The Happee Times
Invest In Your Happiness
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Understanding the roots
Attribution patterns of people with imposter syndrome
Befriending the imposter
How it is hindering your life
‘Imposter syndrome’, we’ve all been coming across this term a lot lately and might think it’s a new concept. Interestingly, the term originated in the late 1970s and was coined by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes who worked with highly qualified and successful professors and students and noticed within them, a pattern of…
“Feeling like a fraud”
“Feeling undeserving of a position/ title”
“Feeling that one has been succeeding out of pure luck”
Imposter syndrome is called a ‘syndrome’ because it is a group of symptoms that are collectively experienced by an individual making them feel like all of the achievements, they’ve had in life are a result of external forces like luck or chance and that they are undeserving of these successes.
They feel a kind of pressure created by this “luck”, the pressure of feeling like they are a lot less competent than people believe them to be. The main emotion governing these feelings is FEAR, the fear of being exposed as a fraud. “The day my luck doesn’t work, I’m going to get exposed and it’s all going to be over for me”.
It is essential to mention that imposter syndrome isn’t only about one’s achievements, it runs considerably deeper, plaguing various domains of one’s life.
Studies say that on average, 7 out of every 10 people have experienced ‘feeling like an imposter' at some point in their lives. But based on a lot of factors, some of us tend to feel it more deeply.
The long journey of dethroning the imposter in your mind involves a series of challenges.
Challenge 1: The Irony of Acceptance
The very tip of the iceberg when dealing with imposter syndrome i.e., accepting that one is experiencing imposter syndrome, is an irony in itself.
Accepting this means that one has to fully believe that they aren’t really frauds, that this voice in their head is just the imposter speaking. But the imposter in their heads keeps trying to convince them otherwise.
“Imposter syndrome isn’t for you; you are a real fraud.”
“Don’t try to hide your incompetence behind a curtain of imposter syndrome.”
“Imposter syndrome is for people who have achieved a lot in life. Your achievements are a result of luck. You don’t deserve to fall in this category.”
Trying to dim down this initial internal chatter of your thoughts telling you that you aren’t even worthy of experiencing imposter syndrome is a huge ordeal in itself.
Challenge 2: Digging for the Roots
Even though we’re moving towards challenge 2, throughout this journey, one needs to keep working on the acceptance bit simultaneously. Dealing with imposter syndrome, as a whole, is majorly about being able to bring acceptance to the fact that the thoughts the imposter puts into your head aren’t true. They are only based on feelings and not facts.
Most of the literature studying this phenomenon states that the very roots of it can be understood by going back to our roots i.e. our childhood.
Note: Reflecting on our past/ childhood is not about blaming anyone. It is only an attempt at trying to gain a better understanding of ourselves and why our present patterns are the way they are.
The following are some examples of the kind patterns that could potentially lead to feelings of being an imposter.
When a child has grown up being good at something like academics/sports for a long period of time, they start to form a belief that this skill comes easy to them and that this ease will continue throughout their life. They stop acknowledging the hard work they put in for it and expect themselves to be perfect at it every time, without a fail. The problem with this is that the moment they find this activity even remotely difficult to tackle, they start getting bombarded with thoughts like “guess I’m a fraud”, “oh, I’ve been able to trick everyone into thinking I could do this”, “the time has come, I’m going to get exposed”.
On a similar track, children who’ve always been the ‘smart’ ones in the family and who’ve been praised mostly for their achievements and success feel pressured by expectations; ones that they think others have from them and those that they put on themselves. This also puts them in danger of depending only on external validation and not knowing how to validate themselves internally and feel content by themselves.
One possibility to the beginning of failed internal validation systems could be the tricky nature of teaching children that boasting is wrong and that one should stay humble. We all know that we are born as “tabula rasa” or blank slates, hence our first learnings leave permanent imprints on us. Since children don’t question these initial learnings, there are chances of them interpreting the extremes of these concepts.
A child might build a concept that since boasting is morally wrong, even thinking about your achievements could get one ‘up in their head’. This could prevent them from letting themselves feel the sweet moments of pride, post achievement, and even potentially make them downplay themselves in an attempt to stay humble. Hence, failing to establish a practice of internal validation.
Challenge 3: Recognising the Faulty Attribution Patterns
If you can relate to any of this information, it is time to question your attribution patterns.
Questioning your attribution patterns is one of the best ways to objectively see the discrepancies in your beliefs.
Attribution is a term used to refer to what a person believes causes something. People tend to either have an inclination towards internal attribution, where they believe that they are in control of all of their life outcomes. On the flip side, people with a strong incline towards external attribution tend to believe that their life outcomes are mostly due to their luck, happen by chance, or by means of other external forces.
Now what’s fascinating to know is that people with imposter syndrome tend to have really interesting patterns of attribution.
1. They attribute their successes to external factors.
2. They attribute their failures to internal factors.
For example, one who feels like an imposter, on getting that promotion, they had been waiting for, instead of thinking “Wow, I have learned a lot, my hard work really paid off”, they would have thoughts like “I just had good luck this time”, “I got it because my colleague quit and I was their only option”, “I’ve managed to fool everyone once again”.
So, their successes are not their doing but failure? Oh! it’s all them.
“I didn’t work as hard as I do all the time”, “Guess my incompetence is finally showing”, and “I’m a total failure”.
Something to ponder upon here is that if your failures are all your fault, aren’t your successes the result of your own doing as well?
Challenge 4: Befriending Discomfort
All of us experience some level of self-doubt when we face a challenge in our life but why is it that some of us are able to get through it with ease whereas some falter into imposter feelings from it?
Dr. Jessamy Hibberd explains it to a tee in her book ‘The Imposter Cure’ where she differentiates, very clearly, between the patterns of people experiencing imposter feelings and those who don’t.
Try and attempt to understand this difference.
When doing something new, feeling anxious about it is normal right? Absolutely! You haven’t done this before and hence feeling anxious about it is the most normal thing ever. In fact, the literature says that a healthy level of anxiety, or arousal, actually gets you motivated and puts you into action, helping you carry out the activity efficiently.
The first two steps are the same for people going through imposter syndrome as well; something new, anxiety, yes. But instead of objectively thinking “I haven’t done this exact same thing before, so it’s normal for me to experience discomfort. I believe in myself; I can get through this” they go down the route of “I have done similar things before and succeeded at them. I shouldn’t be feeling anxious about this at all. The fact that I am feeling anxious means I’ve never had the right skills to complete this task. My past successes must’ve been my luck. What if my luck doesn’t help me this time? I’m going to be exposed”.
Challenge 5: The Vicious Trap
Scanning through this pattern, one might think, that if this person succeeds this time, their self-doubt will definitely decrease a little. But, as a matter of fact, the more these individuals achieve, the more the ‘imposter’ feelings are amplified.
This is because now that they’ve set this bar for another achievement and the external forces have worked yet another time, they feel that the expectations that society has for them are even higher than before.
They feel pressured to keep up with these expectations and overwork themselves to the point where they get exhausted and might even experience burnout.
Challenge 6: Dethroning the Imposter
Being able to differentiate the voices in your head and knowing when it is “the imposter speaking” takes effort but once you have a hang of it, it becomes easier and more natural to point out.
Once this recognition mechanism is built and worked on, one can slowly take the control back, eventually dethroning the imposter’s voice.
Since imposter syndrome handicaps one’s ability to be able to assess their capabilities realistically, it proves to be helpful to reach out for help whenever needed.
Why One Needs to Prioritise Challenging their Imposter Feelings
The “I am an imposter” feelings predominantly start by taking ground in one’s work/school achievements but gradually they start to overflow into other areas of life as well.
They could translate into one’s relationships in the form of thoughts like “Am I even a good friend?” “Why do they even like to hang out with me?” “Am I even a good person or have I fooled everyone into thinking I am one?”
If and when these intrusive thoughts are not recognized and worked upon at the right time, the individual going through them starts questioning every belief that they’ve had about themselves and might even feel a sense of identity loss.
In the conflict between “knowledge is power” and “ignorance is bliss”, “Knowledge is power” without a doubt takes the card in regard to learning about imposter syndrome because there are several layers to it, the more you know the less you seem to.