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It’s All in Your Head: Understanding Imposter Syndrome

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

Can we talk about imposter syndrome?

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.” Maya Angelou

You’ve been working hard for over a year: skilling yourself, reading every book and article on a specific subject, gaining hands-on experience through projects and contracts. You’ve become a superstar at what you do. Your colleagues come to you often for advice or support. You’re doing well for yourself. But there’s that feeling that you just can’t shake; the feeling that you don’t belong in the spaces you exist in, that everything you’ve achieved is just luck, that you aren’t worthy of your skills or talents, that you have no clue what you’re doing, that you’re a fraud who will soon be caught and likely punished for these “sins''.

This feeling doesn’t arise only in our careers or work lives. They pop up in our pursuit of education. They arise in our hobbies. They can even pop up in our relationships when we question why certain people are friends with us or why our relations value us.

That unnerving feeling is known as imposter syndrome (also known as the imposter phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience)

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome definition

  1. A concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

  2. Doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud.

  3. A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.

  4. Term coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 to describe an inability to connect with one’s success, causing one to develop high levels of self-doubt, a distorted perception of self and fear of being found out to be a fraud by those around them.

The term imposter phenomenon and its study arose when doctors Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes noticed that high-achieving professional women were often plagued with feelings of self-doubt, incompetence and the fear of not performing well in future in comparison to their male counterparts.

Types of imposters

The Perfectionist

The perfectionist sets extremely high expectations and goals for themselves. They require their work or output to be 100% perfect otherwise they have missed the mark and aren’t good at their job. Even when they achieve any form of success, they believe that they could have done things better.

The Expert

The expert hopes to achieve something big and commendable. This “something-big” might be a dream for a career, job, or business. However, for the expert to start embarking on this journey, they MUST know everything that needs to be known and learnt before they jump into this new endeavour. If the expert doesn’t feel that they have learnt everything they need to excel at whatever it is they are envisioning, they feel unworthy and incompetent. They strongly believe this even though learning is never ending process. The expert is unlikely to dive into a new venture because they don’t want to mess up or look “stupid”.

The Natural Genius

The natural genius believes that if they have to struggle to learn something it’s proof they’re not good enough to pursue it. They often restrict themselves to tasks and skills that come naturally or easily to them. This however restricts their growth and puts them in a box. The natural genius’ greatest desire is to get things right on their first try in order to feel worthy, intelligent and deserving.

The Soloist

The soloist feels that for them to be deserving of the space they occupy they must be able to accomplish everything on their own. They will willingly suffer under the pressure of multiple tasks or goals because they perceive asking for help as weakness.

While the perfectionist is likely to micromanage in order to get things 100% right, the soloist is likely to take on all the roles and do everything on their own even though they need assistance and support.

The Superhero (also the Superwoman or Superman)

The superhero pushes themselves to go above and beyond always. Because imposter syndrome makes superheroes feel like they stick out like a sore thumb, they feel the need to work harder than everybody else. They need to do this to prove they aren’t a fraud. They feel that even though they stick out, they should stick out for their excellence. The superhero feels the need to outshine everyone to cement their place.

Where imposter syndrome stems from:

  • Familial (critical parents, parents that focused on achievement, parents that didn’t praise achievement and saw them as commonplace)

  • Major life transitions (starting a new job or business)

  • Lack of representation in the space one occupies (sexism, tribalism, colourism, classism can cause an individual who has gained an opportunity that people like them don’t ordinarily get to develop imposter syndrome)

  • Anxiety (general and social anxiety)

How imposter syndrome is affecting you

The imposter cycle

“For most people we start a new thing, work hard to overcome barriers, and once we're successful remain appropriately confident in our ability to continue to perform well.

For others, however, they start out the same as stated above, except that obtaining some success doesn't translate into more confidence. Instead it increases the fear of being found out to be a fraud and the person continues to work hard, to overcome obstacles, only to feel as though they still aren't good enough.

The character keeps running even after they've won the race! No victory lap, no celebration, no slowing down to catch their breath....just continuing to run and hurdle through life even though they've done well and the race was over. That's Imposter Syndrome! Constantly chasing after the success you've already attained OR running from the fraud that doesn't exist.”

Stevon Lewis

People that deal with imposter syndrome go through the imposter cycle: always plotting, planning and working without taking a break to enjoy their achievements.