I’m sure you’ve all been there – earning a promotion, getting into uni or finding your dream job. All your hard work and sacrifices have paid off, and you should feel on top of the world. And for most of the time, you do. You feel happy and accept people’s congratulations of “I knew you could do it!” But despite all this, what about that niggling feeling of ‘why me?’, the feeling that you don’t quite fit in with your peers and that they are all so much smarter and more deserving to be there than you? Why can you not share the confidence in yourself held by your friends and family? This is known as Imposter Syndrome and tends to affect high achieving individuals, and is especially common in women (although men can of course suffer from this too).
Imposter syndrome can negatively affect your self-esteem, mood, and locus of control (this means you feel as though you have little control over things that happen to you). It has been found to be worse in people who feel as though they are outsiders, which could perhaps lead to feelings of not being as good as those around you.
The term Imposter Syndrome was first coined by Clance & Imes in 1978, where it was identified to affect high achieving women. They studied women who were towards the top of the career ladder, or who were studying at either undergraduate or postgraduate level.
The women in the study who had the condition reported that they felt like a fraud, and thought they had only achieved their PhD or got onto their current role because of other factors, for example a mistake in the admissions process or because of others overestimating their abilities. Despite their excellent achievements they didn’t feel qualified to be working or studying at the level they were at and were fearful of being found out. Clance & Imes explain that the women ‘do not experience an internal feeling of success’ which leads them to overlook their achievements.
This inability to have an internal feeling of success is an important symptom to note. One of the causes of imposter syndrome has been identified as having problems with attributions of success. For someone who suffers with these symptoms, they tend to explain a positive event such as a promotion as being down to an external unstable cause, such as luck or someone else’s mistake. The ‘external’ is important here, as it reinforces the fact that successes are not attributed to their own skills and actions. This has been shown to occur more in women than men, who are more likely to attribute success to an internal cause, such as skill or hard work (Deaux, 1976). This author hypothesised that if a women refers to a success as due to an unstable external factor, it does not give her confidence that she will be successful in the future, which causes a cycle of feelings of being an imposter.
So what next? If you’re suffering from Imposter Syndrome, what can you do to overcome it?
I spent a while searching academic journals for evidence on interventions that have been successful in reducing these symptoms. Unfortunately, any combination of the words *imposter* *syndrome* *treatment* or *overcoming* found no relevant results at all.
So instead, here are some recommendations that I did manage to find – mostly from various news articles or academic blogs (see below) mixed with my own advice. Also please remember that I’m not a healthcare professional, but I hope you find them helpful.
- Be mindful of your self expectations. Don’t expect to be the best at everything and accept you don’t know it all and that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know something, that’s much more productive than sitting there feeling inadequate because of it.
- Make sure you acknowledge the work you’ve done and remember that you’ve worked hard to be where you are now. Once my colleague corrected me when I described myself as ‘lucky’ for getting my current role – “no you weren’t, you applied to loads and worked really hard”. It turned out to be a very helpful comment – good things don’t just happen, you have to make them.
- Aim to be ‘good enough’ – it isn’t realistic to strive for perfection. If you’re trying to make something perfect, it is likely you will never finish it. Instead accept that ‘good enough’ can sometimes be the way to go.
- Finally, talk to someone about how you’re feeling – they will probably say they’ve felt like that before too, and you’ll realise you’re not alone.
Whether or not you are a student or work in academia, I can recommend this posts on Imposter Syndrome: http://jameshaytonphd.com/phd-impostor-syndrome/