If you hear a friend playing down their achievements by saying, “Oh I just got lucky this time,” or, “It was just a fluke,” they may just be being modest, or they may actually believe it. The truth is that countless numbers of high-achieving and successful people feel as if they are faking it, that they are really just incompetent frauds. These feelings of inadequacy are so common that the term “impostor syndrome” has been coined.
People who suffer from imposter syndrome often don’t experience an inner sense of competence or achievement, no matter how great their successes. Consider the great actor Meryl Streep, who despite being nominated for the most Academy Awards and Golden Globes in history, told an interviewer that she thinks to herself, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
People with impostor syndrome usually have a confident exterior, but deep down they are consumed by self-doubt. They frequently feel like a talentless fake, and walk around plagued with fear that they will soon be “found out.” The late Maya Angelou revealed her struggle with imposter feelings: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ “
Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, writes: “Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss them as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm – even computer error. Because people who have the impostor syndrome feel that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected, in their mind it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.”
The good news is that if you relate to these imposter feelings, you may actually be highly intelligent and competent. Neuroscientist and former TED speaker Bradley Voytek describes how imposter syndrome appears to be “fairly rampant among academics and other “smart” people.” So, ironically, the very people who feel like they’re faking it are often those who have the most cause to be proud of their talents and accomplishments. It makes sense when you think about it. It’s difficult to imagine that the most incompetent and lazy people lose too much sleep worrying about whether they are faking it. Intelligent high achievers are much more aware of what they do not know.
So look out for the three main indicators of imposter syndrome: (a) feeling like a fake, (b) attributing success to luck, and (c) discounting your achievements. Take comfort in knowing that you’re probably way off the mark and are more than likely an intelligent and diligent high-achiever. Don’t let your doubts stop you from finishing your studies, taking that promotion, or following through with that business idea. If you do, then you are underestimating your own capabilities as well as the failures that other successful people have had in the past. Next time you find yourself dismissing praise, stop to consider whether the person praising you generally lies or gets things wrong. If the answer is no, then perhaps you really are doing a great job. And finally, if imposter syndrome is making it impossible for you to enjoy your life, then consider consulting a psychologist who can help you to build your self-esteem by more realistically appraising your strengths and accomplishments. You probably deserve it.