Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition which was first propounded by researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes at Georgia State University in 1978. They observed that people who are highly capable have a misperception of low self-efficacy when confronted with performance feedback or constructive reviews. They have a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy and inferiority complex. They may think like this –“till now, only I knew that I was stupid but now the whole world will get to know about it.” They have an external attribution style meaning that they link their success and accomplishments to external factors such as luck or fate. This is because they don’t believe that they have a major contribution in attaining accolades or any achievement or that they deserve the credit for their skills, talent or qualities.
According to Clance and Imes, Imposter syndrome is most likely to occur in:
- People who have perfectionistic tendencies
- Who have had early success
- People with high – achieving parents
- Members of minority groups
- Students or millennial/ beginners
Individuals who feel like imposters have very low self-esteem. Apparently, they cannot feel confident in their own skin and perpetually put question marks on their proficiency. They are always in comparison mode and believe with conviction that everyone around them is better or excelling in some or the other way, in a better way than them. In spite of evident strengths and achievements, they are blinded by their own conviction that they are “just not good enough.” Individuals struggling with impostor syndrome have a hard time in having faith in themselves and they have a paralyzing fear of failure.
They think that they are just hiding their real truth and nobody knows about it, they are doing wrong to the world by faking that they are tremendously capable and competent. This leads to hike in stress and anxiety levels because they are preoccupied with the thought that they can never live up to the expectations of others. They might also believe that they’ll never be able to make it big, which leads them to overburden themselves with work, trying be perfect and very detail-oriented which, paradoxically might hamper their work performance. It creates performance anxiety and leads to burnout and depression if it gets out of control. People dealing with this condition constantly need validation, recognition, approval, praise and love from others. They need to be reassured and reminded of their qualities , competency, talent and skills they acquire which can be tiresome and frustrating. They have to depend on others to tell them who they are, what strengths they hold and define their success rate.
Prevalence of Imposter Syndrome
This phenomenon is increasingly presented in the media and lays literature as a key behavioral health condition impairing professional and personal growth, and performance contributing to burnout. The prevalence rates vary widely from 9-82%, largely depending on screening tool and cut-offs used to assess symptoms. They are particularly high among ethnic minority groups. The gender ratio is unbiased across a range of age groups – adolescents to late-stage professionals; although, earlier it was reported that women had a much higher proportion than men. Notably, it affects up to 2 out of 3 people in certain settings. It is often co-morbid or shared with major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder spectrum and is associated with impaired job performance, job satisfaction, sleep deprivation and dependence on addictive substances such as caffeine, alcohol or smoking, social isolation, etc.
It is important to note that Imposter Syndrome is not a recognized psychiatric disorder and is not listed in diagnostic manuals either. As a corollary, syndromal imposters suffer from constant fear of being exposed as a fraud, because they often believe they have fooled their peers into overrating their abilities and professional competence. As a part of the vicious cycle, syndromal imposters feel more prone to failure, may become less productive and are characterized by procrastination and insecurity most of the time.
Some common thoughts and feelings associated with imposter syndrome include:
- “I am a failure”
- “I can never be as good as others are”
- “I must not fail”
- “My accomplishments are no big deal, a stroke of mere luck”
- “I have to constantly compare myself with others”
- “I have to be the best in everything else I will not match up to the expectations”
- “I can not screw up any cost”
- “I am not good enough “
- “People don’t know how incompetent I am , soon they will come to know”
- “I feel like I am a burden”
- “I can never make it big”
- “I want others to praise me and never criticize me for my performance”
Combating feelings of Imposter Syndrome
1. INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT –
This technique can help to overcome feelings of inadequacy and incompetency. It can also curb feelings of inferiority. This technique means reinforcing positive attributes in the individual via praise or a reward or acknowledgement and applaud for the work, not only the outcome but also the process and short term responsibilities that have helped attain a bigger goal at irregular or random spans of time. So for example, you are not providing them with sugar-coated and exaggerated praise every time they complete their task or after every outcome of the performance. Rather, you are choosing to randomly select when you want to praise the individual and for what. If they have underperformed, you have to make sure to encourage them subtly and give them a push to do better next time and at the same time make them understand that its okay to not outperform every time. It definitely doesn’t mean that they lack anywhere. These little positive reinforcements will help the individual enhance their self-confidence and efficacy at the same time. This will give them a boost to introspect about their abilities and why intermittent, because the individual will not gain dependency.
If you start rewarding them for a particular thing continuously it will reduce the efficiency of the work. Plus, in case you criticize them heavily and continously, it may backfire and will make them feel like a failure again. That negative self-defeating thought cycle has to break. Imposters are very fragile and sensitive to criticism or evaluation of their enactment so it has to be handled carefully which is why the best way to increase their productivity and self-esteem is by rewarding them periodically and not continuously. This should be done not only for the end result but sometimes, also for the inputs and implementation to execution process or their overall demeanor inside and outside work premise. The more pleasant interactions and constructive feedbacks, lesser the imposter effect.
2. GRATITUDE DIARY –
As long as the internal mechanisms are not worked upon, it won’t bring about a major change in the behavior of the person dealing with imposter feelings. This is a magical technique that works wonders for people who have chronic self-doubt. Maintain a gratitude diary and write at least 5-10 statements each day either before going to bed or post waking up in the morning. It is very important to value yourself and understand the eternal importance of being thankful and grateful for whatever you have at present. Acceptance comes from within, not from the outside world. You have to start trying to be happy with yourself, the way you are and trying to improve step by step. Comparison must be only with yourself and not with others. Make a list of at least 10 things you are happy for and thankful for. Trust us, there are a number of things to be grateful for. It helps you strengthen your positive outlook and emotion.
Gratitude is the balance key that you must strive for, it keeps you away from the negative and pessimistic thought cycle. It helps you become self-aware, and helps in accepting your flaws and strengths as they are. Feelings of gratitude possess mental and physical benefits. A gratitude diary enforces us to pay attention to ourselves and to the good things that life offers us which we often take for granted or ignore. Benefits of gratitude diary is you have a clear holistic visualization, you learn a lot about your own self like your weak spots and progressive areas, your abilities, your preferences, etc. There will be days when you will not feel like writing any gratitude journal because of the battlefield going inside your head which is okay too. Do it anyway, write anyway. If not 10, write 5 or 3. But you have to be willing and consistent to try again and again. Gratitude is not about superficial positivity, it’s about accepting the lows and highs you feel on daily basis, write that down too, write what you feel, translate your thoughts and channelize your negative energy into something expressive and productive which gives you meaning and purpose. The objective is to value yourself and recognize your worth through different ways and sources so that you can challenge the ongoing internal dialogue which is tearing you apart. A major chunk of the population has benefitted from gratitude diary or journals.
3. FOCUS ON THE PROCESS THAN THE OUTCOME –
It is vital to imbibe this perspective. When you attach expectations with the result of the goal, you are more likely to be disappointed with yourself than when you pay attention to the work you are doing and do not focus on the result it will bring forth. Imposters are way too engrossed in focusing on the outcome of the performance which is why they never pay attention to their hard work that has let them to that ultimate goal. They are always overcritical of their own performances and weaknesses they possess. It’s so important that you enjoy and put all your energy during the work, it not only enhances the quality and substance of the task you are doing but detaches you from worrying about the evaluation of the outcome. It has so many benefits, it brings you back to solution-focused, here and now moment, which automatically makes you less anxious, brings internal satisfaction and elevates the flow state. Self-doubt is a silent killer of our psychological health and is highly correlated with lowered productivity and mediocre quality of the endeavor. Trusting your journey with exceeding conviction is going to bring out the best version of you and your work.
4. DIALECTIC APPROACH –
Dialectic approach here implies that it’s okay to have two opposite emotions or feelings which can co-exist within an individual. Imposters have emotional dysregulation with varying intensity so rather than forcing yourself to stop feeling and acting the way you have been acting, it’s critical to acknowledge that your feelings need not to be congruent with your actions every time. You may feel anxious before giving a presentation but give it anyway. Reality is in a constant process of change, how you perceive something now may be different than how you perceive it in a few hours. What does the emotional mind say? The reasonable mind? Such kind of dialects must be addressed. We are always evolving and have to integrate dual or multiple perspectives which sadly people with imposter feelings are unable to understand. They often feel stuck and keep replaying the same negative scenario in their heads, so much so that they believe it to be the ultimate truth for themselves which cannot be changed. So coming to terms with the fact that different perspectives can co-exist helps in developing a better understanding of emotional balance.
Trying to increase intrapersonal effectiveness by learning:
- Assertiveness skills and sensitivity training
- Identify the goals of skills / activities needed to achieve those goals
- Label and effectively communicate feeling states
- Understand the function of emotions and why we don’t want to completely eliminate negative thoughts
- Learning the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors and how to break the chain while striking the balance
- Figuring out triggering experiences that give rise to poor performance
- Focusing on trying to do the best and getting better rather than aiming at being perfect and flawless in every thing
- We have to fix our own problems with the right support
- Trying to increase self-respect and not compromising on relevant priorities, this can be done by targeting individualized short-term goals
- Distress tolerance tools via relaxation procedures such as laughing yoga, deep breathing exercises, autogenic training etc
5. MIRROR EXERCISE –
It is an experiment-based crisp and a brief role play activity which helps you in monitoring your behaviors by increasing the frequency of desirable behavior such as self- efficacy and professional and personal growth while decreasing the probability of negative self-talk and escape behaviors. Stand in front of the mirror and suppose a hypothetical situation that the person you see in front of the mirror is your best friend and how would you express and help them had he/she been in the same situation as you are in. Try having a dialogue as to how would you would give your contribution. Now, this role play will help you comprehend the rationality behind your syndrome. It will encourage you to contain your feelings that block your achievement motivation and progress. Whenever you are in doubt or feeling panicked, try this mirror exercise for personal grooming and confidence. Do this in order to deliver your best shot in any kind of work area in which you want to excel or improve. This exercise prompts feelings of well being. You realise that you have self-control and power over what you feel and how you navigate it. Recalling past behaviors as a learning and motivating factor represent that you are way stronger than you think you are. It helps you cope with the threatening situations effectively. It is important to keep practicing.
To conclude , the aforementioned healthy coping techniques are definitely going to shape a healthy and productive lifestyle. These are wonderful ways to overcome imposter syndrome. Lastly, you are not alone, you have to keep you head up high, as you are smart, kind and unique. We all are gifted with innate qualities which we are not aware of, so have faith in yourself. Always remember that no one is you and that is your superpower. Stay happy and healthy .
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