Living with impostor syndrome
Do you ever feel like your success is mainly down to luck or that your bosses overestimate your abilities? If so, you may be one of the many people who experience impostor syndrome.
This term is given to those who experience persistent feelings of inadequacy, despite their apparent evidence of success. Those with this condition suffer from chronic self-doubt; a fear of being exposed as a fraud; a sense that any success may be circumstantial or luck — and therefore may not be easily replicated; and the chasing of excessively high standards in order to avoid exposure. No amount of success or positive feedback seems to top up the ego bank.
Some common thoughts and feelings associated with impostor syndrome include:
“I must not fail”. A fear of being exposed as a fraud or “found out” leads to striving. However, this causes increased stress, not merely because of the self-imposed pressure to outperform, but also because striving results in a negative cycle of increasing responsibility and expectations from others. Consequently, success often brings about more stress than enjoyment.
“I’m not supposed to be here”. Impostors often feel that they have deceived others into believing they are capable. They may think that others have misjudged them or overestimated their abilities.
“I just got lucky”. They tend to attribute success to luck or other external reasons and not their abilities. They often fear they will not be able to succeed the next time and are terrified of slowing down and/or reducing their standards.
So, why are some people more vulnerable to impostor syndrome than others? Here are some conditions we associate with impostor syndrome:
• Many were raised in environments that placed a big emphasis on achievement; hence, there may be a felt sense of conditional approval or love
• Parents who are highly emotive and alternate between praise and criticism can increase the risk of future fraudulent feelings, and create fragility in worth and self-esteem
• Societal and cultural pressures to achieve, with any sense that value or worth are linked to success, can contribute to anxiety and impostor syndrome
• Impostor syndrome seems to be more common among minorities, who may feel they have to prove themselves more than others
• Impostor syndrome, high standards and perfectionism often go together, as they tend to need to perform exceptionally in order to offset their anxiety and feel good enough
Put simply, those with impostor syndrome get stuck in a never-ending cycle between threat and drive — where threat is the fear of being exposed and drive is the strive to prove themselves over and over.
While this can be effective, it is often entirely exhausting and miserable for the person. They never reach a place of comfort; of feeling like a good employee; valued and secure. Long term, this increases the risk of burnout, poor health and increased sick leave, and reduced performance. Because of this, employers would also do well to be aware of these challenges.
So, what can you do to mitigate the negative effects of impostor syndrome?
• Recognise these thoughts and name them for what they are. These doubts come from impostor syndrome — they are thoughts only, not reality
• Be careful of distortions. Try to be aware of how distortions might fuel the impostor syndrome anxiety. Setting the standard too high? Fearing the absolute worst? Making it personal? These fire up the threat-strive cycle. Get off the roundabout, kiddo!
• Talk about your feelings. About 70 per cent of people feel this at some point in their life, so talk about it and you will likely find you aren’t alone. It might also be worth talking to your employer about how they can support you with this issue
• Context is important. There may be times when self-doubt can be a normal reaction, like being new to a role, or being put on a task that is unfamiliar. Work on normalising your uncertainty and being compassionate about it — you can’t be an expert at everything
• Be realistic. No one is perfect and your work-life balance has to be achievable and sustainable — don’t bust a gut and make yourself miserable. You aren’t only as good as your last project
• Seek support. Impostors tend to see seeking help as an admission of inadequacy, so prefer to do everything on their own! This only reinforces those impossible expectations again
• Allow your ego bank to top up. Often those with impostor syndrome discount anything good; act opposite and congratulate yourself on your successes, allow yourself some pride, and work on your inner cheerleader — that bank needs a top-up!
• Set boundaries. Set boundaries around your time and energies; striving is OK, but not if you are overwhelmed, neglecting your needs, stressed and burnt out. Sustainability is key, and that includes happiness.
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor