We've all been there: we get a promotion, the opportunity to do something we've always wanted to do, praise for doing a good job, or that scholarship you applied for. There you are, sitting in front of your laptop reading the congratulatory email, and you're in disbelief. You think to yourself that surely there had to have been a mistake. You start to wonder what you did to deserve such amazingness or worst, start to feel like you're a fraud.
Sounds like a case of Imposter Syndrome, and we've all been there. It is a psychological phenomenon, not a diagnosis or disorder, in which folks believe that they're inadequate and incompetent despite evidence that indicates the opposite. They struggle to internalize their accomplishments and attribute them to serendipitous luck or connections.
Much as been written on ways that Imposter Syndrome can manifest in us, usually categorized by "types." Ellen Hendriksen discusses three common ones, and how they may have come to be:
"I'm a fraud:" the root is fear, that you will be revealed or unmasked. You often feel as if this is the day your true self will be dug up and exposed.
"It's just luck:" the second type of Impostor Syndrome credits achievements to luck. A close cousin to “It’s just luck,” is “I’m not really smart (or talented or qualified), I just work hard,” which is really common among women.
"Oh, this old thing?" Folks struggle to receive a compliment or award and typically downplay it.
So how does it happen? While there aren't any conclusive studies that answer these questions, psychologists have been able to see commonalities between those who exhibit Imposter Syndrome, including:
Over-Praising as a Child: Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, sheds light on a common parenting mistake. Well-meaning parents often over-praise their kids by showering them with compliments like, “You’re so smart! You’re so pretty!” While these labels are meant to be flattering, they actually imply that there’s nowhere left to grow.
“You’re smart” implies that “smart” is a you’ve-got-it-or-you-don’t characteristic. Either you’re smart or you’re not, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Therefore, whenever kids make a mistake, they question the “smart” label. “If I got a C this once, then maybe I’m not smart after all?" As a result, it decreases children's willingness to try new things, for fear they might prove their label wrong. This lays fertile ground for Impostor Syndrome.
Belonging to a Marginalized Community: women, people of color, LGBTQ+IA, non-binary folks, or others who don’t match the majority of a group or culture often feel illegitimate or fake, despite their qualifications and accomplishments.
Failure to see your background reflected in the majority exacerbates this kind of Impostor Syndrome. For example, being the first in the family to attend college is an amazing achievement, and can feel like a floundering imitation without an experienced guide. First-generation achievers may feel like they don’t fit in anywhere—they’re out of step both at home and in their new environment.
The Side Effects of Meritocracy: High achievers are only high achievers when compared to others. Such folks have been compared to others their whole lives—when earning grades, winning awards, being admitted into colleges, landing jobs. They often come out on top, which does two things. First, they value the process of comparison because they have done well by it. Second, they are extra alert to the process. Awareness of being evaluated and caring deeply about the outcome is an important mindset for success, but when it backfires, it lays a foundation for feeling like a phony.
Feeling a little imposter-ish lately? Try these techniques, courtesy of Harvard Business Review:
**Recognize imposter feelings when they emerge. Awareness is the first step to change, so ensure you track these thoughts: what they are and when they emerge.
**Rewrite your mental programming. Instead of telling yourself they are going to find you out or that you don’t deserve success, remind yourself that it’s normal not to know everything and that you will find out more as you progress.
**Talk about your feelings. There may be others who feel like imposters too – it’s better to have an open dialogue rather than harbor negative thoughts alone.
**Consider the context. Most people will have experience moments or occasions where they don’t feel 100% confident. There may be times when you feel out of your element and self-doubt can be a normal reaction. If you catch yourself thinking that you are useless, reframe it: “the fact that I feel useless RIGHT NOW does not mean that I really am.”
**Reframe failure as a learning opportunity. Find out the lessons and use them constructively in the future. This is a critical lesson for everyone.
**Be kind to yourself. Remember that you are entitled to make mistakes occasionally and forgive yourself. Don’t forget to reward yourself for getting the big things right.
**Seek support. Everyone needs help: recognize that you can seek assistance and that you don’t have to do everything alone. This will give you a good reality check and help you talk things through.
**Visualize your success. Keep your eye on the outcome – completing the task or making the presentation, which will keep you focused and calm.
Do you have any other strategies for dealing with imposter syndrome? What works – and doesn’t work – for you?