If an individual is experiencing unfounded feelings of incompetence and self-doubt, it could be an indication of imposter syndrome.
It is important to understand the various characteristics, types, and impacts of this phenomenon in order to overcome these feelings. By gaining more knowledge about imposter syndrome, individuals can take the necessary steps to overcome these negative emotions and achieve greater confidence in their abilities.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome, also referred to as impostorism or the impostor phenomenon, is a psychological experience characterized by persistent feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy despite an individual's accomplishments and experiences. Those who experience imposter syndrome often struggle with second-guessing their abilities and downplaying their achievements, even when they receive positive feedback or recognition from others.
Negative self-talk, anxiety, and restlessness are common manifestations of imposter syndrome, which can be difficult to reconcile with an individual's outward signs of success. Despite its prevalence, imposter syndrome is not a formal or official diagnosis or mental health disorder in the DSM. Research suggests that up to 70% of individuals may experience at least one episode of imposter syndrome during their lifetime.
History of the Impostor Syndrome
The concept of the "Imposter phenomenon" was first introduced in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their article titled "The Imposter phenomenon in High Achieving women". The authors defined imposter feelings as internal experiences of intellectual phoniness.
Clance and Imes conducted their research on women in professional and higher education settings (e.g.,college students and graduate students). They surveyed over 100 women, with approximately one-third of the women being in psychotherapy for other conditions, and the remaining two-thirds being individuals known to the researchers from their therapy groups.
Despite being formally recognized for their academic and professional accomplishments, the surveys revealed that these women did not acknowledge their success internally. Instead, they attributed their achievements to external factors such as luck and underestimated their own abilities.
Ultimately, imposter syndrome directs the blame on individuals, without considering the historical and cultural contexts that contribute to its manifestation, particularly among professional women of color and white women.
This approach shifts the focus to fixing women rather than addressing the systemic issues in the workplace. It pathologizes a common feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace, particularly for women, and wrongly labels it as an imposter syndrome. Feeling unsure should not automatically equate to being an imposter.
Early research believed that gender and family dynamics contributed to imposter syndrome. However, research shows that a combination of factors, including childhood environment and parenting, new responsibilities and opportunities, personality traits, and underlying mental health issues, can also cause imposter syndrome.
Childhood Environment and Parenting
An individual's upbringing and childhood environment can play a significant role in the development of imposter syndrome. Parenting styles are among the factors that can impact this phenomenon. For instance, parents who are overprotective or controlling, pressure their children to excel academically, compare them to others, or sharply criticize their mistakes, can influence the development of imposter syndrome in their children.
Children who come from families that highly value academic achievement and success or those who receive a lot of criticism for their behavior might be used to constant praise during their early years of education. However, when they struggle during their university or college years, they may develop feelings of inadequacy and believe that others are more competent than they are.
Research indicates that children who grow up in an environment characterized by high parental conflict and reduced support are more likely to experience imposter syndrome. Consequently, early family dynamics are crucial in determining an individual's likelihood of experiencing imposter syndrome later in life.
New Opportunities and Responsibilities
It is not uncommon for individuals to experience impostor feelings or feel unworthy when they take on new academic or personal responsibilities and opportunities. Individuals need to be made aware of whether they can meet the expectations or doubt whether their abilities will match with others in the role.
Imposter syndrome is common when individuals try new things or go through transitions. Uncertainty, lack of experience, and the pressure to succeed can trigger imposter feelings. Eventually, the feelings might disappear as individuals become more familiar with the role. Still, the emotions can worsen for some individuals, especially if they do not receive validation, encouragement, or support from their colleagues or supervisors.
Research suggests that certain personality traits are linked to imposter feelings and increase the likelihood of experiencing imposter syndrome. Individuals with certain features or characteristics, such as low self-efficacy (a lack of confidence in one's abilities to succeed in various situations) and perfectionistic tendencies (which can make it challenging to seek help or procrastinate), are more prone to experiencing imposter feelings.
Additionally, individuals who score lower on conscientiousness, one of the big five personality dimensions, and higher on neuroticism (associated with higher levels of guilt, tension, insecurity, and anxiety) may also be at a higher risk of experiencing imposter syndrome.
Co-existing Mental Health Conditions
Imposter syndrome can also intersect with various mental health conditions. Individuals who experience a fear of failure may feel emotional distress, depression, and anxiety. However, experiencing anxiety and depression may mean that individuals are already experiencing worries, self-doubt, and low self-esteem.
Imposter syndrome can exacerbate other mental health conditions, creating a vicious cycle that may be difficult for individuals to break. However, the symptoms of imposter syndrome may overlap with social anxiety disorder. Individuals with social anxiety disorder may also feel that they do not belong in social situations and fear others discovering their incompetence. Symptoms of social anxiety can also contribute to imposter syndrome. However, these conditions do not necessarily have to coexist.
Imposter syndrome can also be perpetuated by the lack of representation of individuals from marginalized communities in positions of power or high achievement. This lack of representation can lead to feelings of isolation and inadequacy in individuals from underrepresented communities. Moreover, cultural stereotypes can also reinforce imposter syndrome in people from certain backgrounds.
It is essential to address and acknowledge systemic racism and gender bias to combat imposter syndrome effectively. Individuals from underrepresented communities must be provided with opportunities to succeed and be supported in their achievements. Addressing systemic bias and promoting diversity and inclusion can help reduce imposter feelings in marginalized groups.
Types of Imposter Syndrome
There are five basic types of imposter syndrome; these include the natural genius, the expert, the perfectionist, the soloist, and the superperson.
The Natural Genius
In the "natural genius" type of imposter syndrome, it is common for individuals to feel inadequate in their own competence and abilities. They may believe that if they do not achieve success or mastery of a skill on their first attempt, they are not naturally competent.
Individuals who have always excelled without putting in much effort may be particularly susceptible to this type of imposter syndrome, as they may feel like a failure if they encounter a challenge that they cannot easily overcome. Additionally, the expectation that competent individuals should be able to succeed effortlessly on their first try can exacerbate feelings of fraudulence.
In this type of imposter syndrome, individuals feel that they need to have complete knowledge and mastery of a particular topic or subject matter before they consider themselves successful. They invest a significant amount of time into researching and learning new information to ensure they are prepared to complete the tasks.
Still, when faced with a situation where they feel like they don't have all the answers or encounter knowledge that they missed, they view themselves as a failure or a fraud. They believe that they have not achieved the position of an "expert" because they have not mastered every step of the process.
Individuals who display perfectionistic tendencies are fixated on achieving success and demand perfection in all aspects of their lives. However, setting unrealistic goals for themselves, they often fail to meet the high standards they set.
These individuals focus on achieving perfection rather than acknowledging their efforts in completing tasks, leading them to criticize themselves for any mistakes made, creating feelings of self-doubt and failure. Additionally, individuals may become too afraid to take on new tasks or experiences as they feel they must meet the standards of perfectionism.
Individuals with soloist impostor syndrome believe they should be able to achieve success independently and without any help from others. They often feel self-doubt and question their abilities and competence if they need assistance from others or must accept support when offered.
These individuals may view asking for help as a sign of weakness and believe that they should be able to handle everything on their own, leading to feelings of inadequacy and impostorism if they cannot.
Individuals experiencing this type of impostor syndrome have high expectations of themselves and believe they should excel in every aspect of their lives. They associate their competence with their ability to succeed in every role they hold, from being a friend or student to a parent or employee.
These individuals believe that they must meet the demands of their roles by achieving the highest levels of success, and failure to do so makes them feel like a fraud or inadequate. Despite putting maximum effort into their roles, these individuals cannot resolve their imposter feelings, which can lead to chronic stress and anxiety.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
To overcome imposter syndrome, individuals need to confront their beliefs and change their mindset and internal thought processes. Strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome include:
In order to overcome imposter syndrome, it is important for individuals to acknowledge their accomplishments and expertise, and remind themselves how they earned their place in their academic or professional environment. Discussing one’s feelings with trusted friends, family members, or others, as it can help individuals feel less distressed and overwhelmed, and allow others to validate their feelings.
To overcome imposter syndrome, individuals need to question their thoughts and challenge their beliefs. This involves examining the evidence and recognizing when they are making assumptions or interpreting events in a negative light.
Additionally, individuals should assess their abilities realistically, accepting their limitations and recognizing areas where they can improve. Developing a growth mindset, focusing on learning and progress, rather than solely on achievement, can help individuals overcome imposter syndrome.
Challenging Beliefs and Doubts
To overcome imposter syndrome, individuals need to evaluate their beliefs critically. It is recommended to ask themselves whether their beliefs are supported by facts and evidence, and look for counter-evidence. By realistically assessing their abilities, individuals can challenge their doubts and beliefs regarding their inability and incompetence.
One effective technique is to write down their accomplishments and what they think their strengths are, then compare them with their thoughts. This exercise can help individuals realistically assess their abilities and recognize their achievements, increasing their confidence and self-esteem.
In order to overcome imposter syndrome, individuals must learn to value constructive criticism, understand that not asking for help can slow down their team, and acknowledge that practicing a skill will improve their abilities over time. These strategies can help individuals build self-confidence, challenge negative thoughts, and overcome feelings of inadequacy. By practicing these skills, individuals can work towards achieving their goals without succumbing to imposter syndrome.
To overcome imposter syndrome, individuals must learn to reward themselves for their efforts and seek help from peers, colleagues, and classmates when needed. Building connections can provide guidance, support, and validation of one's strengths.
It is also helpful to focus on others experiencing imposter feelings and share emotions to create a supportive environment. Sharing strategies to overcome challenges can also be beneficial.
Overcoming imposter syndrome can be a significant challenge for individuals, and it's crucial to understand what it's like to experience imposter syndrome and how to cope with it.
It's important to recognize that success is not synonymous with perfection and that failure is a natural part of life. Individuals who experience imposter syndrome must show self compassion instead of self-doubt and judgment to assess their abilities realistically and encourage healthy self-growth.
Acknowledging one's accomplishments and reflecting on achievements can also help overcome imposter feelings. Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome tend to attribute their success to external factors, and practicing gratitude can help shift this mindset.
It's essential to confront and not suppress the feelings of being an imposter. Seeking support from a therapist can be helpful in addressing imposter syndrome, challenging and reframing beliefs, and managing emotional distress, unworthiness, depression, and anxiety.
Further research on imposter feelings among individuals, particularly women of color, and promoting inclusive academic and workplace cultures that foster anti-racism can help reduce imposter syndrome.
Clance PR, et al. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. psycnet.apa.org/record/1979-26502-001
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