First, what exactly is imposter syndrome?
If you’ve ever felt inadequate, that you don’t belong, or like you’re about to be exposed at work for being a fraud, you may well be suffering from this widespread psychological phenomenon. According to a recent survey, imposter syndrome (IS) now affects two-thirds of British adults. The term was first identified back in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Dr Ian Nnatu, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London, says: “Imposter syndrome is a term used to describe people, often high-achieving individuals, who fail to recognise their accomplishments despite objective evidence of them. People with imposter syndrome usually have persistent self-doubt and a fear of eventually being found out.” Psychotherapist Owen O’Kane adds that IS isn’t currently recognised as a psychiatric disorder, although it is often linked with depression and anxiety.
Is it a gendered phenomenon?
“While the evidence is clear that imposter syndrome impacts both men and women, there is rising speculation it’s becoming increasingly prominent with men,” says Owen. “The research is very limited, but there are some theories as to why men may suffer more. Firstly, female empowerment and gender equality has thankfully changed significantly in the last few years. However, this may create challenges for some men who feel a sense of threat or inadequacy amid this rightful shift towards balance and equality. That said, it could be argued this creates an opportunity of growth for men in terms of psychological flexibility.” Secondly, Owen explains, IS in men could be linked to the modern expectation of transparency. “If we view imposter syndrome as a fear of being found out, there’s a possibility that changes around equality, fairness and salaries being transparent could contribute to increasing unease for some men.”
What are the main symptoms?
According to Owen, the most common feelings and symptoms commonly associated with IS include:
- A fear of being ‘found out’
- Self-doubt, self-deprecation, self-criticism
- Symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Performance issues at work
- Difficulty committing to a project and fearing failure
Why does it happen in the first place?
There is no clear-cut answer, but experts agree there are common underlying factors that can include character traits of perfectionism, comparison and low self-esteem. “Imposter syndrome can arise when a person is faced with a new challenge or opportunity, such as a new job or promotion, which can cause them to feel like an imposter,” says Ian. “At the same time, if someone has a gifted sibling, they may carry unjustified feelings of inadequacy with them into adulthood, while someone who was able to perform well during childhood may feel like an imposter when working on difficult tasks as an adult.” Ian also explains that individuals who face social marginalisation and discrimination may also be more at risk of developing imposter syndrome.
Are there different types of imposter syndrome?
Experts agree it can manifest itself in various ways, which clinical psychologist Dr Lucy Viney says tend to be linked to an individual’s experiences, insecurities and beliefs. “Research by a psychologist called Dr Valerie Young categorised the condition into subtypes. She argues that most people who struggle with this syndrome fall into one or a mix of these subtypes.” Lucy explains the subtypes as follows:
“This describes people who set extremely high expectations for themselves, and, even if they meet 99% of their goals, they feel like a failure. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.”
“This describes people who push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove they’re not imposters. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life – at work, as parents and partners – and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.”
The Natural Genius
“When the ‘natural genius’ has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they’re not good enough. They are used to skills coming easily; when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an imposter.”
“This subtype feels they have to accomplish tasks on their own. If they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or fraud.”
“This describes people who feel the need to know every bit of information before they start a project, and constantly look for training to improve their skills. They might be hesitant about applying for a job if they do not meet all the criteria, or be hesitant to ask a question so as not to expose themselves for not knowing the answer to something.”
Okay, so it’s more than just perfectionism?
Imposter syndrome is different to perfectionism, confirms Lucy. “Perfectionism and being a workaholic can often be found in people who experience imposter syndrome. However, these traits certainly don’t mean you are experiencing the disorder.” Instead, she says it’s important to recognise that the key defining feature of imposter syndrome is being unable to accept your success is due to your own competence and then internalising this feeling of inadequacy.
If you think are you suffering from imposter syndrome, what can you do?
If imposter syndrome is getting in the way of your life and negatively impacting your mood, work or home life, or relationships, seeking help is a sensible idea, says Owen. “Imposter syndrome will always have underlying psychological processes that need attention to allow you to restructure new beliefs and patterns. Therapy will unquestionably help, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which explores the relationship between how you think, feel and behave.” Lucy agrees, adding that therapy may typically involve the examination of the origins of the syndrome, how it affects you, the ways in which it is maintained, and then encouraging you to find new ways of thinking, feeling and believing. “Feelings are the last to change,” she stresses. “The only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter.”
When it comes to ways in which you can help yourself, Ian says it could be worth finding a mentor or coach to support you on your professional journey. “Developing a support network is crucial to overcoming imposter syndrome. Many people with imposter syndrome suffer in silence, which can lead to burnout and can cause them to avoid opportunities that come their way.”
Dr Lucy Viney is a clinical psychologist and co-founder of The Fitzrovia Psychology Clinic. Dr Ian Nnatu is based at Priory Hospital North London. Owen O’Kane’s book, Ten Times Happier, published by HQ-Harper Collins, is available to buy here.
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