Impostor Syndrome Happens to the Best of Us
I have been scared of writing for years, but I didn’t always feel this way. When I was in elementary school, I wrote compulsively: plays, short stories, poetry, even the start of a novel. I read voraciously, and all the public librarians knew me by name. My parents left me to my own devices but made proud reports to friends and family of my prolific output.
As I got older, more people took notice of my writing skills and offered suggestions for how my ability could be best put to use. Teachers, family, friends, partners: everyone had an opinion. Journalism, law school, literary translation, the next great American novel!
Over the years, my personal writing projects grew fewer and farther between. Whenever I had a story idea, I either dismissed it or felt paralyzed within a few minutes of starting to write: what if it wasn’t as good as everyone expected it to be?
I had lost my original motivation for writing, the pleasure of writing for its own sake, and had instead become fixated on fulfilling other people’s expectations.
When I did manage to write something, people sang my praises. But I deflected their words of encouragement and continued to feel inadequate . . . like I was perpetually on the brink of disappointing everyone.
What I didn’t realize until recently was that this experience of feeling like a fraud despite proven success is well-researched and even has a name: impostor syndrome.
If you struggle with impostor syndrome, shrugging off your success or abilities is probably old hat for you. Do the following situations sound at all familiar?
You receive positive feedback on a recent accomplishment. Maybe a higher-up at work congratulates you on a job well done. Or a friend compliments you on reaching a personal goal. Instead of simply saying “thank you,” you immediately offer an explanation for why your work is not in fact so impressive.
“The timing was right; I got lucky.” Or, “It’s not a big deal. I could have done it a long time ago if I’d just put my mind to it.”
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
Generally speaking, it’s the anxiety felt by high-achieving individuals who are unable to internalize their success for a variety of reasons—whether that be because of a hidden agenda, indirect motivation, or living with a substitute sense of Self.
Commonly expressed sentiments include the certainty that others overestimate your abilities, fear of being exposed as incompetent, and feeling like a fraud. Negative self-talk runs rampant among “impostors.” Compliments from others may, rather than boosting your morale and self-esteem, leave you feeling overwhelmed with a disquieting sense of self-doubt.
You may or may not have already known that there’s a term for those feelings of uncertainty and phoniness. The phrase “impostor syndrome” has been around for nearly 40 years, and it’s a trending topic in the professional world right now.
A quick search will result in a slew of articles offering practical tips on how to overcome the impostor syndrome.
But before you set your sights on eradicating impostorism from your life, it may be helpful to take a step back and examine this “fraud syndrome” at a critical distance for what it really is: not a mental disorder nor a gender-specific phenomenon, but an individual and societal malaise.
Impostorism is not a standalone problem. It often intersects with other chronic manifestations of a low sense of self-worth, including self-handicapping and defensive pessimism (more on both later). When you live with a lack of sense of Self, you may experience all three.
Here are some general insights to help you better understand the nature of the imposter syndrome and manage your feelings of impostorism.
Impostor syndrome is not a “syndrome.”
Self-help lingo is everywhere these days, and impostor syndrome has become something of a buzzword. What do you think of when you hear the words “syndrome” or “disorder”? Maybe that something’s kaput up in the old noggin? That what you’re grappling with right now is a challenge that by its very nature lies beyond your immediate control?
Impostor syndrome is not labeled as a clinical disorder, but a Lack of Sense of Self isn’t recognized as such either. It is about time the importance of a healthy sense of Self is taken seriously by academia. Impostor phenomenon is one of the more well-researched conditions that address the same questions explored by the Healthy Sense of Self (HySoS) method created by Antoinetta Vogels.
In 1978, professors Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes titled their groundbreaking paper “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women,” and the official term is still “impostor phenomenon.” Their research suggested that the feelings of inadequacy and doubt associated with impostorism are recurring for many people, and moreover, are difficult to measure quantitatively and cannot be diagnosed or treated. But as Clance explained years later, she would in retrospect have gone even further and called it an “impostor experience,” as further research has revealed it to be a common condition, regardless of profession or gender.
The HySoS method considers impostor phenomenon to be the result of a lifelong Indirect Motivation that refuses to remain hidden. If you suffer from impostor syndrome, it may be because deep down you do not believe in yourself. In fact, you may not even be present in yourself and your life. So far you have managed to keep up appearances . . . but this has come at the expense of a true connection to your personhood and the sacrifice of your Direct Motivation.
Once you become aware of your impostor experience, it’d be wise to take it as a serious symptom that stems from a deeper problem, one that needs to be solved as soon as possible, so you can finally own your life and shape it the way you want.
Impostor phenomenon is not exclusive to women.
Clance initially observed impostor syndrome to be exclusive to women who had achieved a certain level of professional success. Since then, subsequent studies have failed to demonstrate that impostorism is experienced more frequently by women than by men.
A study published in the International Journal of Behavior Science indicates that up to 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives.
Contrary to some pop psychology assertions, women are not “wired” to feel inadequate or have lower self-esteem than men. Isn’t it empowering to recognize that impostor phenomenon is not a gendered experience? At the same time, that doesn’t mean that women and men deal with it in the same way.
Given women’s historical lack of structural power, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that as women move into fields and positions traditionally dominated by men, we react differently to the challenges and uncertainties we encounter.
Psychoanalysis holds that when we develop our concept of self, we simultaneously accept the concept of the Other—the object, in the form of a “lesser” person, which is necessary to the existence of the subject. In many societies, man is the subject, active and independent, while a woman is an object, passive and valuable only in her relation to the subject.
A woman, though, does not inherently recognize herself as an “object.” Before a girl becomes aware of her place in society, she is just as likely as a boy to exercise her independence.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir proposes that woman, rather than identifying (in a psychoanalytic sense) with either a masculine or feminine model, more accurately “[hesitates] between the role of object, Other which is offered her, and the assertion of her liberty.” Given this context, can impostor phenomenon be interpreted as a form of hesitation in women who break status quo?
Men self-handicap differently than women do.
As mentioned earlier, impostor phenomenon is often accompanied by additional manifestations of insecurity. This is not to say that everyone who engages in self-handicapping is an essentially insecure person; in fact, the higher a person’s self-esteem, the more likely they are to engage in self-handicapping to protect their ego.
Examples of self-handicapping entail blaming external circumstances for one’s failure to succeed or otherwise meet expectations. Just as sufferers of impostor phenomenon attribute their success to external factors, so do they tend to attribute failure to conditions beyond their control.
Self-handicapping is further broken down into behavioral self-handicapping.
Behavioral self-handicapping includes things like drinking heavily the night before a test or interview and then blaming poor performance on the hangover. Claimed self-handicapping falls more along the lines of complaining about anxiety or feeling under the weather before the same test or interview.
Behavioral self-handicapping as a defense mechanism is an essentially premeditated form of self-sabotage, while claimed self-handicapping is more a vocalization of one’s perceived shortcomings—a kind of insurance just in case things go badly.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicated that across cultures and countries, men report higher self-esteem levels than women. Furthermore, studies on the relationship between self-esteem and self-handicapping reveal that men behaviorally self-handicap far more often than women do.
Does this mean that all women have low self-esteem, or that women never self-handicap?
Of course not; women resort to claimed self-handicapping just as often as men. But when it comes to protecting our sense of self-worth, women tend to employ a different set of mechanisms, including defensive pessimism.
While self-handicapping entails under-preparing for a task, defensive pessimism involves the opposite: over-preparation. In imagining and planning for the worst-case scenario, a defensive pessimist employs a kind of creative visualization to avoid failure in every way possible.
Also known as negative thinking, defensive pessimism can be a constructive if laborious way to deal with anxiety. In fact, many articles even list over-preparing as a tip for dealing with impostor syndrome itself.
You cannot always eradicate impostorism, but you can use it to your advantage.
If you’re trying to figure out how to cure impostor syndrome, you’re not alone, but you’ll be searching for answers for a long time. As mentioned earlier, the imposter experience is par for the course for most adults.
When you’re at the start of your career . . . looking up at people who have “arrived,” you might be thinking that they were only able to do so because of their boundless self-confidence and courage. But in reality, impostor syndrome is not something that abates as your success grows. It’s an ever-present element.
Many successful women regularly grapple with impostorism. Tina Fey, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and other public figures report experiencing a nagging sense of self-doubt throughout their careers, even at the moment of their peak accomplishments.
Impostor Syndrome as a Valuable Tool
In this article’s title, “to overcome” does not imply ridding yourself of impostorism for life. As you continue to grow and move beyond your comfort zone, you will run up against the imposter experience time and again. In such a context, the act of overcoming entails getting to know your true feelings and desires and not succumbing to old thought patterns when you start feeling like a fraud.
Impostors generally feel that their knowledge and skills are inadequate for the task at hand, and while this isn’t always true, that trepidation can actually work to your advantage. When you enter a situation not feeling entirely sure of yourself, adopting a learning mindset is much easier to do than when you are overconfident in your abilities.
And when you learn how to embrace failure, you can also begin to accept mistakes not as signs of your inadequacy, but as an inevitable and positive part of the learning process.
In the face of uncertainty and self-doubt, do not reframe and rationalize—instead, act.
Reframing your behavior or feelings is not the same thing as changing your behavior. Whether you reframe or choose to change is a choice you make every time you encounter failure or uncertainty. Self-handicapping is a prime example of rationalizing and excusing one’s behavior and shortcomings, both to oneself and to others.
Let’s return to Simone de Beauvoir for our last insight on impostor syndrome, this time on a more personal level in a refreshing and provocative article by Dr. Sandy Grant from the University of Cambridge. As a young student debating philosophy with Sartre, Beauvoir realized she understood less than she had initially assumed. Her arguments torn apart by the shrewd analysis of her older peer, Beauvoir remarked:
“After so many years of arrogant solitude, it was something serious to discover that I wasn’t the One and Only, but one among many, by no means first, and suddenly uncertain of my true capacity.”
This expression of self-doubt surely sounds familiar to high-achievers suffering from impostor syndrome. But instead of wallowing in her uncertainty or finding excuses to shore up her ego, Beauvoir made the choice to address her shortcomings and take full advantage of her environment and the intellectual prowess of her peers to change herself into the philosopher she yearned to be.
It does not suffice to see things differently—you must do things differently.
Reframing your weaknesses so that they appear beyond your control will only hurt you in the long run. If you want to escape the vicious circle of the imposter experience and restore your Sense of Self you will have to muster the courage to investigate the scope of your dependency on other people’s opinion about you and take the actions you then will discover you must take in order to change.
The best way to avoid self-handicapping is to eschew your tired old excuses and take responsibility for your Self. And the best way to overcome the impostor syndrome is to reject the “everyone feels that way, so you’ll be okay” advice—or at least take it with a grain of salt—and develop the self-awareness that will help you make the decisions that are best for you.
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