They say the darkest spot is behind the most luminous portion of the bulb. Those who burn the brightest in their field and display exceptional skills in their chosen craft often ironically doubt their skills the most in their quiet moments. Sounds unbelievable? Well, it’s true, and there is a term for when one feels unworthy or incapable of the adulation and admiration they are showered with. They dread that their “cover” will be blown off and their “mediocrity” will be exposed.
Imposter syndrome is the term given to this state of mind. Though it doesn’t come under the ambit of a diagnosable mental illness, psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance coined this term in the 1970s. It refers to the feeling of undeserved recognition and disbelief in one’s abilities despite possessing numerous accolades that testify to the veracity of the same, especially in high-achieving women. In the following text, we will attempt to deconstruct the root causes of this phenomenon, its signs and symptoms, and how to overcome low self-esteem caused by imposter feelings.
What Exactly is It?
The Collins English Dictionary defines an impostor as “Someone who is dishonestly pretending to be someone else in order to gain an advantage.” In the current context, those who experience imposter syndrome suffer from an unfounded fear of getting exposed as a fraud despite putting in the hard work.
A precursor to developing anxiety and depression, feelings of self-doubt have been recognized as a significant issue in high achievers who tend to have perfectionist tendencies. Notably, eminent personalities like Albert Einstein, Serena Williams, Jennifer Lopez, and even Tom Hanks have acknowledged this feeling of inadequacy. Those who feel like imposters are known to set highly challenging goals for themselves and feel disappointed when they cannot achieve them. Let’s have a look at the different types of imposter syndrome.
- The Expert: Those who feel that they aren’t privy to every step of a process or don’t know everything that there is to know about a particular subject. They shy away from the tag of being labeled as an “expert” in their field of calling despite having the requisite skills.
- The Perfectionist: As the word explains, there is room for improvement unless you are correct! No amount of effort counts unless you hit the bull’s eye; in an all-or-none game, you either take the trophy home or your participation doesn’t count!
- The Natural Genius: You are either born with the skills or if you take time to learn a particular skill, you won’t ever be good at it! This is what goes on in the mind of the natural genius.
- The Soloist: A one-person army, they feel the need to be competent in the requisite skill by themselves. If they need another person’s help to accomplish a task, they qualify as fraud!
- The Superperson: This category of those plagued by impostor syndrome feel they must be either the hardest worker in the room or the highest achiever in the field. If they fail to do so, they are never really skilled!
Examples of Imposter Syndrome
Here’s what feeling like an imposter looks like:
- You feel that you won’t be truly successful because, covertly, you hold the belief that you don’t have it in you to succeed.
- You harbor a fear of meeting someone else’s expectations because you feel you might never be able to match those!
- When somebody reminds you of your past achievements and accolades, you brush it off as luck.
- You have set such high standards for yourself that you feel you won’t be able to live up to them every time and are thus an imposter.
- When someone praises your merits, you feel unworthy of the compliments as you feel that you lack substance.
- You seem to be under constant pressure to outperform yourself every single time to stay relevant.
Sounds familiar? Well, it looks like we have some inner work to do, my friend!
What are the Signs and Symptoms?
It is important to understand the characteristics and the giveaway signs so that you can break the patterns and begin to believe in the true power of your innate abilities. The following are the symptoms to watch out for:
- Spotting and breaking the “impostor cycle”: When you begin a task with either procrastination followed by bursts of activity or a whole lot of intensive over-preparation. This may be followed by a huge wave of relief after successful task completion, only to re-experience similar phases of anxiety when faced with similar tasks. This is a pattern that needs to be fixed.
- You tend to attribute your success to factors other than your intrinsic abilities – such as luck, charm, and networking.
- You believe that you have fooled others into “believing” in your skill set and that someday your fraud will come to light.
- You overachieve, yet you tend to self-sabotage your success.
- You suffer from an inherent sense of self-doubt and fear that you won’t be able to live up to expectations.
If that sounds like something you would say to yourself, let’s move on to discovering the causes behind such thoughts and the impact of such beliefs on different spheres of one’s life.
The causes of impostor syndrome are manifold and can be attributed to a plethora of factors ranging from family upbringing to societal expectations and validations. Let’s decode the impact of some of them in the paragraphs that follow:
- Upbringing and family dynamics: The classic role of nature and nurture plays a hand in molding an individual’s beliefs about their skills and abilities. If you were raised in an environment where over-achieving was the norm, and anything less than that didn’t make the cut, you might grow up to be an adult suffering from self-doubt and inadequacy. Also, research has linked overprotective and controlling parenting styles with a definite link with developing imposter syndrome later in life. Those of us who grew up in strife-ridden homes where conflict was the norm with little or negligible emotional support are also predisposed to develop a lack of belief in one’s own abilities.
- Hitherto unexplored opportunities at work or in school: Change is never easy, especially if going through a transition phase, such as from school to college or switching career choices. The inherent pressure to achieve academic excellence or professional accolades coupled with prior inexperience can trigger feelings of being a fraud in the best of us!
- Individual personality traits: Certain personality traits like a low sense of self-efficacy, self-belief, and self-esteem combined with neuroticism and the tendency for perfectionism can set the stage for developing feelings of anxiety and inadequacy when presented with new tasks or something that one hasn’t tried before despite having the requisite skill set.
- Pre-existing Social Anxiety: Those with social anxiety often suffer from a lack of belonging in unfamiliar social setups. When stuck in such situations, they rush through performance-based tasks such as delivering presentations so that they get it done before someone can discover their incompetence.
It is no secret that people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other identities within the LGBTQ+ spectrum often face unique challenges in their lives. In addition to the usual stressors and difficulties that all people experience, they...
How it Might Impact Your Life
Many among us who silently attribute our achievements to luck and chance instead of our innate talent and hard work choose not to speak about it to others for fear of getting exposed as an imposter. Let’s see how these feelings negatively impact the different spheres of our lives:
- Professional life: In our professional endeavors, if we tend to attribute our success to extrinsic factors such as luck or chance, we may never be able to muster the courage to ask for a pay raise or a long-due appraisal because we intrinsically do not believe in the value we bring to the table and therefore do not fight for the remuneration that we deserve.
- Academic Endeavors: Students or children who have a perfectionist mindset may refrain from asking questions that seem silly or may unveil their perceived lack of competence.
- Interpersonal Relationships: If you believe you are inherently unworthy of your partner’s love, you may have trouble articulating your emotional needs. Also, in the case of parenting, parents may doubt their own readiness to raise a child and thereby display indecisiveness for fear of making decisions that may “spoil” their child’s life.
These feelings of not knowing enough or not being capable enough can snowball into other mental health conditions with time, such as anxiety and depression. These can be exacerbated by the negative prerogatives and tones set by imposter syndrome.
Now that we are familiar with the repercussions of harboring feelings of inadequacy in our skillset over different facets of our life, let’s move over to ways by which we can cope with the situation and effectively rebuild our self-esteem.
Ways You Can Cope
To break free of the cycle of self-deprecating thoughts and patterns that hinder our ability to enjoy the fruits of our labor, it is essential to sit with our emotions, acknowledge them, and then take baby steps toward fixing what needs to be fixed.
- Keep reminders of your worth and skill set at hand. Be it an email from your boss or colleague praising your work on a recent project or soft copies of your certificates from inter-school debate competitions, keep them within hand reach so that you can glance at them occasionally whenever you need to reinforce your belief in your skillset.
- Learn to separate facts from emotions. You can be your best friend when feelings of inadequacy creep in. Mentally prepare yourself for their advent and then segregate reality from negative self-talk and feelings of inadequacy as you reinforce your belief in your tried and tested abilities.
- Quit comparing your success with that of others. Everyone has their own timelines, and people can be selective about what they put up for consumption on social media. Don’t let others’ “selective highlights” on social media platforms make you view your situation from a negative perspective.
- Understand that those who impersonate others or are fake rarely acknowledge themselves as one. So the fact that you doubt your genuine abilities is a sign that you are not an imposter!
- Open up to trusted friends and family members or seek a therapist. Discussing how you feel with those who have seen you grow and have seen you accomplish accolades in the journey of life will have the patience and the empathy to help you see yourself in a better, brighter, and truer light! If you feel that you don’t have someone to open up to, you can always consider conversing with a therapist to unravel the burden of doubts you have been carrying.
- Carry out a realistic assessment of your abilities. In order to break long-standing beliefs about your abilities (or the perceived lack of them), sit with a pen and paper and make a realistic assessment of the proof of your achievements that stand testimony to your innate skill set.
On that note, let’s delve into when to seek professional help from trusted therapists to break patterns where you could do with some guidance.
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