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“They’re On to Me”: Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

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Imposter Syndrome Crop

Perhaps you’ve felt it—an overwhelming feeling of dread, doubt, and fear that strikes without warning and leaves you uncertain and shaken. Most often it comes upon us at times when we should be feeling at our best, when we’re excelling personally or professionally. We may receive compliments and encouragement, but that just makes us feel worse.

This feeling, often called imposter syndrome, can be best summed up by four little words: “I’m not good enough.”

While not an official diagnosis, imposter syndrome has been extensively studied and widely discussed in the behavioural sciences. We may feel it when we’re at work, at school, or with our friends and families. It usually includes beliefs that we aren’t as intelligent or skillful as those around us, and a certainty that if everyone knew how little we really knew, we would be in serious trouble.

“I’m in over my head,” we think, unable to shake the feeling. Often we feel like frauds, even when our accomplishments and accolades are well earned.

Despite seeming so personal and unique to us, imposter syndrome is incredibly common.

Dr. Gail Matthews, professor of psychology at Dominican University of California, has conducted research on the prevalence of imposter syndrome—with startling results. Roughly 70 percent of us report feeling the effects of imposter syndrome at one time or another.

Researchers have also described imposter syndrome as being a contradictory experience—that is, we feel it in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Doctors, lawyers, and professionals of all kinds who have earned their place in society report feeling like they’re undeserving of their positions, unworthy of their successes, and secretly scamming everyone around them.

This phenomenon has fascinated psychologists for years, and not just because it’s such a prevalent experience. Imposter syndrome is in some ways the opposite of other, more negative cognitive biases.

One example would be self-serving bias, which is our tendency to give ourselves and our skill too much credit when we succeed at something, but then blame our luck or other external causes when we fail.

By contrast, imposter syndrome tells us that others succeed due to their talent, skills, and abilities, whereas when we experience success it is due to luck or other external forces.

So if imposter syndrome is such a universal human experience, why should we pay any attention to it?

One reason to be mindful is the fact that when it persists without being addressed in a healthy way, it is often accompanied by other mental health issues. Feeling inadequate can lead to anxiety and depression, two disorders that have been associated with imposter syndrome.

In addition, giving in to the effects of imposter syndrome can cause burnout, decreased job satisfaction, and create actual problems with your performance. Feeling like you’re secretly a fraud is incredibly isolating, and as a result people stuck in this mindset tend to avoid asking for help when doing complex tasks. This increases the likelihood that they will eventually fail, allowing the imposter syndrome to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While most people who experience this get over their feelings—or learn to live with a nagging sensation that they’re luckier than they deserve—some will see these feelings go on to become a genuine mental health concern.

What can be done to help people deal with this issue?

One of the most important pieces of advice is to talk about it. Imposter syndrome only has power when it’s kept a secret fear that whispers to you in the dark. When you share your fears of inadequacy—with coworkers, friends, or a loved one—they tend to lose their power. This may even open the door for genuine growth as you share, test, and revise your self-image based on the input of people you trust.

If you think you may need to improve yourself or your skills, you can always seek out a qualified mentor, someone who may be able to more accurately assess your skills and give you feedback on how well you’re doing. And if necessary, talk to a therapist about the feelings you’re experiencing to help guide you through the process of reframing your thoughts to better line up with reality.

Finally, if you’re experiencing imposter syndrome and reading this article is making you painfully aware of this fact, please don’t take your feelings of inadequacy to be a sign that you aren’t smart enough, skilled enough, or good enough to be where you are. If anything, take it as a sign that you’re treating your accomplishments with the respect and gravity they deserve. No imposter would do that.

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