Ever feel like you don’t belong? That you got very lucky to be where you are and the luck may run out at any time? You might even feel like a ‘fraud’ who might get caught at any moment. This intellectual self-doubt is called ‘imposter phenomenon’ or ‘imposter syndrome'. Individuals tend to experience feeling inadequate and incompetent even when evidence indicates otherwise. They may even be some of the highest achieving folks you know. (Michelle Obama…. ring a bell?)
According to Dr. Valerie Young, the feeling of being an imposter can be categorized in various ways, based on how it is manifested. We have perfectionists who set unrealistic and extremely high expectations for themselves. These individuals might find themselves micromanaging at every level, they need things to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time. When things don’t seem to be turning out the way they imagined, it could lead to an immense level of anxiety in them. They are scarcely satisfied with their accomplishments. Know someone who constantly makes sure things are going as planned?; do you tend to keep brooding over an event where you missed the (extremely high) mark?
Do you tend to stay late at the office, even after the rest of your coworkers have left? Do you feel stressed out when you try to ‘relax’ and see it as a waste of time? Then you might be a superhero. No, not the one with the cape, but the one that pushed themselves to their limit. These individuals feel highly inadequate in their position and work a lot harder to hide these insecurities. (OG hustle culture)
As the name suggests, the experts are individuals who are never satisfied with their knowledge and understanding. They tend to measure their competence based on ‘what’ and ‘how much’ they know about a particular subject. You can also describe them as ‘certificate catchers’ as they constantly try to expand their expertise with various courses, training, and certificate programs. This is because they think they need to improve their skill set to succeed.
Then we have the natural geniuses. These are the ones that set unrealistic goals and expectations for themselves and feel disappointed when they are not able to achieve those on their first try. They believe that they need to be a natural genius at everything they try, if they take longer to accomplish something, they consider that as a failure.
Lastly, we have the soloists. They believe that asking for help equates to being a failure, a weakling. Soloist individuals tend to frame requests for help as requirements for the project. Realizing that there is no shame in asking for assistance has no shame. If you are not able to solve a problem, ask a peer, mentor or supervisor and it will not diminish your worth.
Irrespective of where to fit into, feeling like an imposter can lead to over-working, over-burdening, and eventually burnout. In some cases, it can lead to anxiety and depression. Therefore, recognizing the problem is only the first step. Let’s discuss how we can get over this phenomenon and be our best selves:
Recognize your accomplishments. Make a list of everything you are proud of and everything you have accomplished personally and professionally. Instead of comparing your accomplishments to others, focus on how you worked towards achieving them and the skills you used.
Be the detective. Question your thoughts, ask yourself if there is any evidence to support the thought. Is it really the case that you have only gotten lucky so far and haven’t acquired the skill set you require?
Talk to someone. If you feel that these thoughts of feeling like an imposter and not being ‘good enough’ are affecting your day-to-day life, it is a good idea to talk to a professional. Maybe they can be your partner in detective work.
The imposter phenomenon can lead to downplaying the work and effort put into your achievements. It can also lead to you feeling less fulfilled with everything you accomplish. However, it can be remedied just as easily. Recognize when the standards you are setting for yourself are becoming unrealistic, and leading to burnout. Realize that this phenomenon can be overcome with a little shift in perspective and practice, and if that seems difficult, don’t hesitate in seeking help from a professional.