In 1978, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes gave a new, psychological name to an old problem. The psychologists described people who believe that they are not worthy of their achievements as having “imposter syndrome.” Whether imposter syndrome is a modern phenomenon or an ancient problem is unknown, however, what is known is that imposter syndrome plagues many intelligent, creative, and capable people.
People with imposter syndrome go through what Clance and Imes call the “imposter cycle.” In the imposter cycle, a person starts a task or project and then experiences self-doubt. They’ll do one of two things–either they’ll over-prepare or procrastinate. Eventually, they’ll put in the effort, accomplish the task, and feel relieved. Next, however, a person suffering from imposter syndrome will dismiss any accolades and start to feel undeserving, instead of feeling confident about their accomplishment.They regard their accomplishment as a fluke, a stroke of luck, and the cycle repeats itself.
In the New York Times, Carl Richards called imposter syndrome “a fear that you are bumping up against the limits of your ability.” However, Clance and Imes might view Richards as an exception rather than a rule: when they coined the phrase in 1978 they noted that the problem seemed to emerge predominantly in women. There are a couple of theories as to why this may be the case.
Anna Kegler (a writer and feminist) wrote about why she believes imposter syndrome affects women disproportionately. In the Huffington Post, Kegler says “women are assumed to be less confident, less trustworthy and are held to a higher overall standard than men.” She also noted that it’s more common for a woman’s work to be ignored, trivialized, devalued or otherwise not taken seriously. Women battle many external forces that reinforce imposter syndrome such as sexism. Women are also more likely to attribute their successes to external factors such as luck, or the help of team members or mentors. Kegler summed up her article eloquently with the succinct words: “Why would you think that you’re competent when nobody else does?”
Imposter syndrome can be dangerous because it limits a person’s capacity. Additionally, it’s insidious because when a person feels like a fraud, there is always the chance of that feeling becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Luckily, there’s a way to fight imposter syndrome, and it simply involves connecting with the right people and changing one’s way of thinking.
First, someone battling imposter syndrome should create a diehard, supportive social network. High-quality relationships dramatically affect quality of life, and they also reduce feelings of incompetence. When people have a supportive social network, their success rate skyrockets. It’s empowering to have people who have your back, support you and encourage your accomplishments. Every successful person has or had someone who believed in them, even when they doubted themselves.
After being surrounded by love, the next step is to gather a coterie of brilliant and resilient minds. A person who is surrounded by brilliance and resilience long enough will naturally learn to mimic techniques for coping with insecurities.
Another way to fight imposter syndrome is to reframe failure. Instead of thinking of failure as the end, think of it as the beginning. Winston Churchill once said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.” A lot of people use fear of failure to propel themselves towards success. Defeating imposter syndrome requires a willingness to fail.
Next, one should acknowledge their talents and gifts. When people have a skill or talent that comes naturally, they are less likely to value that skill. It’s easy to take for granted a talent that’s instinctive. As a person focuses on growing their abilities and becoming a better person, they must be willing to acknowledge that they’re awesome, and allow themselves to simply be who they are.
It can be difficult to overcome imposter syndrome and learn to take real credit for your work and assign value to your accomplishments. But, the good news is that real imposters don’t suffer from imposter syndrome. Which means that if you’re experiencing imposter syndrome–you’re not phony at all!
Kia Wakefield is a poetess, writer, essayist and certified life coach. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and son. Find out more at kiawakefield.com