Have you ever felt like you were tricking everyone into believing you are capable of being where you are? Fret not; you are not alone. You might be experiencing the Impostor Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon constituting an internal experience of believing that you are not as capable as you are perceived to be, despite evidence that suggests otherwise. With time, these feelings of consistent incompetency and inadequacy may also lead to anxiety, depression, and chronic guilt. (Cuncic, 2021) In this blog, I examine the Impostor Syndrome, how it limits high-achievers and how you can defeat your inner critic.
Simply put, impostor syndrome is the experience of feeling like a fraud or a phony, as if your achievements are the result of serendipitous luck and not your skills, hard work, or determination. This phenomenon was first identified by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Their paper titled ‘The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women’ theorized that women were uniquely affected by Impostor Syndrome. However, it gradually became common knowledge that it generally affects people, usually high achievers, from all walks of life. They interviewed 150 high-achieving women, recognized for their professional excellence and academic achievement. However, they lacked internal acknowledgment of their success, despite consistent external validation. They explained that they succeeded due to luck and that they will be ‘exposed’ soon as their peers or employers will ‘see through’ their achievements. Clance and Imes thus came to define impostor syndrome as an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness. The mental framework for impostor syndrome developed from various factors that include but are not limited to gender stereotypes, early family experiences, and attribution style (Clance also created an impostor syndrome test). Research and studies focusing their attention on this topic have since then exploded, yielding invaluable information including the fact that more than 70% of people experience it, at least once in their lifetime. (Sakulku and Alexander, 2011)
In her widely acclaimed book, ‘The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It’, Dr. Valerie Young builds on the existing research on this psychological phenomenon. She identified with the feeling of being an ‘imposter’ herself and designed exercises to help people recognize this pattern. Emerging from these exercises were the five competence types, each with their unique focus on what it means to be competent- The Perfectionist, the Expert, the Soloist, the Natural Genius, and the Superwoman/man. All these types have two common threads- a high bar of rigidly set expectations and any minute failure being chalked up to incompetence. Coming to terms with your experience of feeling like a phony can be challenging. However, by identifying your competency type, you are already halfway there in addressing it.
If more than 70% experience these feelings of inadequacy, there must be some common traits or environmental factors that make people susceptible to it, right? Research suggests that this question does not have a simple answer. While some researchers believe it has to do with traits like perfectionism (Clance, 1985; Thompson et al., 1998; Thompson et al., 2000; Ferrari & Thompson, 2006), others think family and behavioral factors (Bussotti, 1990; Clance, 1985; King & Cooley, 1995; Sonnak & Towell, 2001) are responsible. Experiences like parents going back and forth between giving praise and being extremely critical and constantly comparing the achievements of siblings can also lead to the feeling of being an ‘impostor’. These experiences also primarily constitute the reasons behind impostor syndrome among the young, leading them to believe that they are an ‘utter failure’ or that they ‘need to know absolutely everything’, which results in them being too harsh on themselves and being highly critical. (Weir, 2013)
Clance (1985) proposed a model to describe the ‘impostor cycle’. (Craig, Para 3, 2018) When an individual faces an achievement-related task, they experience anxiety, self-doubt, and worry, which may lead to over preparation or procrastination, or both. Upon accomplishment, the success is attributed to either high effort (in the case of over-preparation) or luck (in the case of procrastination). The individual also experiences relief on receipt of positive feedback. However, this feedback is often discounted, acting as a reinforcement. This leads to the intensification of the feelings of being ‘fraudulent’.
Clance’s model is extremely valuable as it presents various intervening points where the cycle can be broken. Lydia Craig, the industrial-organizational representative to the APA Science Student Council, suggests many such strategies of intervening and breaking the cycle. Reframing the task as an opportunity to learn instead of perceiving it as a challenge you need to overcome to prove yourself is an essential first step. Upon accomplishment of a difficult task, you should allow yourself to soak in the positive feedback. If you constantly find yourself attributing your success to luck, introspect about the hard work you have done. (Craig, 2018) Here is an idea that could help in the weak moments wherein the feelings of inadequacy and being a ‘fraud’ overpower all other instincts: make a ‘praise’ folder in your mailbox and sort all the mails containing positive feedback or compliments from your peers/employers. You can always go through this folder and feel the relief of having done good work in the past. This, among the many other intervention strategies that you can use, will instill the belief that people are not lying to you to make you feel better and that you deserve to feel good about your successes.
The Impostor Syndrome is a harrowing experience. If you feel like an ‘impostor’, you remind yourself that you attribute some degree of your success to luck, which is not true. Understanding and using Clance’s Impostor Cycle model will be crucial for an intervention to break the cycle and beat your harsh inner critic. Even though it is not a diagnosable condition, you can seek professional support from therapists who will alleviate the feelings of chronic self-doubt and the distress that follows, consequently increasing the strength you draw from your capabilities. Remember, this experience cannot stop you from achieving high, and you can beat the impostor cycle!
- Abrams, A. (2018, June 20). Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here’s How to Deal With It. Time. https://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/
- Craig, L. (2018). Are you suffering from imposter syndrome? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2018/09/imposter-syndrome
- Cuncic, A. (2021, February 26). How to Stop Feeling Like an Outsider When You Have Social Anxiety. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder4156469#:~:text=Impostor%20syndrome%20(IS)%20refers%20to,perfectionism%20and%20the%20social%20context
- Impostor Syndrome: Facing Fears of Inadequacy and Self-Doubt. (2020). Mind Tools. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/overcoming-impostor-syndrome.htm
- Mandarin, T. (2020, May 13). Imposter syndrome is a growing problem for young people. The Mandarin. https://www.themandarin.com.au/133395-imposter-syndrome-is-a-growing-problem-for-young-people/#:%7E:text=Impostor%20syndrome%20in%20students%20and%20young%20professionals&text=Broadly%2C%20however%2C%20young%20people%20suffering,is%20pushing%20students%20to%20compete.
- Sakulku J, Alexander J. (2011) The imposter phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science. 2011;6(1):73-92.https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521/pdf
- Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud