Despite having written eleven books, won five grammys for her spoken recordings and been nominated for a Pulitzer, Maya Angelou felt like a fraud. She said, “I’ve run a game on everybody and they are going to find me out.” Lupita Nyong’o in 2016 also talked about feeling like a fraud with every role she took on, and that winning an Oscar may have made it even worse. In the same year, Tom Hanks, a successful actor with a career spanning almost 40 years, said in an interview, “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’”
The thing that these famous and successful people have in common is the self-doubt that makes them question their abilities and feel like they are not actually as good as the rest of the world thinks they are. They all have experienced the imposter syndrome throughout their careers. It sounds familiar because you and I have probably experienced the same feelings. In fact, this is directly related to the last blog post which was about getting the confidence to say yes and take up space in the world unapologetically.
Many people don’t know about imposter syndrome but when it is described to them, they immediately think, “Yes, that is exactly how I feel!” When you are affected by the imposter syndrome, you believe that your achievements came by sheer luck and not your own talent and abilities. You feel like a fraud and fear that you are about to be found out. Even in the face of great achievement you somehow cannot believe that you are capable of such accomplishment and you feel like soon everybody will find out that you are not actually as good as they think you are, and your façade will crumble, leaving you in shame.
Psychologists have since parted ways with the word ‘syndrome’ in the years it has been studied. It is not a syndrome nor a mental illness but rather a phenomenon that affects everybody. Initially, it was thought that imposter syndrome affected only women in career women but this has since been disproven. However, people who are part of minority groups are more prone to it because of the pressure that is often on them to prove that their minority can also achieve. As a woman in, say, a boardroom, you are more aware of the need to prove yourself, and may therefore doubt yourself more.
As with most things, the first step to dealing with your own experiences of imposter syndrome is to understand it and learn to notice signs of it in your life. You can’t fix a problem you are not aware of, right? There are six ways in which imposter syndrome manifests. When you have at least two of those characteristics, then you are said to suffer from imposter syndrome.
- The imposter cycle: When you begin working on a new task, you experience anxiety. You either react to this anxiety by overworking or procrastinating, both of which are driven by your fear that you will not succeed as well as you need to on the task. When you complete the task and receive positive feedback you reject it. If you overworked you believe that you only succeeded due to hardwork, not because you are capable. If you procrastinated initially you believe that you succeeded due to luck, not because you are capable. You further reinforce the belief that you are not good enough to succeed through your own abilities, and the cycle continues in the next task you embark on.
- The need to be special or the very best: You secretly need to be the very best at something, or else you feel that you are not good enough. You were likely a star student in school until you joined a bigger group, for example in university, where you realized that there are many other star students and your abilities are not unique to you. You then dismiss your abilities.
- Superman/superwoman aspects: You are a perfectionist and want to do everything flawlessly. You set impossibly high standards for yourself and evaluate yourself based on them. When you fail to achieve your goals you feel disappointed and frustrated because you believe that someone who was really good at what they do would have been able to meet those standards.
- Fear of failure: When you make a mistake or fail to perform to highest standard possible, you are overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame. Failure of any kind simply means to you that you are not good enough and makes you feel like a fraud. Your fear of failure drives you to either overwork or self-sabotage.
- Denial of competence: You have difficulty accepting compliments based on your achievements and internalizing your success. When you accomplish something, you are likely to attribute your achievement to external factors and not your own abilities. You are also likely to focus on all the reasons why the achievement cannot have been your doing.
- Fear and guilt about success: You may have fears that your success may lead to rejection because it may set you apart from your peers or your family. When you advance, you feel guilty about moving to the next level and worry that your success makes you different and may therefore lead your family or friends to reject you. You may also fear that success means that other people now expect more of you, and that you will not be able to live up to the expectation, thereby adding to your anxiety.
Do these characteristics describe you to a tee? Don’t worry, the internet is awash with life hacks that can help you deal with imposter syndrome once you realize that it affects you. After all, it does affect 70% of adults at some point in their lives. Though it is difficult, it is possible to rid yourself of self-doubt that cripples progress. However, even as you strive for growth in this area of your life, remember that this does not happen in a day as it is difficult to unlearn things we have practiced our whole lives.
The imposter syndrome holds us back from being all that we can be. The funny thing about it is that though it is extremely common, people who feel like imposters feel like they are the only ones who are frauds and about to be discovered. Thankfully, there is no shortage of information about it and how it affects us in our professional and social lives. Knowing how imposter syndrome manifests helps us to take a look at ourselves, evaluate our motives and fears and ultimately become better, more confident, and more aware of ourselves and what we are capable of.
Author: Michelle Korir
Michelle Chepchumba is contributor at Wanjiru Kihusa. She loves cats and enjoys reading and writing in an attempt to discover the mysteries of the human mind. She also works in mental health and writes about life at www.thescroll.co.ke.