Impostor syndrome AKA impostor phenomenon, imposterism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience.
If you feel like the oddball at school or at work, if you think you don’t deserve the academic or professional success you’ve achieved, if you fear that you’ll be exposed as a fraud in your field, then you’re experiencing impostor feelings. If those feelings are persistent and have started affecting your work, your relationships and your overall happiness, then you’re suffering from impostor syndrome.
It’s estimated 70% of all people will experience some form of impostor syndrome in their lives. This psychological pattern can affect anyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, job title or status. In the majority of cases, the thoughts and feelings associated with impostor syndrome are completely invalid. There is usually objective evidence of a person’s hard work and competence, but the individual suffering from impostor syndrome tends to chalk it up to luck or that they pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes and deceived their way to success.
I first learned about impostor syndrome when I experienced it for myself years ago at Sheridan College. I took the accounting program and I had transferred some credits from a previous business program in an effort to get ahead. Somehow this caused me to take first-year and second-year courses within the same semester.
I didn’t think much of it during registration, but this mixture of courses quickly became a problem. I didn’t think I deserved to work alongside so many hardworking students in the more advanced classes. Though I earned good grades, I told myself I wasn’t grasping the key concepts. And despite one-on-one encouragement from several teachers who told me I belonged in the program, I felt like a total fraud. Eventually I became so extremely unhappy that I dropped out of the program before the end of the first year.
I was frustrated by my costly educational failure and wondered for a long time about why it happened. Eventually, I learned about impostor syndrome and realized that I had suffered from its symptoms. By not acknowledging the feelings I had at school, and not talking about them with those closest to me, I let my impostor feelings fester. It was a hard truth to swallow, but I eventually came to terms with what happened. And with that lesson learned, I’m determined to succeed where I failed before.
How do imposter feelings develop?
Some psychologists have said that personality traits like anxiety can be the source of impostor feelings, which certainly sounds valid. I subscribe to that belief, as that seemed to be the case in my own experience.
There’s also an idea that family or behavioural causes could be the root of the issue, but I’m not sure if that theory is widely applicable. Certainly, there are people who were raised by parents with really high expectations, or had overly competitive relationships with their siblings, but they’re likely the minority among those suffering from the syndrome.
Perhaps impostor syndrome is more a product of a person’s environment, and whether or not they experience institutionalized discrimination. To quote impostor syndrome expert Valerie Young, “A sense of belonging fosters confidence. The more people look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.” This one can be difficult to internalize, but take a step back to consider your environment. You might need to make a change.
How can you overcome impostor syndrome?
Now that you know how to identify imposter feelings, and the many ways they can develop, it’s a good idea to arm yourself with a plan for dealing with them.
Here are a few steps to get you started:
Step 1: Acknowledge your impostor feelings
Be conscious of the negative reactions you feel towards your professional environment. Take stock of how often these thoughts and feelings occur to you on a given day (use a journal, if you have to). Admit to yourself that you need to tackle the issue. Say it to yourself out loud. This helps the realization sink in.
Step 2: Talk to someone about what you’re going through
Coping with impostor syndrome on your own can be really hard. There’s no shame in getting help from a friend or mentor. Talk to someone you trust about what you’ve been feeling, and you’ll be able to get a lot off your chest. There’s a good chance that your confidante has experienced similar feelings at some point in their life. They can reassure you that what you’re feeling is completely normal. A little validation from someone you admire can go a long way to helping you recover.
Step 3: Make a conscious effort to change your perception
While you certainly have peers who don’t experience impostor feelings, that doesn’t make them any more intelligent or more capable than you. It’s all a matter of perception, so try to appreciate that there is more than one way to approach a challenge. For example, try not to take constructive criticism as a personal attack. Do your best to use it as a learning opportunity from someone who is trying to help you.
Looking for some guidance? Check out Van Lathan’s advice for overcoming adversity.