By Manasi Bharati, Psychology Consultant
I was once at a national event attended by high-ranking, stalwart police officials where I was supposed to present a report I had worked on endlessly for months. Given that I was an external consultant, I was constantly feeling that “I don’t belong here!”. Just before I got on the stage, one of the senior officers sensed my discomfort and said to me, “Don’t worry. You have done an excellent job and you deserve to be here. I have felt all my life that people have exaggerated my capabilities and most of the time I feel like I don’t belong here even though I am sitting next to the state’s executive”. This was the moment where I felt like an impostor, but also believed that I had an impostor friend with me. Feeling not as competent as what others believe you to be is what is termed as impostor syndrome. Let’s dive deeper into this.
What it is and what it is not
“I am not good enough”, “I don’t belong here”, “Soon they will find out that I don’t deserve this”, “My luck is going to run out”, “My abilities have been overestimated” – Have you heard any of these before or ever thought these to yourself? If you have, then you are not alone. More than two-thirds of the world’s population has been estimated to have experienced this at least once in their lifetime (International Journal of Behavioural Science, 2011).
Surprisingly, even decades ago, these feelings in humans were found to be similar. Two psychologists from Georgia State University, Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Ament Imes, in 1978 interviewed 150 female students and faculty members who were exceptional in their respective fields. What they discovered was this – ‘pervasive feelings of fraudulence’. Yes, that is correct. All of them thought that they were phony and hence they were “impostors”. They thought all the same things that you read at the beginning. Despite their doctoral degrees and scholastic honours, they did not experience any internal sense of success. This is what is termed as the ‘impostor syndrome’. People who experience this strongly believe that they are not intelligent. They are convinced that others are mistaken and that they have fooled those who think otherwise.
A plethora of studies since then have established this phenomenon to be present across gender, race, age, and occupations. The why of it remains subjective but most commonly the cause of having such impostor thoughts has been attributed to early family dynamics and later societal stereotyping. Previous experiences would have possibly traumatised you at the workplace and hence you begin to question your belongingness in your position and your organisation. Studies have shown it to be more prevalent among and to be affecting disproportionately the disadvantaged groups of society. Impostor syndrome is not any disease or abnormality; it is a common and universal phenomenon. It is not always linked to depression, social anxiety or self-esteem. So do not panic if you ever think that you are incompetent at your workplace or elsewhere, because chances are that others around you might be feeling the same.
How to deal with it
“People think that successful people don’t feel like frauds. But the opposite is more likely to be true. The most successful people I know don’t question themselves, but they do regularly question their ideas and their knowledge. They know when the water is way too deep, and they’re not afraid to ask for advice to hone those ideas, to improve them and to learn. Harness the situation, don’t be paralyzed and try to turn it into some sort of a force for good. It isn’t about conquering impostor syndrome, but merely about being aware of it.” – Mike Cannon-Brooks, CEO and co-founder of the Australian software giant, Atlassian.
The first step to dealing with impostor syndrome is to acknowledge your feelings. If you are feeling like an impostor, it means that you are attributing your success to some extent to luck and you think that you do not deserve to be where you are. Lean into those feelings, unravel your thoughts and harness them to drive your actions. For example, you can turn that feeling of being ‘just lucky‘ into one of gratitude. Look at what you have accomplished in your life and be grateful.
The next step is questioning yourself and tapping into your own beliefs. Question whether your thoughts are rational. This might be difficult, but it can be made easier by asking some difficult questions to yourself, such as:
- “What core beliefs do I hold about myself?”
- “Do I believe I am worthy of where and what I am?”
- “Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?”
- “Given everything that I know, does it make sense now that I am a fraud?
Make a realistic assessment of your abilities and write down your accomplishments and what you are good at and what you are not good at. Let your guard down and let yourself and others see the real you. To move past these feelings, you need to become comfortable confronting some of those deeply ingrained beliefs you hold about yourself. You can try the following things for this:
- Share your feelings and set realistic expectations. Talk to other people about how you are feeling. You would be surprised to see how many people feel similarly. Talking about it will let you effectively overcome these thoughts. If not talked about openly, these thoughts manifest themselves into constant intrusive thoughts. You don’t have to talk about all your feelings at once, but rather take small, consistent steps. Try not to stress over the smallest mistakes that you make at work. Instead, learn from them and set smaller goals and expectations for yourself. Celebrate the little successes and move forward.
- Stop comparing and let go of perfection. Comparing is the most futile thing to do when you are trying to deal with impostor syndrome. You will discover some fault of yours through comparison and thus end up adding more fuel to the fire of ‘not being good enough’. If you have to compare yourself with anything, think of how far you have come and think about how you are going to accomplish the next micro-step in not feeling like a fraud. It need not be perfect, but at least let there will be a start.
You can become free from the burden of believing that you are phony or incompetent by trying to implement some of the techniques mentioned above. In my case, knowing that even others can feel this way and becoming aware of how I was feeling, helped me deal with it. But it isn’t one size fits all. Being aware of your true self is ironically the best thing that you can do to deal with impostor syndrome.
“What Is Imposter Syndrome?”, Arlin Cuncic, Verywellmind, 2021. https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469
“What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it?”, Elizabeth Cox, Ted Ed, 2018
“How you can use impostor syndrome to your benefit?”, Mike Cannon-Brookes, TedxSydney, 2017
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. https://mpowir.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Download-IP-in-High-Achieving-Women.pdf
Sakulku J, & Alexander J. (2011). The imposter phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 73-92.
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