Have you ever felt like your success was a fluke? Have you been worried about being discovered as an ‘impostor’, when other people find out that you don’t have the skills or talents that they think you have?
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor Syndrome was identified in 1978 by two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Their paper (1) stated that it “appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women”. They also stated that it was not seen as frequently in men, and the men who did have Impostor Syndrome had it in a less intense form.
However, later research indicated that this was not the case – men and women were equally likely to experience impostor feelings (2). Today, Impostor Syndrome can apply to anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes,” says psychologist Audrey Ervin. It can affect anyone – students, full-time parents, CEOs, and junior staff. It’s not classified as a mental illness, but can cause considerable distress.
Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247.
What causes Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor Syndrome can be a reaction to your circumstances – you may not experience it in all areas of your life. If you tend towards being a perfectionist, anxious, neurotic, fear failure, or underplay your achievements, then some experts would say that you are more prone to this syndrome.
If you grew up in a family that valued and emphasised achievement, and if your parents sent mixed messages — alternating between over-praise and criticism — Imes said that this can increase the risk of feeling like a fraud (3). Pressure from society can also add to this, e.g., for people from minority groups (or who are in a minority in their chosen job) and feel fear or anxiety over being ‘found out’ as an imposter due to possible stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.
The Impostor Syndrome can have negative effects on one or more areas of your life. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and depression. It can become a cycle, states Imes (3). People expend tremendous amounts of energy and become stressed in order to do a task well and avoid being “found out as a fraud”. When this succeeds, they then feel that the anxiety and stress was required for success, and the cycle repeats.
Valerie Young, the author the book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, has found specific categories of people who experience impostor feelings (6):
- “Perfectionists” – have extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they feel like failures. This can lead to feelings of being an impostor.
- “Experts” – feel that they need to know all the information before they start a project. They are afraid of looking stupid if they don’t know an answer, and so are hesitant in speaking up at work or in social life.
- “Natural genius” – as these people generally do not have to struggle to succeed, when they do have to work to complete a task, they feel that they are not good enough – and an impostor. If they do the required work at the last minute, they can also attribute their success to luck rather than skill.
- “Soloists” – do not feel that they can ask for help. If they do, they believe that this means they can’t own the success that they may achieve, and that they’re a fraud.
- “Supermen” or “superwomen” – these people need to excel at all areas of their life. This proves to them that they deserve the life they are enjoying, and are not impostors. If they fail to achieve excellence in all areas of their life, they believe they are a fraud.
What can you do about it
- Talk to someone you trust – A friend or colleague can reassure you that your success is not a fluke, and give you (positive) feedback about your abilities. They may also be able to reassure you that this feeling of ‘impostor syndrome’ is not unusual – they may even have experienced it themselves.
- Recognize the knowledge that you have – Help others who may not be as skilled as you are. If you have been praised for your cooking, why not organise a ’round robin’ cookery group, where each person demonstrates how to make a new meal. At work, you could help more junior staff with learning something that you have been praised for doing – e.g. operating a computer program, or learning how to give a presentation.
- Recognise where you need to improve – Imes encourages her clients to note the areas that might need work. That helps them recognise that they are genuinely good at some tasks, rather than doubting their success.
- Stop being a perfectionist – “Good enough” is good enough.
- Look at the evidence – Look at data. If you are exceeding your goals (or even meeting them), then you are capable, accomplished, and your success not a fluke.
- Celebrate your successes. Celebrate your success, e.g., when you finish a project either at home, or at work. Own your success and mark it by some celebration, even by just telling a friend.
- Change your self-talk – remind yourself that you succeeded through your own ability, even if you did ask for help.
- Remember, Impostor Syndrome is common – Psychological research from the 1980’s estimated that 70 percent of people feel like frauds at some time or another.
If you feel that you don’t deserve your success in life, please feel free to contact Sunset Coast Hypnotherapy on 0403 932311 for a no-obligation discussion about how I may be able to help you.
- Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006
- Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(3), 495–501. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-3126.96.36.1995
- Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? gradPSYCH Magazine, 11, 24. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud
- Abrams, A. (2018). Yes, Impostor Syndrome is real. Here’s how to deal with it. https://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/
- Sullivan, M. (2019). Defrauding Yourself – Challenging Impostor Syndrome! https://www.powerhousemt.org/defrauding-yourself-challenging-impostor-syndrome/
- Wilding, M.J. (n.d.). 5 Different Types of Imposter Syndrome (and 5 Ways to Battle Each One) https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one
© 2020 Lisa Billingham
Sunset Coast Hypnotherapy
Perth, Western Australia