A fear that teachers or colleagues will realise you have no real grasp on the work.
A snake of insecurity that means you can’t comprehend how you deserve to be part of a friendship circle.
A shiver of apprehension every time you have to present something because of a belief that your ideas or results can’t possibly be enough.
Or – as in my case – a cold, constant voice in the back of your head telling you that you are not really a writer, that you’ve been fooling everyone and one day they’ll turn on you because of it.
Oh yes, it’s time to talk Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome is something that needs to be talked about more.
Despite not being being perceived as a mental disorder, feeling like a fake can be debilitating.
Linked to issues with confidence and self-esteem, psychologists recognise that it can lead to self-sabotaging behaviours, anxiety and depression. In part because it’s an alienating form of intellectual self-doubt.
Moreover – although far from an exclusively ‘young’ thing – all around me are twentysomethings who claim to feel like impostors. In fact, it’s estimated that around 70% of people struggle with Impostorism.
So why don’t more of us know what Impostor Syndrome is?
Impostor Syndrome or Impostorism is the inability to internalise your success; instead believing others have an inflated perception of your abilities, that you’ll be ‘found out’ or that your accomplishments are due to external factors (such as luck, affirmative action, or nepotism).
A huge number of writers and artists describe this: John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman, John Green, Chuck Lorre, Emma Watson, Tommy Cooper, Henry Marsh, Amanda Palmer, Frances Hardinge, Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss.
One of my best friends – another creative – is a walking case study.
Despite going from dream job to dream job and building a CV that is – by all accounts – brilliant, she cannot and will not believe she deserves her success. She doesn’t understand what she’s doing in these roles (attributing it all to luck). Over tea, she’s confessed that she feels like she slipped through the system undetected and one day her colleagues will find out.
But there’s a reason she hasn’t been ‘found out’ yet. She’s a bona fide #girlboss. Hustling harder than anyone I know, she’s earnt every position. Yet giving praise only fuels her belief that others think more highly of her than deserved.
So why does she – or anyone – feel this way?
Some say it’s a girl thing.
Sheryl Sandberg puts this forward in her business book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead and a cursory google search will throw up any number of results on the topic of female fraudism. In the first psychology papers covering the issue, it was defined as “an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.”
Whilst seminal in 1978, this conclusion is now a bit simplistic.
Not only have further studies shown plenty of men suffer with Imposterism, but there are nuances.
“Wait a minute, maybe I’m really not that smart after all.”
For one, as pointed out by behavioural specialist, Caroline Webb, for the Huffington Post: [the feeling] often goes along with an aspirational approach to your life.
“If you are interested in personal growth and development, by definition you are always going to be pushing yourself into something which is new. And when things are new, of course we don’t feel as comfortable in our skin as when we are doing something which is deeply familiar to us, and which we’ve been doing for five or 10 years.”
In this sense, Impostor Syndrome seems to be linked by similar experiences rather than by gender.
Namely, the desire to learn and grow and hustle and do better and be better.
You work hard, you achieve more, you put yourself into positions that mean you’re not the smartest in the room. You’re faking it until you make it – but instead of one day realising that you’ve made it, you still feel false.
Graduate students, young professionals, aspiring creatives – are all likely to experience a feeling of fraudism at one time or another. So are people changing jobs, taking up a new project, or starting a relationship.
There are then a couple of reasons why smart high-achievers might feel like fakes.
One, self deprecation takes the pressure off – not because you’re a phoney phoney but because you’re scared of not living up to the hype. Feeling good about yourself is too threatening. You may know, privately, that you can do anything you put your mind to, but this is pitted against much louder public self-doubt that protects you from humiliation or recrimination.
Impostorism is therefore a protective mechanism.
We compare our insides with other people’s outsides. Judge ourselves as lacking.
Social media can increases our sense of alienation. Creating a way to ensure we compare almost every aspect of our lives to those of others, we don’t just think about the successes of friends and family but complete strangers.
These are all ego-based conceptions of identity involving physicality, occupation, romance, and arbitrary conceptions of cool.
The true, messy, psychological reality sitting inside each and every person’s skull is ignored.
But Imposter Syndrome is a state not a trait.
Moreover, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
According to some studies it could even be a sign of emotional awareness and intelligence.
Apparently there are ways to harness it – turn it into a positive rather than a negative; let it guide us rather than control us.
We need to become aware of the comparison trap. As easy as it is to succumb to comparisonitis, contrasting our well-rounded knowledge of our faults and failures to the highlights reel of someone else’s perfectly filtered instalife. If you must look into other people’s lives, use it as inspiration not self-antagonism.
We need to own our achievements. Stop comparing so much and focus on our own results. Because every moment we spend focusing on others, we’re not realising our own potential. Accept the compliment. Say thank you. Write down those moments you’re proud of. Smile.
We need to give up our ego. There’s nothing wrong with high-standards, but there’s no such thing as being ‘perfectly ready’ or ‘the right moment’. If you’re always waiting, nothing will ever get finished. If you’re never wrong, you’ll never grow. Let go of your self importance. Do and say what you can. Hustle. Get shit done.
We need to be sincere. Whether it’s problem solving or giving a friend something new to chew on, providing value is a much underestimated ability. Lay yourself bare. Be candid to the point of cringeworthy. Ok you don’t have to do it with the world, but share yourself totally with one or two key people. You’re not nearly as weird as you think you are.
We need to call it Impostor Syndrome. Because the best way to really tackle Impostor Syndrome is to talk about Impostor Syndrome. This isn’t Fight Club.
Recognise this part of your mental landscape for what it is and discuss it with people.
You’ll be surprised at how many people feel the same.
WANT TO READ MORE?
Some of the articles I’ve read on this have been instrumental in giving me the confidence to write this blog.
Here are just a few.
My Imposter Syndrome Has Imposter Syndrome (yes, it’s on Buzzfeed. yes, it’s one of the most open, honest, pieces on this list).
21 Ways To Overcome Imposter Syndrome (a little repetitive but very good overall)
Feeling like an Imposter is not a Syndrome (it’s a totally normal part of experiencing success)
How to ditch Imposter Syndrome once and for all (The Everygirl is a must read for all #girlbosses, just saying)
Why feeling like a fraud can be a good thing (nice round up from Aunt Beeb)
Is Imposter Syndrome a sign of greatness (probably not but it’s no bad thing either)