary classics, and who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, often doubted himself as a writer, convinced that he was simply fooling himself and other people.
Albert Einstein, the world-renowned genius who also received a Nobel Prize in Physics for his massive contribution to theoretical physics, once described himself as an “involuntary swindler” whose work didn’t deserve all the attention it had received.
Three highly accomplished individuals and one thing they all have in common is a strong sense of doubt about their achievements, even as far as reaching the point of being convinced that they’re a fraud.
How to Move Forward
Impostor Syndrome is not classified as a mental disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or ICD (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems), which are global authoritative reference health manuals.
In more recent studies, it is classified as a phenomenon or experience, that oftentimes come out as a reaction to a particular event or stimuli.
Learning more about Impostor Syndrome, discussing and talking more about our experiences, seeking counsel from a certified mental health professional, challenging negative thoughts, and keeping tabs on our achievements and celebrating wins are just some of the positive and proactive ways of dealing with Impostor Syndrome.
Since it is an experience that seems to occur randomly, there is no absolute way of stopping it, but there are a multitude of ways to cope, seek and provide support to current and potential bearers of this peculiar psychological experience.
Signs of Impostor Syndrome
Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes have concluded after their research that people who go through the impostor phenomenon or experience are very strongly convinced that they do not deserve the success they have achieved.
They fail to acknowledge their own accomplishments despite the presence of obvious evidence that they are responsible for their success.
People battling with an impostor phenomenon can find it debilitating as they’re consistently plagued with deep, incessant negative feelings and beliefs about themselves, even in the midst of any successes.
Researchers Clance and Imer determined the following symptoms as indicators of Impostor Syndrome:
One of the worst things about Impostor Syndrome is the debilitating self-doubt that fuels a constant worry and anxiety of not living up to the expectations of others.
While those in the public’s eye are obvious candidates, it also affects high achievers who aren’t so ‘famous.’ Almost everyone has an audience of some size, even if it is restricted to family or the workplace.
Self-doubt is normal to a moderate extent, but when people consciously avoid handling new and bigger responsibilities that may be key to their growth due to doubt and lack of trust in themselves, then it becomes a destructive force that works against sufferers of impostor syndrome.
People who experience the impostor phenomenon are stuck in a vicious cycle of continually doubting themselves, especially when they experience a success.
Instead of celebrating their wins, they are unreasonably scared of being exposed for what they think they are - a fraud. They find it impossible to own their success positively.
Low Self-Esteem and Confidence
A correlation of impostor syndrome is low self-esteem and low self-confidence. Falling short of the unreasonable standards they set for themselves causes a mix of uneasy emotions, affecting their confidence.
They tend to self-sabotage themselves and deny their competence and worth, despite adequate evidence to the contrary.
Fear of Failure
Their public may see them as good, successful, almost perfect, but to people experiencing impostor phenomenon, their public persona is a false façade, hiding their unnecessary flaws and imperfections.
Due to the very high standards that they feel they must live up to, they are in constant worry of disappointing others and have the greatest fear of failure, and of being seen as one.
Deny Their True Worth and Attribute Success to Luck
When a person who experiences impostor syndrome has an achievement, they believe themselves ‘lucky’ and attribute it to external factors such as outside help or a good network.
Fueled by their impostor feelings and tendencies, they unhealthily deny their worth and true capacity, attributing any sort of victory to outside forces, and never taking credit or seeing the value of their efforts and accomplishments.
Feelings of Depression
Impostorism is intertwined with and can worsen feelings of worry, the tendency to isolate themselves, feeling misunderstood and alone, and is very closely linked to anxiety and depression.
People with impostor syndrome continuously try to achieve more than they have accomplished, in a seemingly endless pursuit of perfection.
The endless pursuit of success and the vicious cycle of impostorism often puts sufferers in a near-constant state of anxiety. They’re never really comfortable with other people because they are afraid of being exposed as a fraud.
They hide behind massive walls of seeming perfection and excellence, and yet are unable to recognize themselves as their own agents of success.
How to Stop Feeling Like A Fraud
Have you ever once felt so concerned by what people will think when they discover that you are a fraud?
You have not committed any criminal act or engaged in intentional deception, and yet, here you are feeling sorry for your inadequacy, and feeling apologetic to others over something you think you are, and feeling worried about being exposed.
It doesn’t even matter where you are or what you’ve accomplished sometimes. The nasty feeling that seems to make us believe that we’re betraying people around us and ‘keeping up appearances,’ seems to creep up on just about everyone at one time or another.
It can happen at work while needlessly comparing ourselves to other people or feeling incompetent at our jobs.
This horrid feeling can happen to anybody, but impostor syndrome has been shown to be more prevalent amongst people considered to be high achievers.
It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of the population (that’s more than half of humanity) experience a feeling of fraudulence at some point in their lives.
We normally don’t go around parading our feelings, announcing to everyone that we feel that we are fake.
In fact, it’s something most people conceal (unless they are asked or made to feel safe enough to confide about it) and that’s what can make it a little tricky to address.
Feeling like an impostor exists alongside feelings of guilt, worry, anxiety, shame, and potentially other negative emotions that hinder us in life.
We often hear good advice like, “be authentic,” “be yourself,” and “be true to who you are,” but this doesn’t make sense to a person with impostor syndrome. There are many ways to help someone beat their feelings of impostorism, but it always starts with awareness.
A person who seems unaware of what they’re feeling and who seems blatantly accepting of this mindset and behavior would be challenging to help.
If you or someone you know is going through Impostor Syndrome, take heart. Here are actions you can undertake to help alleviate the uneasy anxiety behind the feelings of impostor phenomenon.
Talk About It
Whether it’s you or somebody you know going through impostor syndrome, start the healing process by talking about it. If you’re the one who needs help, seek the counsel of a good friend or a health professional if you can’t find someone to trust enough with your sentiments.
If somebody you know has opened up to you, lend an ear to understand the person.
People who experience impostor phenomenon have a tendency to isolate themselves, especially emotionally, due to anxiety and the constant worry of being exposed and called out as a fraud.
But you cannot properly address something that is not acknowledged, right? So this is step one (after becoming self-aware of it, of course).
The impostor phenomenon became known as such as a result of research by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970’s. In more recent studies, impostor phenomenon is not classified as a mental health disorder, but a psychological phenomenon that is triggered by some external circumstances.
Overcoming it entails some knowledge and understanding of what impostorism really is. This knowledge will help alleviate some of the fear and unnecessary worry that may come with the awareness that the phenomenon affects you. With education comes increased objectivity.
This will empower you to address your mindset consciously, and monitor and reflect on your behaviors and emotional responses.
Challenge Negative Thoughts
Feelings of impostorism will be triggered and exacerbated by negative thoughts. Make it a point to mindfully monitor your inner voice and examine your thought patterns.
Challenge your thoughts. Are they rational? Whose voice is behind them?
If your self-talk is supporting the conviction that you’re never good enough, correct that. If you start comparing yourself with others, stop. If you keep aiming for perfection, let go of perfectionism and appreciate your efforts more.
Challenging negative thought patterns is vital to overcoming impostor syndrome.
Document for Posterity and Accountability
People going through impostor syndrome may find it difficult to fully distinguish reality from perception. In order to address that, it’s helpful to find and hold onto tangible evidence of your own accomplishments and successes that help verify reality for you in moments of doubt.
Impostor phenomenon makes it very difficult to acknowledge and accept your own accomplishments and achievements.
Balance this by consistently documenting, for the sake of posterity and accountability, just how far you’ve come to remind yourself of the truth of what you have done.
Some people experience impostorism because they have not yet come to terms with the fact that they can be so powerful in their own right.
You are capable, and more often than not, you are even stronger than you think. You need to start from that belief, and just in case nobody has ever told you yet, truly, you’re a force to be reckoned with.
Different Types of Impostor Syndrome
Dr. Valerie Young wrote the book, ‘The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women’ and classified five different types of impostor experiences, which is what this article will cover.
Here are the different types of impostors she describes and how each type can possibly be overcome.
Perfectionists set excessively high standards for themselves, and when they’re unable to achieve as expected, they experience a vicious cycle of self-doubt, worry, and end up thinking of themselves as inadequate. So too does the ‘impostor.’ Perfectionists need their work to be 100% perfect. Even a hint of imperfection sends them into a spiral of worry, self-doubt, and feelings of inadequacy.
They tend to drive themselves too hard and are never satisfied with their output, always thinking that they could do better. They never stop to appreciate their efforts, even celebrate wins, and tend to end up burned out. They also find it a challenge to delegate tasks to others.
If you’re a perfectionist, you need to relax and realize that the more you strive for perfection, the less you’ll be able to accomplish, because perfection naturally slows you down and can also take a toll on your wellbeing. Give up perfection for progress and excellence.
Experts measure their worth and value according to how much they know. Knowing that they will never acquire enough knowledge and skills, they always need more time to get something done. Deep inside, they fear being exposed as inexperienced. Not knowing enough, or everything about something feels inadequate or even shameful for them.
The expert tends to shy away from applying for jobs where they do not meet or exceed all of the qualifications. Even in the workplace and being in a role for quite some time, experts feel like they still do not know enough. They keep seeking out training, finding comfort in hoarding knowledge instead of applying it.
For ‘experts,’ mentorship is a great way to give back and to prove to themselves how much they know. Sharing of knowledge is much better than hoarding and monopoly of it. Trust in what you already know, and in your ability to thrive in the face of new information.
The natural genius takes pride in learning new things with ease and great speed. They judge their competence based on how fast and easy they’re able to appear to master a skill. If they take a longer time than usual to accomplish something, they doubt themselves and feel inadequate.
Natural geniuses care much more about the destination than the journey, and they’re also conscious of timing. They expect to always get things right the first time. It’s hard for them to move past their comfort zone and be exposed to challenges with unpredictable outcomes.
Try measuring success based on efforts, not on speed and ease. It’s impossible for a person to be great at everything (instantly). Some things worth knowing can take more time and effort, but they’re absolutely worth it. Open yourself up to new challenges, instead of shying away from unpredictable scenarios.
The soloist is also known as the rugged individualist. These type of ‘impostors’ find great comfort in their own company, prefer to work alone, and believe that asking for help can reveal their incompetence and is a sign of weakness.
They care about who completes the task and it’s gotta be them. Soloists frown at the thought of asking for help, or even allowing anybody else on their boat. To them, asking for help is a sign of failure and signifies shame, not measuring up, and total unworthiness.
It’s good for soloists to reframe their thought patter - asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a vital skill that anybody needs to master in order to thrive. It is far more noble and productive to ask for help than overdriving yourself needlessly, wasting precious time and effort, when something could be done with greater ease if you simply asked for help at first.
Superman / Superwoman
The superhero a.k.a. superman or superwoman is another person who feels like an impostor. They are the classic workaholics who drive themselves insanely hard. They seem to constantly work and work harder than everybody else as a means to cover up insecurities.
The superhero impostors are driven by the validation that they get from the impression of constantly working, not even the work itself. Due to overwork, they can tend to burn out easily.
Try to veer away from external validation and focus on validating your own efforts and value you deliver. If you know yourself well, focus on your strengths and develop them; you’ll realize that it’s even more productive and healthier to say no sometimes. Make your own life a priority, not your work.
Overcoming Impostorism in the Age of Social Media
We live in the golden age of information a.k.a. the digital age. A constant influx of information reminds us that knowledge is at our fingertips at any given time.
We have never been more overwhelmed with information and data in history than today, and we have also never been more aware in a collective sense, about the most relevant (a subjective term) or current issues of the day.
It’s the self-appointed job of social media to badger us all day with trending information online that is very difficult to ignore, except when we take steps to do so intentionally.
One way or another, with the right digital strategy, any content can be made highly visible around the globe, and this poses both the most amazing benefits and potentially the greatest threats for our awareness and mental health.
It is also due to the inevitability of social media in our lives today that most people have a keener awareness of mental health than was previously common, one aspect of which is the growing concern about impostor syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome is not classified as a mental health disorder, but it is defined as a psychological phenomenon, one that causes people to unreasonably fear being exposed as a fraud. This term was originally coined by clinical psychologists as an identified pattern of behavior that is common amongst highly successful people.
Despite having strong and visible evidence of their accomplishments, affected individuals fail to validate their worth, and are plagued with a persistent belief that they do not deserve the success they’re experiencing.
Impostor syndrome can happen to anyone, regardless of age, social status, or gender. Impostor syndrome has been determined largely to be a reaction to certain external circumstances, and there are potential triggers that can make its occurrence more likely.
One recently-evolved trigger that is seen as a high-risk factor for impostor syndrome is the virtual reality of social media.
These are some of the ways that social media can increase the occurrence and heighten the effects of impostor syndrome:
Social media can put people under increased pressure to succeed and reach their highest potential. But with this increased public scrutiny, will remaining authentic and embracing imperfections be possible too?
Social media encourages people to create a social media image and online reputation that may feel detached from the real person behind the profile.
Social media encourages constant comparisons and triggers impostor syndrome.
Counter feelings of impostor syndrome caused by social media with these suggestions:
This gives a sense of belongingness and support to make you realize that you are not alone.
This is all the more important if it triggers uneasy feelings of insecurity, comparison, and negativity.
Prioritize your relationships outside social media.
A mentor can guide and motivate you with their own similar experiences. Also, take steps to develop a stronger offline influence to balance your online persona. This can act as a circuit-breaker to disrupt you from putting all of your energy there.
If the previous suggestions aren’t helping to overcome feelings related to impostor syndrome, outside help may be needed. Seek the counsel of those who are professionally trained to help you restore your emotional balance and trust in your self-worth.
Recent studies have put a stop to the claim that impostorism only haunts women, as it is currently regarded to be common amongst all demographics.
There is no doubt that at one time or another, pretty well everyone has felt unworthy of praise or accolades for an achievement. Maybe the success came too easy, maybe luck played a part.
Perhaps there was some truth in any or all of the reasons for feeling that way. When that applies to a singular or occasional experience, well, that is life, and we move on.
However, problems ensue when that feeling extrapolates itself to a degree where it is the ‘normal’. When there is an unshakeable feeling of anxiety relating to a fear of being ‘found out’, yet there is no evidence of deceit, this is not emotionally healthy.
If this describes you, then hopefully what you have just read will give comfort – firstly, that you are in the best of company feeling as you do, and secondly, that it is possible to alleviate these damaging feelings.