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