Imposter Syndrome: How We Doubt Our Own Success

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In prior article, we mentioned a psychological concept called the imposter syndrome. This is a powerful mental script which has gotten increasingly more attention as the field of behavioral science has expanded in its breadth of study over the previous several decades. Many of us are likely already familiar with the concept of the imposter syndrome (if not its clinical definition, then through experience). For the purposes of clarification I am going to include the summary from the American Psychological Association’s website:

“First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”

The Imposter Syndrome in Research

Researchers have become increasingly more aware of the imposter syndrome, particularly in examining it in professional and educational circles. The interconnections of the digital sharing economy have allowed people to easily share their business experience and personal journeys. Various podcasts regularly host guests who are in the vanguard of their respective fields. Many describe some form or degree of the imposter syndrome, particularly in regards to their professional efforts. I admit to a small amount of skepticism and disbelief when I hear a multi-millionaire entrepreneur, high-powered CEO, or NFL lineman state publicly that they are unsure of their success and worried about not having the required skills and mindset to maintain their current success or achieve more. These are individuals who are in the vanguard of their respective fields and are viewed as pinnacles of professional success. These individuals are the ones that are supposed to “have the answers.” They have accomplished the achievement; they should have the mile markers confidently laid out, but many apparently do not perceive their success that way.

How This Manifests in Life

The imposter syndrome is a particularly virulent form of a negative unwritten script because it attacks one of the foundational areas of our self-image: our competency. We have a natural and healthy desire to be useful and competent. The imposter syndrome whittles away at that, causing second-guessing of any success, providing us a nagging feeling that our own abilities are barely hanging on to that success.

I would wager that many of us, to one degree or another, have struggled with this imposter syndrome thinking in our day-to-day activities. Work certainly remains one focal point for individuals’ imposter syndrome, but I do not think imposter syndrome is exclusive to professional circles. I personally run into imposter syndrome often and not just in my day job; I encounter it in many aspects of my life. Several examples below highlight my perceptions of different areas in my own life:

Finances

  • I am overpaid. I do not have the educational background or professional ability to make sufficient monies to achieve my goals. Other people make more money and use it better. I am not smart with my money, I am merely frugal.

Parenting

  • My children amaze me each day with their observations, questions, and desire to learn, yet I often still view myself as a rookie parent. I often sit in my living room, watching my small tribe race around the house and think to myself, “I have no idea what I’m doing. In fact, what the heck am I doing?? Who is raising these kids?? I should be doing something, right?! Successful parents get things done, right??!!?! I need to get off this couch!”

Professional endeavors

  • I have over a decade of experience in my professional field, I am diligent about my work, organized, and consistently get solid performance reviews, but I do not believe any of it. I attribute my diligence to a desire for routine, my organization to necessity with a small staff, and my performance reviews to the assumption that my boss is not paying close attention to what I am doing.

Writing

  • Despite writing stories and content since I was young, winning writing contests, and having personal and professional peers praise my written communication, I think to myself: this writing is not that good. Being a writer is a completely unrealistic goal.

The verifiable evidence in each of these areas is contrary to my perceptions of them, which is the whole point of the imposter syndrome: it is in direct contradiction to our experience and reality. I would wager that the megalomaniac, the narcissist, and the take-no-prisoners boss do not often suffer from the imposter syndrome; they are already too convinced of their greatness. I have wondered if the imposter syndrome is, in fact, an extreme logical extension of humility. In an effort to avoid becoming the narcissist or the megalomaniac, a desire for humble confidence has slipped into self-reproach and anxiety. What started as a desire to avoid pride and arrogance perhaps has instead devolved into self-doubt and insecurity.

What Do We Do With This?

I have noticed one population group that seems immune to the imposter syndrome: children. If you ask a child how his day went, what activities he did, or what he worked on, he will inevitably regale you a laundry list of achievements and exploits where he was the main actor and achiever. Perhaps children have not had time for the unwritten scripts to really take shape and take hold.

Can this imposter thinking be rationalized away? I am a bit doubtful about that; I am not convinced that we are particularly rational creatures. In the imposter syndrome, our brains have become hijacked, in spite of all the evidence in our lives, to convince us that we are inadequate. These unwritten scripts are a powerful influence on us. I think they can determine a lot in our daily lives. Instead of rationalizing away the imposter syndrome, perhaps we need to just negate that script, despite whether or not we believe it yet.

Regardless of how rational it might be, when the imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, we may need to merely start responding with a simple statement to ourselves: “That’s not true.” Don’t argue with the imposter, don’t attempt to rationalize it away, just declare it untrue, and then look to move on. In researching this phenomenon, various authors and researchers have offered different tactics and advice to combat these feelings of inadequacy and doubt. They advocate tactics such as the examples below:

  • Reflecting on past successes
  • Recognizing situations where the Imposter Syndrome typically appears
  • Adopting a learner mindset

I think that many of these tactics can be helpful and likely beneficial to at least work through initially, but I would caution against starting a root-cause therapy routine for imposter syndrome. It might be more beneficial to recognize the imposter syndrome for the lie it is and move on. Another great antidote for when the imposter syndrome shows up: go do something productive. Regain confidence and pleasure from working on something useful.

Upsides to the Imposter Syndrome

But let’s take a different tack for a moment and ask the question: are there any benefits for us in regards to the imposter syndrome? I can envision various potential positive outcomes to fighting it out with the imposter syndrome:

  • It could be that our very insecurity drives us to achieve more and be more involved in our different roles.
  • Battling this insecurity and doubt could spur us to further diligence and efforts in our work or our relationships.
  • It may better equip us with empathy for the foibles and failings of others. If you, as a competent individual, suffer these doubts, think what loads others who have not enjoyed your success might be carrying around.
  • It could enable us to more fully give the credit where credit is due to our teammates and peers, recognizing that we have not achieved success totally by our own efforts.
  • Our struggle may provide us with a solid dose of humility. Success and competency can often too easily and much too quickly lead us into hubris.

In our pursuit of a life well lived we must remind ourselves that comfort is not the objective; we are seeking meaning and purpose. And in the midst of struggles, self-doubt, or weakness, we need to remind ourselves that even the stories we tell ourselves are potentially flawed and that we possess a value that is sometimes not apparent to us. Successes that we have had, while likely not entirely of our own making, are still our successes. We should not ignore our accomplishments; we should use them as building blocks for future success. And we should always remember: we possess the ability to contribute and better the lives of both ourselves and others. If we are going to set out something that is true, to combat the imposter when they appear, let’s step forward with that.

Moving forward:

In what areas of your life do you feel like an imposter? (Think more specifically than “all,” and make sure to smile here.)

Have you found ways to combat this feeling and gain confidence? What are they?

Originally published at fjwriting.com on May 29, 2018.

Lifelong writer and researcher, often can be found at FJWriting.com, pursuing a life well lived

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