The imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony.
Editor’s note: This is part one of this productivity emotional intelligence series.
Imagine you just walked into a meeting room with five other people. One of them is a self-described “Perfectionist,” followed by “The Expert,” “The Soloist,” “The Genius.” and lastly, “The “Super person.” Chances are you know someone who fits the last type, the individual who does it all. Balance work, life, marriage, children, and keep all the juggling balls from falling to the floor.
While each one of these archetypes is competent, respected, and highly accomplished, they also walked into that room feeling inadequate, doubting their abilities, and carrying a fear of being exposed as a fraud. Sadly, they are not alone and share this in common with many overachievers. Not a disease or disorder, this feeling is classified as Imposter Syndrome.
To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony; any moment you are going to be “found out.” It is a frequent, painful sentiment that you don’t belong and ascended your career ladder through dumb luck.
The back story
This term came to light in the 1970’s through the work of two psychologists named Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. Through continued research and examination, they concluded it afflicts men and women equally and is as prevalent today as it was then. They also determined it frequently occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. Their work further led them to observe that many people who feel like impostors grew up in families that emphasized achievement. Specifically, parents who sent mixed messages — alternating between over-praise and criticism —increasing the risk that one day those children will grow up with that affliction. Flash forward to their adult lives, societal pressures and social comparison fuel the flames and further accelerate Imposter Syndrome.
While it is difficult to predict the behaviors or impact on any individual who feels it, one common thread is a sensation of constant anxiety. Worried that the day will finally come when others will “find out I’m nothing but a fraud,” it leads to a vicious cycle to continually question, “How did I get through that presentation, meeting, or speech?” Although you may have performed to others’ highest professional standards, your internal signals tell a different story. Frequently, the more you accomplish, the greater amount of self-questioning surfaces, leading to more apprehension that the day will come when someone accuses you of being an imposter.
Though Imposter Syndrome is not an official diagnosis, psychologists acknowledge it is a form of intellectual self-doubt. When not confronted, the constant tug and fear of being exposed leads to hopelessness and, in severe cases, depression. Many who experience Imposter Syndrome tend not to discuss their feelings, bottling up the anxiety as they struggle to make sense of it all. Even worse, the amount of energy burned striving to maintain mental balance diminishes their capacity to focus on being productive at work, mounting even more worry.
Caught between the desire to be prosperous and the fear of achieving success, this can be agonizing and exhausting.
While there is no single cause of Imposter Syndrome, the distress may be indicative of fears like making a mistake or dealing with a problem that has no clear solution. Learning to condition yourself to accept that discomfort and imperfection can help overcome the fears that may prevent you from climbing to greater success. It can stifle your potential for growth and inhibit you from pursuing new and exciting opportunities.
While it can afflict anyone, experts have linked specific personality traits to feelings of Imposter Syndrome. These include perfectionist tendencies, low self-confidence, or the need for constant validation. This mindset of feeling “less than” can also lead to and reinforce the belief that you don’t belong in your professional environment. No matter the cause, the effects of Imposter Syndrome can feel insurmountable. After all, how do you wrestle with self-doubt while your community is also signaling that you don’t belong. Unfortunately, there is no one treatment plan for imposter syndrome. Moving past continual feelings of inadequacy requires persistent mindfulness and cognitive behavior strategies.
Hence, in our next segment of the “Dealing with Imposter Syndrome” series, we will provide tactics and tips to confront it and set you on a path to conquer it once and for all.