Have you ever achieved something and thought, ‘I don’t deserve this’? Or had nagging thoughts that you’ve gotten somewhere by luck, and you’re faking it? Chances are, you are experiencing symptoms of the imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome involves extreme feelings of inadequacy. It’s self-doubt, the fear of being called out as a fraud, the feeling that you do not belong in a group or deserve praise for something. It’s feeling guilty after receiving praise. People with it tend to question why someone more deserving is not in their place. They feel more shame than normal after minor setbacks, and may think that karma is playing a role.
The term was coined by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University. It first appeared in a 1978 study, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”.
Of course, newer research has shown that it’s not restricted to women at all—toxic masculinity plays a role in perpetuating it in men. It doesn’t matter if the person is an achiever or not—imposter syndrome affects all types of people—even Michelle Obama and Emma Watson. 70% of people experience it at some point in their life.
There is no single cause. Some experts say it has to do with personality traits like anxiety. Others talk about background or behavioral causes. A common example is with people who were reminded that they were not ‘good enough’ as children. They internalize the need to achieve because they believe that they cannot be loveable otherwise.
Common patterns observed in people with imposter syndrome:
– Experts/majors: people who have studied something believe that they have to know everything about their subject. People with degrees often feel inadequate.
– People with different skill sets: when placed in a less inclusive environment, they often convince themselves that they are not smart.
– Perfectionists: if they don’t achieve 100% of their goal, they feel incessant guilt. For example, they may not apply for a job because they don’t meet all the criteria.
– People belonging to a group with certain stereotypes/expectations: this includes racial stereotypes, or being overshadowed by a sibling. Unreasonable expectations weigh on them.
– Independent people/people in high positions: these people feel shame when requiring help.
– ‘All-rounders’: these are people who push themselves to do well in all aspects of life, often because of an internal instinct to prove their genuineness. Natalie Portman, a skilled actress, talked about feeling like a fraud in her freshman year at Harvard.
Imposter syndrome can easily turn into a vicious cycle. It is linked with depression, anxiety, and burnout. That’s why it is important to deal with it, regardless of it not being an ‘official’ psychiatric disorder.
The first step is to acknowledge the problem. Symptoms include frustration, anxiousness, and low self-esteem. People with imposter syndrome may say things like ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ or ‘How come everyone else is so smart/better than me?’. If you experience this or know someone who does, ask them; ‘Is this thought helping or hindering [your] growth?’
When you feel outside your comfort zone, don’t focus on your failures. Everybody has some kind of achievement—remind yourself that you’ve made it this far. People who have made more mistakes have more experiences to learn from. And if you feel like you can’t relieve yourself of the pressure on your own, it’s always good to speak to someone—be it a therapist or a friend.
It’s important not to set your expectations too high. It doesn’t matter if you are a topper or the CEO of a company. There’s always going to be someone who has more knowledge than you, and that’s okay.
Know where you stand. Stop perpetuating stereotypes and unrealistic expectations. After all, mental health should always come first.
Anya Baphna is a tenth grader at Symbiosis International School, Pune. She is the editor of her school newspaper and has written this article for the newspaper.
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