The Impostor Syndrome

Imagine you worked really hard to get into the university or job you wanted. You are full of joy and great expectations. However, on the very first day, a pit forms in your stomach as you realize that you don’t belong here. It seems like it wasn’t your drive or accomplishments that brought you here, but luck and luck alone. You fear that you are nothing but a fraud and do not deserve to be here. Even worse, you could be discovered to be one by your colleagues, friends and family.

This is what is called the Impostor syndrome.

To talk a bit about its history, it was first coined by the psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 in their paper “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. It was initially theorized that only women suffer from it. However, over time, research has shown that both men and women experience these feelings.

Impostor syndrome is very common amongst students, especially high achieving ones. For most of their lives, they are tested on a rigorous basis almost daily. With such a gruelling pattern of assessment, it is almost a certainty that at some point, they’ll be left unsatisfied with the result of a particular exam. They’re left demoralized with the grade they received and it plants the seeds of the doubt in their minds that they just might not be good enough.

People suffering from this syndrome come from all walks of life. However, all of them share one commonality, that they all have an unsustainable and unrealistic notion of what it means to be competent. They set their bars for so high, that it is nigh unachievable, and when they fail, they are overcome with shame.

The consequences can be devastating. It can lead to low self-esteem and self-doubt. People will reject praise, downplay achievements and make conscious efforts to stay away from the limelight. These attempts to deliberately fly under the radar, can often result in them choosing to reject better offers or positions of leadership, plagued by the fear of being discovered as a fraud. Another major consequence is burnout, borne as a result of people overworking themselves in order to compensate for their ‘lack of skill’.

How do we deal with it?

Firstly, it is important to understand that it is very common, and even incredibly successful people like Serena Williams and Sheryl Sandberg have suffered from it at one point. It isn’t as uncommon as you might think it is. You must separate facts from feelings, and to not gauge your competency on the basis of your feelings.

Secondly, develop a proper response to failure instead of just berating yourself constantly for not being good enough. Failure often spurs success later on, but not if you’re wallowing in sorrow.

Thirdly, stop comparing your achievements with others’. In this age, where almost everyone uses social media regularly, reading about others’ achievements can often lead you to believe you’re not good enough.

Impostor syndrome can often paralyze our lives and careers. It can and will stop us from reaching our true potential. However, it can be certainly overcome, as thousands of successful people across the globe have demonstrated.

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