I still remember the relief I experienced when, during the final year of my clinical training, a supportive supervisor gave name to the anxiety I was experiencing –that maybe one day someone would knock on my door and pronounce to the world that I was not a real psychologist – ‘imposter syndrome’. Knowing that this was a common experience amongst those of us who were considered successful and well educated gave me great comfort.
Imposter syndrome has been defined as ‘the inability to internalise success’, or see success as linked to our innate ability, and is experienced most commonly by women who are educated or who are successful in their chosen field. A great friend of mine, a woman whom I admire and who is one of the most competent women I know (and I know a lot of competent women) describes what she experienced as a “constant state of mind… you feel that at any moment it’s all over and they’ll realise that you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing and they never should have given you the job. Any time you make a little mistake or even when you just think you could have done better you think, look what I’ve done, now I’m going to get found out.” She goes on to describe feeling isolated in her experience because sharing it may lead to discovery, and being stuck in a state of anxiety as she attempted to compensate for her feared lack of ability or competence. This experience is something I often hear in both clients and friends.
Researchers (Watson and Betts) have explained that imposter syndrome is more common in women due to their tendency to attribute their success to external factors such as luck or to a temporary factor such as effort. Failure conversely is often attributable to internal factors such as a lack of intelligence or ability. This is why despite significant objective evidence of success, which is clearly obvious to others, women continue to experience, at times, crippling anxiety that they will soon be revealed as a fraud or imposter. It has been suggested that women expect of themselves what Clance and Imes called “effortless perfection” – that is, true intelligence or competence would mean easily being able to perform with excellence with little or no work, on every occasion. Stated like that, it sounds a bit irrational, but it is a phenomena that many women have internalised, meaning they don’t really believe their success is due to them, but was only possible due to a significant amount of effort, luck or support.
Through my work with clients two main themes come through as people discuss the anxiety they experience about being ‘good enough’ to be embodying the role they have taken on. One is a comparison to others’ ‘outside selves’ and the belief that others appear to achieve things with ease, making them infinitely ‘better’. The second is holding on to a childhood concept that when one ‘makes it’ as an adult, they are filled with a certain calm and certainty. To not feel like this is then taken as evidence that one does not deserve to belong, and will soon be discovered as a fraud.
Imposter syndrome is problematic in several ways. It increases anxiety and stress, can cause sufferers to risk their health and happiness as they put in long hours and intense effort to making sure they do a ‘good enough’ job. Further successes are not enjoyed, meaning at times there is little reward for the hard work. Lastly, people often miss opportunities because they do not put themselves forward due to a belief that they don’t really have the skills and knowledge to achieve higher goals. Each new challenge produces the fear that this will be the time ‘I’m found out’. This worry, anxiety, self-doubt and little reward can at times lead to the development of anxiety disorders, burnout or depression.
So what can we do? Simply sharing this experience with others can help to feel less alone. As we reality check others feeling this way, we can also perhaps become more able to see that this concept of ourselves is at time biased and unfair.
Other strategies can include:
Recording examples of successes, accomplishments and positive feedback; come back to read this when your inner critic is singing imposter syndrome loudly in your mind;
Letting go of perfection as a goal and accepting that you had some role in your success;
Imagining challenging the person who praised you. For example, how would your boss respond if you said, “I didn’t really do a good job on that, I think you were rushed and distracted when you reviewed the document”?; and
Learning to recognise and name the thoughts, for example, saying to yourself, “that is an imposter syndrome thought, I don’t need to engage with that” and redirecting your attention to the task at hand.
If you find that these strategies are not enough, and that the anxiety associated with imposter syndrome is overwhelming and having a significant impact on your life, talking to a psychologist or another health professional may be beneficial for you.