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Impostor syndrome; what it is and how to overcome it

We all experience self-doubt from time to time. Maybe you got promoted to a senior role after just 1 year of being a junior, or, got a new job in a fancy, big firm. Feelings of inadequacy may hit you with thoughts like “are my sure I can do this?”, “Oh man, I’m going to fail woefully”, “I’ll be fired in a week!”

For some, those feelings of inadequacy are much more serious and frequent. They persistently feel like a complete fraud, undeserving of success, irrespective of their skills or talent. They doubt or completely forget the previous achievements that earned them the “big break”. This psychological phenomenon is called impostor syndrome. It was first used by psychologists, Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s.

Impostor syndrome definition

So, what is this “Impostor syndrome”? 

It occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

– The American Psychological Association

In simpler terms, impostor syndrome is defined as a persistent feeling of self-doubt that makes people underestimate their skills, abilities and achievements leading to them feeling like liars, fakes or impostors.

Naturally, new challenges can make even the best of us cringe but impostor syndrome makes people feel undeserving irrespective of how talented and skilled they are. Even superstars experience this feeling. For example, Lupita Nyongo’o, an oscar-winning actress has spoken about having acute impostor syndrome a number of times. In an interview with Time Magazine, she said “I go through it with every role. I think winning an Oscar may in fact have made it worse. Now I’ve achieved this, what am I going to do next? What do I strive for? Then I remember that I didn’t get into acting for the accolades, I got into it for the joy of telling stories.”

Causes of impostor syndrome

While impostor syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis with a defined set of causes. Psychologists and researchers have attributed it to upbringing, personality traits, and expectations.

Upbringing

Man talking to son

Children that are brought up to feel like they are not allowed to make mistakes or fail, often struggle with impostor syndrome as adults. Having been brought up to always succeed and surpass expectations, they may develop intense feelings of self-doubt when faced with difficult situations. If they successfully overcome those situations, they may attribute it to luck rather than their abilities and preparation. To them, success has always come naturally and having to put in extra effort means they are impostors.

Personality traits

Impostor syndrome is often seen among perfectionists. They set very high standards for themselves and if they are unable to meet them, they feel like failures. For example, if during a job interview, they didn’t answer a question sufficiently but still got the job, they may think they just were lucky. Feelings of being a fraud or a fake may overwhelm them.

Expectations

Societal expectations can also make people experience impostor syndrome rather frequently. Certain professional positions or expectations from personal relationships can put pressure on people and make them feel not good enough even though they are.

Overcoming impostor syndrome

Good news is, impostor syndrome can be overcome. How?

  • Acknowledge your feelings: Accept that the feelings you have are real but you don’t have to stay there. You feel doubt, fear and other negative feelings because of a big break, a speaking engagement, a promotion, etc. It’s important for you to accept what and how you feel. This is the first step to working it out and overcoming it.
  • Internalise your achievements: Take account of your achievements and believe you got them because of your skills, work, reputation, abilities and talents. Recall the sleepless nights and all the hard work you put into them. Accept them as YOUR achievements and be proud of them.
  • Talk to someone: Seek to speak to a professional. Tell them how you feel and allow them to help you. 
  • Challenge negative thoughts: When negative thoughts come, don’t just accept them. Speak to yourself, and challenge those negative thoughts with positive thoughts such as “I deserve it!” “I am good enough.”

Wrap Up

Impostor syndrome affects the best of us and we all feel it at one point or the other. Therefore, it’s important that while we remain humble, we appreciate our efforts and accept our successes. YOU DESERVE THAT BIG BREAK.

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