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Have you ever felt that you are not good enough or deserving enough to be in the position you are in? Whether it is the university that you got in, or a job position, for which you worked so hard for, or even just your presence among a new group of people? It is quite likely that you have experienced this feeling of inadequateness in your everyday life, regardless if it was just a momentary wave of emotion about something seemingly irrelevant, or if you’re experiencing it as a rather constant state that is intertwined through all the aspects of your identity.
Both experiences stem from the same phenomenon which is called IMPOSTOR SYNDROME – the fear of being exposed as a fraud based on perceived self-incompetency. From this definition, the word perceived should be accentuated, because this feeling of inadequateness has nothing to do with the individuals’ abilities and performance, in fact this phenomenon is mainly identified in high-achievers, people who have a long trail of evidence about their capabilities behind them.
This phenomenon was first described in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, who during their founding study, that focused on high-achieving women, observed that certain feelings of self-incompetence, fear of not performing well and a belief that their success is solely due to luck, were quite common among women as opposed to men. Over time, studies proved that imposter syndrome can also impact men.
Impostor syndrome can be experienced on many different levels and take many different forms and in order to understand it more accurately, in her study, Dr Clance formulated a scale that includes various symptoms that a person can experience, such as:
- Feeling like success is impossible
- Feeling incompetent despite demonstrating competency
- Fear of not meeting another person’s expectations
- Feeling like past successes and hard work were only due to luck
- Feeling incapable of performing at the same level every time
- Feeling uncomfortable with receiving praise or congratulations
- Feeling disappointed over current accomplishments
- Feeling constant pressure to achieve or be better than before
- Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed from feelings of inadequacy
among many others.
There is obviously not just one specific event that causes its emergence, but it has been observed that these feelings of inadequateness and unworthiness have their roots in the childhood of individuals. Those that grew up in families that put all their worth on academic achievement and guided their growth through mixed signals – alternating between over-praise and criticism, those who were constantly subjected to competitive environments and learned to measure their worth solely based on their achievements, are usually those that develop feelings of impostors and frauds.
However, this is the reality of many individuals, not because of the specific environment they grew up in, but mainly because of the general structure of today’s society, which is being built upon the unhealthy assumption that success and achievements determine worth.
This society leads individuals’ internal thought processes to be filled with questions such as “How can you congratulate yourself on the work you’ve done, when you could have obviously done it better or faster?”, “How can you accept praise, when someone else somewhere has done so much more than you and could have done this better than you?” and over time the answers to these questions start to make people perceive themselves as frauds.
WHAT KIND OF INDIVIDUALS ARE AFFECTED BY THIS PHENOMENON?
Even though this phenomenon can impact anyone, it is mostly observed in:
- high-achievers and perfectionists
- individuals belonging to minority groups that are already subjects of discrimination and lack of representation
- individuals working in highly competitive fields, such as the STEM disciplines and politics.
HOW TO DEAL WITH IMPOSTOR SYNDROME?
Impostor syndrome undeniably stands in the way of personal growth and a healthy life, so overcoming it is a crucial step every individual that is aware that they are experiencing it should take by:
- Acknowledging and embracing their expertise and accomplishments
- Reframing their thinking by going back and analyzing why such feelings emerged, and assessing if they are justified
- Reaching out about their feelings, to someone outside their field, in order to get a more objective perspective
- Reminding themselves and remembering what they do well
- Taking time to realize that perfection does not exist
It is worth noting that Impostor syndrome is not recognized as an official disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), but nevertheless it is undeniable that in a society such as our own, where the pressure to achieve is higher than ever and it’s growing by the minute, this kind of a phenomenon can lead to other more severe mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
In the race to the top, people get lost between approval, love and worthiness, which is counterproductive to changing this society into one that is the source of support, well-being and equality.
Di Zoi Pavlovska
D.G. MYERS-J. ABELL-F. SANI, Social Psychology, 3rd edition, McGraw Hill, 2021.