Imposter Syndrome is a shockingly common psychological phenomenon experienced by an estimated 70% of the population. Chances are you’ve probably had such a mindset at least once, but perhaps you couldn’t pinpoint the exact words to describe the feelings you had. Imposter syndrome, as defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), is where “highly accomplished, successful individuals paradoxically believe they are frauds who ultimately will fail and be unmasked as incompetent”. In other words, it’s when you feel like you aren’t worthy of what you have accomplished, and are not good enough to be where you are. Successes and accomplishments are thought to be attributed to sheer luck, rather than one’s actual skills and capabilities. While this psychological pattern was initially thought to be applicable to women and women only, studies over the years have shown that men are equally as susceptible to the same psychological pitfall. This phenomenon is rarely spoken of – individuals with imposter syndrome usually suffer in silence, and this is a likely case of them being afraid to be exposed as a “phoney”.
An expert on imposter syndrome and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young categorises it into 5 main types:
1. The Perfectionist
The broader definition of an imposter syndrome may sound superficially applied to intelligence and achievements, but as we delve deeper, we can see that it has close links to perfectionism as well. Perfectionists tend to set extremely high expectations for themselves, and for some even unrealistic ones. You may have heard something along the lines of “the higher the expectation, the greater the disappointment”, and this can hold true for these perfectionists. When expectations are set too high, these individuals tend to feel like a failure when they are thrown off by even the smallest mistakes or setbacks. Waves of self-doubt and inferiority can overcome them, making them feel like they are unable to measure up to other accomplished people when they overly fixate on their flaws. This group of people are thus also prone to developing anxiety due to the great deal of pressure they impose on themselves.
2. The Superman / Superwoman
Individuals who fall under this category tend to overwork themselves (past the point of what’s really necessary) as they have convinced themselves deep down that they are phoneys. Fearing that they are unable to match up to real-deal colleagues, friends or family members, these people drown themselves in work in an attempt to achieve more. This can take the form of working extra long hours, feeling guilty and stressed whenever they’re not working, or feeling the need to sacrifice self-care for work. These are unfortunately merely false cover-ups for their insecurities, which may not even be a cause for concern. Needless to say, these individuals must take care not to over-exert themselves, as it can take a tremendous toll on their mental and physical health over time.
3. The Expert
Experts base their competency levels on how much they know, or how much they can do. In a sense, they try to quantify their capabilities in order to prove their worth. Constantly haunted by the idea of not knowing enough, or being exposed to be unintelligent or underqualified, these people often underrate their current level of expertise. As such, they may strive to seek out additional trainings, certifications continuously and excessively in order to upgrade themselves and to attain success. Of course, there is no fault in focusing on self-improvement, but hoarding knowledge for false comfort isn’t the way to go.
4. The Natural Genius
This group of individuals are somewhat similar to the Experts, yet there are still slight differences between them. Instead of measuring their successes by how much they can do or know, these people measure their level of competence by the ease and speed of which they can achieve their goals. As the categorical name implies, these people believe that they need to be “natural geniuses”. They pressure themselves to achieve their goals fast, and if possible, on their first try. When plans fall through and they end up taking longer to master certain things, they start feeling an overwhelming sense of shame and worthlessness.
5. The Soloist
These people are highly individualistic – to the point where they feel like a failure whenever they have to seek help or assistance from others. They equate their self-worth to their productivity and ability to achieve results on their own. Hence, asking for assistance can seem like a sign of incompetency or weakness for them.
For some, imposter syndrome can act as a motivational force for them to strive to achieve a better version of themselves. However, this can come at the cost of your mental wellbeing, developing into feelings of constant anxiety and even depression. A major issue with struggling with an imposter syndrome is that it deprives you of the ability to internalise your successes – you may very well be capable of achieving the goals you set, but the more you achieve, the more you feel like they were merely flukes. This brings us to our next point: how can we get past this imposter syndrome?
It is very important for us to first acknowledge our thoughts and put them in perspective. When you start feeling waves of insecurity, worthlessness and start downplaying your own abilities, try focusing on the facts. Focusing on the valid reasons and on your qualifications can help you see things in a different light, and realise that you’re truly deserving of your achievements. Let’s think this through – how many “flukes” will it take to convince you that you’re actually good at something?
Instead of fixating on your mistakes alone, remember to celebrate your successes! We need to acknowledge that while we may occasionally miss the target, there will be times when we’ll hit the bullseye. A great start would be to start embracing your successes and allowing yourself to receive praise and recognition for them. For example, picture a scenario where someone commends or compliments you for achieving certain targets. A person with imposter syndrome would likely have an urge to ignore it, reject it, or simply brush it off awkwardly. However, the next time you encounter situations like these, try something new. Say “thank you”, bask in these moments and accept the recognition you deserve.
Sharing your feelings with trusted friends and family members can be tremendously freeing too. Allow yourself to rely on your social network. Just as how others would approach you to share their feelings, rant, or to ask for assistance, don’t be afraid to seek them out when necessary. Bottling up your feelings can lead to further festering of negative, irrational beliefs that will ultimately do you more harm than good. Rest assured that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness or incompetence. Alternatively, seek professional help from a mental health expert to help you break the cycle of imposter thinking, if you’re crippled by the fear of being found to be a phoney. Individual therapy can equip you with the tools to build on self-acceptance, confidence and to reframe your mindset to serve you better. At the end of the day, keep in mind that you’re not an imposter, you’re an original.
- Sakulku, J. (1). The Impostor Phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75-97. https://doi.org/10.14456/ijbs.2011.6
- https://dictionary.apa.org/impostor-phenomenon (Accessed 13/05/2021)
- https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469 (Accessed 13/05/2021)