Have you ever been in a situation where you doubted your ability, felt that everyone else was more competent, intelligent and talented than you, that you didn’t know what you’re doing or were out of your depth? Or maybe you think you don’t deserve what you have, calling it luck rather than skills or qualifications or your ability to fool others into thinking you are more intelligent and capable than you perceive yourself to be.
First identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes as impostor syndrome, one definition is ‘Internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud despite external evidence of competence’. Although we might think it’s just us that feels that way, around 70% of people experience it at some time or other; originally thought to be prevalent amongst high achieving women, more recent research has documented these feelings of inadequacy among men and women, in many professional settings, and among multiple ethnic and racial groups.
What might be the underlying causes?
It isn’t as simple as being an indication of extreme modesty or low self-confidence. It can be linked to self-doubt, fear of success, fear of failure or self-sabotage but it may be more; a constant fear of exposure, isolation and rejection. And it isn’t just an inability to be aware of our own skills and competence, it’s more about the dread of someone challenging you and being exposed.
If our early experience included being frequently criticised, having a strict or undermining parent or an education that put us under pressure to perform rather than learn and punished every small mistake it may have set up our negative self-belief of feeling ‘not xxx enough’.
It may stop us applying for jobs, sharing ideas, stepping up and taking opportunities as fear gets in the way and it might feel easier to do nothing. It can feed negative self-talk as we label ourselves as stupid, incompetent, unlovable or a fraud as we continue to compare ourselves to others and always find ourselves coming up short. In seeing ourselves as somehow flawed we choose to overlook that others are also flawed, yet all we are human and therefore perfectly imperfect.
Modern life adds to our inaccurate view of ourselves with photoshopped images and unrealistic expectations, telling us we should be smarter, more attractive, thinner, richer, more successful, more ‘spiritual’ or work harder as we look to social media as a source of information. All that does is fuel the fire of comparison, adds to our feelings of inadequacy, diminishes our ability to seek a more balanced, truthful perspective about ourselves and the world and can lead to isolation and anxiety.
The key is for us to realise just how many other people feel the same and recognising that the feeling doesn’t go away with success and it can affect both work and personal life. What could help? Talking about it; sharing thoughts and hearing others’ stories about their challenges and problems helps us to connect, shift our perspective and build our understanding. Exploring our internal dialogue and seeking support from a neutral source that questions our view of our self can also help.