Have you ever looked back at a big milestone you’ve achieved and thought to yourself, “Hey, that was pure luck!” or “Phew, this project worked out, but only because I put in a gazillion hours”? If so, welcome to the ‘imposter syndrome club.’
Psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first researched and labeled the ‘imposter syndrome’ phenomenon in 1978. They initially concluded that attributing your successes to luck or (over)preparation—instead of ability and skill—was common among high-achieving women.
But by now, 40 years later, studies have shown that roughly 70 percent of the population, men as well as women, are affected by these feelings.
So why do so many people feel like fakes and frauds, especially in their professional lives? To find out, let’s dive deeper into the psychological phenomenon of imposter syndrome. Spoiler alert: There might be a silver lining to it after all.
What is imposter syndrome—and how can it affect your work?
So, we know that the imposter phenomenon is characterized by attributing your successes to external factors, instead of to your legitimate skills and abilities. What this leaves you with is a constant sense of self-doubt and a fear of being discovered as a fraud—because clearly, you’ve deceived everyone around you, and it’s only a matter of time until they realize it.
Imposter syndrome can affect many areas of your life, but for many people this feeling of fraudulence centers around their job. In the workplace, that means constantly living on the edge. With every new project you take on, the same unhealthy pattern is triggered anew. According to Pauline Rose Clance, it looks something like this:
- Task: You receive a (challenging) work assignment.
- Emotional response: Your worry, doubt, and anxiety levels rise.
- Action: You either:
- Go all out and extremely over prepare, or
- Procrastinate because of a paralyzing fear… and then end up putting a ton of extra work into the assignment
- Positive outcome: After receiving some positive feedback and some well-deserved compliments, you wrongly attribute this outcome to either overpreparation… or sheer luck
- Reconfirmation of your previous beliefs: Voilá! You’ve found another reason to reconfirm your initial beliefs about your own lack of abilities and competence
What causes imposter syndrome, and why is it so common?
The imposter phenomenon is not listed in the DSM, aka the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It has, however, been acknowledged as a real ‘psychological syndrome’ by the American Psychological Association. But there’s no way of knowing what actually causes it. Psychologists have found several factors that imposter syndrome is linked to, but in psych-lingo, that’s association, not causation.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the factors that are associated with imposter syndrome, and that might explain why it’s on the rise in the 21st century.
Parenting styles & personality traits
A child who experiences a parenting style that alternates between extreme praise and harsh criticism might end up feeling like an imposter when they’re older, according to psychologist Suzanne Imes. Makes sense—receiving a lot of mixed messages about your performance might make you doubt if you are in fact capable. And personality traits like neuroticism and perfectionism have also been associated with imposter syndrome.
Social networks are great for staying connected with friends (especially during this pandemic!) and for following what’s going on in the world. However, Instagram and other apps also make it so much easier for you to constantly compare yourself to others. In the past, you might have compared yourself to members of your own community—now, the whole world is your benchmark.
“We cannot escape the comparisons with family members, friends, schoolmates, co-workers, and neighbors,” psychiatrist Dr. Ifeanyi Olele writes. “In addition to being compared with people in your community, school, and/or job, we have access to social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn where everyone’s achievements and victories are on full display.”
Social networks tend to showcase others’ happiest moments. No wonder this makes us feel like imposters amongst all the apparently successful, carefree, and beautiful people around us.
The gig economy
Whereas on average boomers held only a relatively small number of jobs during their working lives, millennials are part of a new job-hopping generation. Moving around and changing jobs all the time can mean you’re always a beginner who needs to prove yourself, which can trigger or exacerbate imposter feelings.
The Silver Lining of Imposter Syndrome
Being afraid of getting exposed as a so-called fraud is exhausting! Especially when this stress is added to your already demanding life. It can elevate anxiety levels, take a toll on your productivity and mental health, and lead to unhealthy habits such as procrastination and overpreparation.
So, are all of us ‘imposters’ doomed? Not quite.
The internet is packed with tips on how to overcome imposter syndrome (ranging from replacing negative with positive self-talk to turning your nervous energy into excitement). But what if doubting yourself actually has some perks?
Recent studies by Basima Tewfik, an assistant professor at MIT, show exactly that. In her first study, she used a survey to divide participants into two groups, one of which was composed of people suffering from ‘imposter syndrome.’
When given an assignment—to meet and diagnose a medical patient—those who perceived of themselves as being less qualified didn’t perform just as well as those who were free of the syndrome. (What’s more, the so-called ‘imposters’ were rated as having better interpersonal skills.) In a follow-up study Tewfik conducted, the ‘imposter’ group actually received better performance ratings than their ‘non-imposter’ counterparts.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a New York-based clinical psychologist and author of the new book Nervous Energy, offers some reasons why those with ‘imposter syndrome’ might outperform their peers. “If you were constantly worried you weren’t truly qualified, and this spurred you to constantly work on improving your professional skills,” she tells Lemonade, “ the silver lining would be that you might ultimately end up more qualified thanks to all that obsessive self-improvement.“
Of course, it’s a matter of degree and balance—too much “obsessive self-improvement” could lead you feeling stressed and miserable. But with the right approach, it’s possible to leverage the hidden benefits of imposter syndrome.
In his recent book Think Again, Adam Grant summarizes three main benefits associated with imposter syndrome.
Motivation to work harder than anyone around you
Once committed to a task, doubting your skills and talents—in moderation—will likely motivate you to give 110%. (However, keep in mind that working excessively might increase your chance of burnout.)
Openness to new ways of doing things
If you’re not convinced that the way you work is the only way, you’re more open to suggestions from others around you, which could lead to a productive change in strategy.
Becoming a better learner
Someone with imposter syndrome might think—correctly or not—that they lack knowledge. A small dose of this kind of self-doubt could have its benefits, causing you to proactively seek out input and advice from others. This broadens your experience and makes you a better learner.
Grant also suggests that a slight shift in perception might further help you perceive your imposter syndrome as an advantage (reaching what he refers to as the ‘the sweet spot of confidence’). Instead of thinking that you don’t have the capabilities to do something, try thinking that you simply haven’t acquired those skills yet.
What about people who never doubt themselves?
Suffering from imposter syndrome might be better than unknowingly being inflicted by its inverse: what Grant calls armchair quarterback syndrome, “where confidence exceeds competence.” The phenomena of “mansplaining” fits in this category. Think Again illustrates the concept with a cartoon by Jason Adam Katzenstein, in which we see a young man lecturing his irate dinner date: ‘Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence.’
As Grant explains, there’s actually a theory in which people who don’t know a lot about a certain topic think they know a ton about it. “According to what’s now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect,” he writes, “it’s when we lack competence that we’re most likely to be brimming with overconfidence.”
So if you experience imposter syndrome some or all of the time, you can relax a little—and recognize that it can be more bearable than some of the alternatives! As long as these thoughts and doubts don’t completely paralyze you, there’s an upside. They can even keep you on your toes.