Impostor syndrome

14 06 2017

I’ve been hearing about impostor syndrome a lot in recent times. I don’t mean that the tendency itself is a novel phenomenon by any means.  It had been first described in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, and Pauline Rose Clance. It’s just that the term or label has been gaining lot of popularity and attention. People are trying to understand the concept, discussing it, acknowledging its prevalence in their own and/or dear ones’ lives and forthcoming with personal stories and experiences about feeling like a fraud. It may seem at the outset a little like indulging in self-deprecation in order to get attention, when one reads all those “confessional” tweets and revelations, but most likely it isn’t the case and the issue runs much deeper.

So, what is it exactly?

As per Wikipedia, impostor syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Clearly, it implies that a person feels like a fraud despite the concrete evidence of his/her skills and achievements and often attribute their success to serendipity or other external factors.

What causes or contributes to such feelings?

Societal and parental pressure to achieve seems to be the biggest culprit. New challenges also may cause impostor feelings in some people. Women and minorities tend to be more susceptible to impostor syndrome than others. Showering a lot of undeserved and untruthful praise during childhood can also lead to impostor feelings later in life. (APA article – Feel like a fraud?)

People often perceive impostor feelings as manifestations of other seemingly related concepts like self-doubt, lack-of confidence, low self-esteem, perfectionism, insecurity, seeking validation or approval etc. I’ve have had people use these different terms and concepts in some capacity while trying to explain the phenomenon of impostor syndrome. It’s important to differentiate impostor syndrome from all such things though, if one ever has to identify or diagnose it with any conviction and not get those other things mixed up with what actually is impostor syndrome.

Here is my token effort towards trying to untangle these different concepts from impostor syndrome. Beware that this is neither going to be a complete scientific evaluation of the relevant body of knowledge out there nor a philosophical rambling wondering about life’s bizarre nuances.

  • Self-doubt – Impostor syndrome is a special kind of self-doubt, with overpowering and all-encompassing fear about one’s inadequacy. (APA article – Feel like a fraud?)
  • Low self-esteem – Impostor syndrome is more than just low self-esteem. It’s the inability to give credit to yourself for your abilities.
  • Lack of confidence – This could be due to several reasons, including lack of skill. But impostor syndrome doesn’t happen when you lack an ability. However, it is observed that most people are impostor syndrome while try to learn new things.
  • Perfectionism – This is complementary to impostor syndrome. People with impostor feelings tend to do things perfectly and push themselves too hard to meet their own high expectations. (APA article – Feel like a fraud?)
  • Seeking external validation or approval – This is another complementary behavior to impostor syndrome. People with impostor feelings definitely crave for external validation making it difficult for them to recognize their own expertise.
  • Insecurity – Impostor syndrome also involves negative feelings about oneself, which are inherent to being insecure. But achieving actual success despite these insecure feelings, mostly due to the other optimistic beliefs they hold sets these people who feel like a fraud apart from those with just “insecurity”, most likely without any achievements to their credit. (Huffington Post – Do you suffer from Impostor Syndrome?)

So, impostor syndrome is a bit of all these things but the real differentiating characteristics are

  • High-achieving individuals and
  • Inability to internalize their accomplishments

Do you have impostor syndrome? Ask yourself these questions to find out: Quiz. Here is an interesting analysis on relationship between impostor syndrome and confidence: Impostor Syndrome Is Not Just a Confidence Problem. There is lot of helpful information out there online on how to deal with this syndrome and overcome or at least quiet down that voice inside you that tells you that you are a fraud. (HBR article- Overcoming Impostor Syndrome).

Catching yourself in the act, recognizing your abilities, and seeking support help a lot. But the idea is not to succumb to Dunning-Kruger effect, which is exactly the opposite of impostor syndrome: feeling of unwarranted superiority. A tendency to overestimate their abilities and correctly assess their inadequacies. 🙂

imposter syndrome


Perfectionism and me

9 12 2014

There was a time when I used to look at people who juggle various things in life and feel envious. I used to stare at them wide-eyed as they donned multiple roles, playing them to perfection (or so it seemed to me). Their ability to stretch themselves to perform and achieve more used to amaze me. They are always busy dealing with multiple projects – at home and work. Looking at myself, I used to feel inadequate and supremely under-achieved for not risking taking up more than I can comfortably handle. I used to perceive it as my inability to handle pressure. I seriously thought it’s a weakness on part of me. I was on one side of the fence and felt forever distanced from the “glorious” other side, unable to fathom its real insinuations.

How naïve and ignorant was I!

Fast forward a few years: Out of conscious choice or otherwise, I found myself in the labyrinth of responsibilities – work, home, kid, social life, reading, travel, academics, and learning pursuits. I congratulated myself for pulling them off and allowed myself to soak in the warm glow of “a sense of achievement”. I was relentless in pursuing my goals (way too many) and actually felt proud when I was referred to as a “perfectionist”. I couldn’t believe I was actually on the much coveted “other side” of the fence.

I think you can now sense where this is leading to. 😛

But over the time, I began to see the side-effects of my attitude. I was always under a lot of stress. Smile and laughter became a rarity. I lost a lot of weight. And people around me were convinced that I’m going through a difficult situation at personal front and even started making wild speculations.  😛

Only then I realized that it’s not as greener as I thought it would be. Trying to do too many things and trying to be a perfectionist sucks your energy and actually robs you off of your happiness. Only during the “Science of Happiness” course did I realize how toxic maximizing and perfectionism are really are. Needless to say, I now vow to myself to address them and be wary of them.

Life can be difficult and challenging even without you trying to make it so. Why foolishly contribute to your own unhappiness and dissatisfaction?? 😀

And now if someone calls me a “perfectionist”, I take it for what it actually means – that I need to fix myself by getting rid of the vice.

One other important thing I realized is that “happiness” is a self-reporting measure. No one else can truly determine how happy you are except you. So, the yardstick is in your own hands. Don’t let others guide your actions in the pursuit of your happiness. If they say – owning this product or having some experience makes you happy, you need not believe them. If they say, being someone makes you happy, you need not trust them.

Toxic mental habits

30 11 2014

Till now, we have touched upon many positive things which contribute to and boost happiness. In this post, we will consider a few mental habits, which adversely affect our well-being. In fact, they are toxic in nature and severely detriment happiness.

According to Dacher Keltner, the following constitute toxic mental habits:

  • Perfectionism
  • Materialism
  • Social Comparison
  • Maximizing
  • Frazzle – putting ourselves into a lifestyle that is overwhelming

It makes sense, right? I can almost see the heads nodding in agreement. 🙂

Let us dwell a little on each one of them.

Perfectionism is trying to reach the ideal, to achieve the best in each and every endeavor. But of course, there is no thing called “perfect”. Chasing it will only be liken to pursuing a mirage. It’s impossible to derive any kind of satisfaction in the process. Continuously pushing your limits is usually accompanied by a lot of stress and results in severe discontent.

Materialism is another vice that refers to acute emphasis on material things. Under its influence, we tend to amass more and more material goods in view of the mislaid belief that they will make us happy. But, as research by Thomas Gilovich and others (an easy to read alternative here) suggests, people derive more happiness from experiences rather than material things. So, by focusing on wrong things, we are no way closer to what we want to achieve i.e., happiness, but rather moving farther away. Beware of how consumerism is affecting you.

We are social beings. It’s sometimes with amusement that I ponder on the ways “society”, which is nothing but the collection of us along with the rules we make to govern ourselves, controls and/or influences us. We have a deep rooted tendency to analyze, judge, make sense of things, establish hierarchies, and spot patterns. It is due to this ingrained impulse that we tend to compare ourselves with others. We have an unexplained urge to know where we stand with respect to our environment. Social comparison, especially with those above our level, will reduce self-perception.

Maximizing is a tendency to achieve the greatest amount of benefit or pleasure from anything. It requires considering all the alternatives/choices available, and evaluating them in order to arrive at the final decision. Needless to say, it involves lot of effort. Moreover, it is not as though maximizers are happier at the end of it all. In fact, maximizers are

  • more regretful after purchases
  • less satisfied with life
  • more depressed
  • less satisfied with success
  • less optimistic

Perfectionism and maximizing go hand in hand. It is very tempting for perfectionists to maximize.

“Having too many choices is a curse to our happiness.”

The alternative to maximizing is “satisficing”, which involves going with the first option that meets your set criteria. Satisficers do not consider all the choices. Satisficing doesn’t mean going with a sub-optimal solution. It just means a “good enough” solution that serves your purpose.

While maximizing is associated with unhappiness and less satisfaction, satisficing is related to happiness and more satisfaction. So, you can deduce that happy people and unhappy people follow different decision-making processes.

Happiness expert Dan Gilbert says, people are happier with irrevocable decisions. We all have what  he calls “psychological immune system”, which refers to our tendency to justify our choices and creates positive sentiment about them – but only when it’s perceived that the choice is complete and can’t be reversed. (Refer to the famous study of Monet paintings).  Listen to this absolutely wonderful TED talk by Dan Gilbert on Surprising Science of Happiness.

Frazzle is something which results from perfectionism, maximizing, and any other habits which will wear us out.

I myself am seriously prone to Perfectionism and Maximizing, while susceptible to a lesser degree to the rest of the toxic mental habits. Thanks to this new wisdom, I am beginning to notice their effects on the quality of my life. Realization is always the first step. But it should be followed by “action” to see results. It’s not easy but it’s definitely possible.

Even while we focus on improving positive emotions, it is important to curb these harmful mental habits for our own good.

Part 10 of Science of Happiness Series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9