The truth behind imposter syndrome
Sarah Dorra, Tuesday 11 Feb 2020
With the increasing influence of social media and the unrealistically perfect images they can convey, a growing number of people are developing imposter syndrome without even realising it

What’s the first thing that occurs to you when you’re praised for something you’ve worked hard on or something you’re naturally good at? Do you feel blessed or grateful for what you have? Do you feel like you’ve truly earned your achievement? Or do you feel like you’ve just fooled someone into thinking that you’re good at what you do when you’re obviously not?

If this rings any bells, you may have what is known as impostor syndrome.

Imposter syndrome has recently been in the limelight worldwide as many celebrities and well-known professionals have confessed that they suffer from it. The term generally refers to a psychological phenomenon of deep self-doubt that makes people feel like frauds despite their professional success, though it can also affect personal life.

“This mentality is thought to be particularly prevalent in young people, with a 2017 survey claiming that a third of millennials have imposter syndrome due to feeling intimidated in the workplace,” wrote the British newspaper the Independent. “It can affect anyone, regardless of their success. A number of high-achieving people, including Michelle Obama, Kate Winslet and Emma Watson, have spoken out about their experiences with imposter syndrome in interviews.”

Statistics published in the US Journal of Behavioral Science suggest that an estimated “70 per cent of the US population has experienced what’s known asimpostor syndrome.” A 2011 research paper published in the US Medical News Today suggested more or less the same figure, saying that “approximately 70 per cent of people will experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lives.”

“It may be especially prevalent among women considered to be high-achievers,” the paper wrote. “Many people experience symptoms for a limited time, such as in the first few weeks of a new job. Others may battle feelings of incompetence for their whole lives.”

In simple terms, imposter syndrome is the feeling that you’re a fraud whose success is more related to factors such as luck and the ability to use the wow factor rather than your own competence. If you get the job, you keep thinking that it’s only a matter of time before they find out that you never deserved it. If you speak in front of an audience, you make them laugh, and the speech or presentation fully serves its purpose, but deep down you believe that you were just lucky this time. If you write a book, publish it, and it receives critical acclaim, you believe that it’s only because you got away with it this time.

US writer Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, who has been researching impostor syndrome for three decades, has come to the conclusion that there are five different types of imposter syndrome: the perfectionist, the natural genius, the expert, the soloist, and the superwoman/superman.

Perfectionists, for example, may have imposter syndrome because if what they do is not a 100 per cent good, they get the feeling that the “perfection police” will arrive and remove their mask. They may feel frauds whose defects and flaws are the reason for any misfortune that happens to them.

Similarly, the natural genius believes that they should know things by instinct. They believe that taking the time to learn something they didn’t know before indicates that they’re not as bright as they should be, hence the feeling that they’re fooling others with the knowledge they happen to have.

The third vulnerable group is experts who believe that they’re supposed to know everything about a subject. They fear that someone will find out that they’ve been falsely claiming to know about it all along. Even if they do know that no one can be 100 per cent knowledgeable about a subject, they only know it in theory.

As for the soloist, as the name suggests, this person has a strong belief that asking for help means that they’re not good enough to do things by themselves. While it’s a fact that the best results are in most cases the result of team work, a soloist fears that their incapability at performing a task alone indicates that they’re not qualified to do it.

Last but not least comes the superwoman/superman, who may immediately have deep self-doubt once they feel incapable of performing the different roles they’re supposed to play. If they don’t know how to divide their time evenly between family, friends, work, chores and the various different roles that they play in their lives, they become convinced that they’ll be recognised as the bad, lazy person they think they are.

MEN AND WOMEN: Whereas some studies show that imposter syndrome is more common among women due to gender stereotyping, others suggest it affects men more intensely due to the pressures and expectations society puts on them.

“Certain early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping appear to contribute significantly to the development of the impostor phenomenon,” the Independent wrote, quoting research on the issue. Women were found to be more prone to have the syndrome due to gender-related issues, but one study suggested that it was also more intense among male respondents in a recent survey due to social pressures and expectations.

“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persistin believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise,” the Independent wrote. Conversely, the same article quotes another recent paperpublished in the US journalPersonality and Individual Differences suggesting that “under pressure, imposter syndrome may actually affect men more intensely than women due to sexist societal expectations placing greater expectations on men.”

Although the term may not be known to many Egyptians, imposter syndrome may still be affecting more people in Egypt than we know. According to Rania Abdel-Ghaffar, a happiness educator, some misconceptions in Egyptian society, along with other factors, contribute to the spread of impostor syndrome.

“Education in Egypt has a one-size-fits-all mould that is applied to all students,” she elaborated. “This way, the student doesn’t get the chance to develop their talents, and if their grades are not good, this becomes a false indicator that they’re not bright. Therefore, when they eventually get the chance to demonstrate their abilities, they feel unsure about their success and relate it to every other factor except their own gift or hard work,” she said.

“Similarly, “if a student doesn’t follow the studying method dictated by his parents, but still achieves results, he may get the feeling that it was all just luck.”

Religion can be misinterpreted in a way that may also contribute to the prevalence of the syndrome, according to Abdel-Ghaffar. “If something good happens to someone and they express their pride in it, the first thing they hear is that this is only God’s work and not theirs,” she explained. “True enough, without God none of it would have happened. However, at the same time God rewards those who have worked hard and earned their success. In other words, it’s never against religion to acknowledge God’s gifts.”

Parents may also unintentionally play a role in their children’s impostor syndrome through their pressure to see their children excel at school or sports by acting as if they are unimpressed by their achievements in an attempt to push them to do more. “This raises the success bar so high that the child starts to feel that they’re never good enough to impress their parents and, therefore, never good enough at all,” Abdel-Ghaffar told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“When they do achieve something, they feel unworthy of it.”

Former US first lady Michele Obama opened up on her own suffering from imposter syndrome, telling an audience at a British school in North London that she still had “a little [bit of] impostor syndrome — it never goes away — that you’re actually listening to me.”

Her school speech was quoted on the BBC and went viral on YouTube. “It [imposter syndrome] doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is,” she said.

In his article 21 Proven Ways to Overcome Impostor Syndrome, US author Kyle Eschenroeder provides examples of other famous people who have had the syndrome despite their achievements. Among them is US author Maya Angelou who, even after writing her eleventh book, still felt as if she was fooling her readers and everybody else who thought highly of her. “I have written eleven books, but each time I think,’uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

In his article If you Struggle with Imposter Syndrome, Scientists Might Have an Odd Solution, US author Peter Dockrill tells an interesting story. World-famous British author Neil Gaiman was once at a gathering attended by scientists, thinkers and people with impressive records of achievements. Just when he was wondering what he was doing there and how long it would take them to find out that he did not belong, US astronaut Neil Armstrong asked him the same thing about himself.

“I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent,” Armstrong said.

THINGS TO CONSIDER: If you struggle with impostor syndrome, know that probably no one can help you like you can yourself.

There are basic facts about yourself and life that you should realise and which can help a lot in overcoming impostor syndrome. Good things aren’t the result of individual efforts alone. Sooner or later, hard work is rewarded. However, such reward is never the result of hard work itself. It’s the reward for trying. By trying to reach your full potential, everything around contributes to success and helps you reach your destination.

Nobody is perfect. And a human being is someone who has been created to learn from their mistakes. In that sense, a human who is a genius, or who has worked hard to become a genius, refers to someone who insists on becoming the best version of themselves despite their flaws. There’s honour in trying. Having tried to achieve something and failing to do so does not mean that you’re less than those who did. It means that you’ve done your best, but that earning this achievement isn’t the best thing for your life at that moment.

How else can you make it if not by faking it? If you find yourself thinking that something comes naturally to some people but not to you, remind yourself that there’s something else that comes naturally to you, but not to others. This is exactly why sometimes “faking it until you make it” involves the honour of trial and error because of the sincerity of the endeavour as opposed to merely accepting that you’re not gifted in a particular area.

You’ll never have the experience if you don’t give it a try. What is knowledge without experience? How many people spend days, months, and even years of their lives looking into books only to go out to the real world and find out that theoretical knowledge is one thing and reality is another? Everyone has the choice to either stay in their bubble to avoid real life and its more real experiences, or to go out into the world and accept, positively and never passively, whatever life brings them. Being self-conscious will only get one so far. It’s by accepting trial and error, and embracing failures and life’s lessons that one can really become the best version of oneself.

Abdel-Ghaffar mentions a practical method that can help those suffering from impostor syndrome to see themselves as the gifted people they are. She explains that a patient is asked about their latest achievement. “It is worth mentioning that those with impostor syndrome may believe successful people to have some kind of superhero qualities that they can never have,” Abdel-Ghaffar suggested.

“However, when they’re asked to list the qualities of a good manager or the particular person they see as successful, only then can they see that they have those very qualities themselves. They will also realise that there’s nothing extraordinary about any of them and, therefore, exclude all the extreme factors that are hard to apply to real life. This way, they can learn to look up to themselves and see their own worth.”

Valerie Young has also come up with 10 steps that can help anyone suffering from impostor syndrome feel less like an impostor and more like their true self, among them being:

- Put a name on it: Instead of keeping it to yourself, tell others and confess to yourself about how you constantly feel like a fraud. Putting a name to those feelings and admitting that you have impostor syndrome is the first step towards overcoming it.

- Your feelings are not reality: If you feel like a fraud, it doesn’t mean you are one. If you feel stupid, it only reflects how you see yourself and not what your reality is. Remember that your mind believes whatever ideas you feed it.

- Feelings are different from reality: If you’re part of a minority, you may feel like you don’t belong in your community or your workplace simply because you’re different. However, it’s important to realise that you feel inferior only because you allow yourself to, and not because you really are. This can help you overcome such a negative view of yourself.

- Look on the bright side: If you’re a perfectionist, instead of seeing how most things around you are flawed, focus on how you play an effective role in constantly making the world a better place. This gives meaning to your life and makes you see the same things from a better angle.

- View your mistakes as lessons: Because you’re human, you’re going to make mistakes. No matter how much you try to avoid it, you were created to make mistakes and learn from them for as long as you live. After all, it’s only through mistakes that one grows intellectually, mentally and psychologically.

Set your own rules: If there’s a rule, spoken or unspoken, about how those who ask questions are less bright than those who don’t or that not knowing the answer to a question is an indication of incompetence, ask yourself if that’s really true. If you know that it’s not, then you shouldn’t care about what others think as long as you know you’re doing the right thing.

- Write your own story: Instead of expecting the worst, be convinced that things will be in your favour. If you’re hired for a new job, don’t tell yourself that your new manager will find out that hiring you was a mistake. Instead, tell yourself that they will be impressed by your performance and determination to learn new skills, and that they’ll realise that hiring you has been the right thing.

- Visualise your success: After writing your best-case scenario inside your head, turn it into a movie. Picture the moment. Play it inside your head over and over again until you, and your subconscious mind, believe that it’s a reality.

- Reward yourself for your efforts: Don’t expect anyone to tell you that you deserve to be rewarded, because you may never hear it. If you don’t reward yourself, no one else will likely do simply because no one knows how much you deserve it like you do.

- Make the moment right: It’s we who decide to make the moment right or let it pass as a lost opportunity. If you think that you’re not ready, then be ready. Tell yourself that you can do it even if everything else says otherwise because this is exactly how success is born and how it’s made.

Remember that you and every other human being have been created with exceptional abilities, whether you see them or not. If you don’t see anything special about yourself, it only means that you’re not trying hard enough.

Once you identify your talent, work hard and do your best until you turn it into a success that adds meaning to your life. If you ever think that you don’t deserve your success, remember all the hard work and everything you had to go through in order to finally reach that moment.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly