What you need to know about impostor syndrome

What you need to know about imposter syndrome: Have you ever looked back on an important milestone you've reached and thought: "Hey, that was pure luck" rather than "Phew, that project turned out so well because I put in so much effort and hours"? If you just nodded, welcome to the club of people with "imposter syndrome"!

Psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance were the first to research and name the "imposter syndrome" in 1978. They concluded that the phenomenon was common among successful women. They tended to attribute personal success to pure luck or (over)preparation rather than to their own abilities.

"But now, some 40 years later, studies have shown that about 70% of the population, both men and women, are affected by these feelings."

So why do so many people, especially in their professional lives, perceive themselves as impostors who are only pretending?

To get to the heart of the matter, let's delve into the psychological phenomenon of imposter syndrome. Spoiler alert: feeling like an impostor can have some advantages.

What you need to know about imposter syndrome. What exactly is imposter syndrome and how does it affect your working life?

So far we know that imposter syndrome is characterised by attributing success to external factors rather than to your own achievements and abilities. What does this do to you? It leads you to constantly doubt yourself and fear that you will be found out as a fraud, because it is obvious that you have fooled everyone around you and it is only a matter of time before they themselves realise it.

The Impostor Phenomenon can affect several areas of your life, but for most people it is related to their work life. At work, it means constantly having one foot over the abyss. With each new project taken on, the same unhealthy mentality is triggered. According to Pauline Ross Clarks, it goes something like this:

Task: You are assigned a (challenging) task.
Emotional reaction: you worry and your fears and doubts increase.
Action: Either you give it your all and over-prepare, or you leave it too late.
You procrastinate because the fear of being caught paralyses you, so you invest an extreme amount of time and energy in the task.
Positive result: After receiving positive feedback and a few well-deserved compliments, you mistakenly attribute them to your extremely good preparation... or to sheer luck.
Confirmation of your previous beliefs: Voilà! You have found another reason to feel confirmed in your previous assumption: that you lack skills and competence.

 What you need to know about imposter syndrome.

Where does the imposter syndrome come from and why is it so widespread?

The impostor phenomenon does not appear in either of the two "psychologist's bibles", neither in the ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems) nor in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). However, the American Psychological Association recognises it as a genuine "psychological syndrome". One drawback: there is no way to determine its exact origin. However, psychologists cite several factors that may be associated with impostor syndrome. In psychologists' jargon, this is called association, but it cannot be equated with causation.

Let us look together at the factors associated with imposter syndrome that might help us explain why the phenomenon is so widespread in the 21st century.

Parenting styles and personality traits
According to psychologist Suzanne Imes, a child whose parents do not have a consistent parenting style, but alternate extreme praise with harsh criticism, may feel like an impostor in adulthood. It makes sense: if one constantly receives mixed messages about one's own performance, one may doubt whether one is capable of doing anything. In addition, personality traits such as neuroticism and perfectionism have been linked to imposter syndrome.

Social media

Social media is very useful for keeping in touch with friends and knowing what's going on in the world. But Instagram and other apps make it much easier to constantly compare yourself with others. You used to measure yourself against members of your own community, now the whole world has become your personal benchmark.

"Today, users of social networks can access an enormous range of information and draw on a mass of comparative people," Johanna Schäwel, professor of media psychology at the University of Hohenheim (Stuttgart), explains to the online magazine now.

Social media tends to show only the happiest moments of others. No wonder we feel like a fraud when we see seemingly successful, carefree and beautiful people around us.

The collaborative economy

While Boomers had on average only a small number of different jobs or workplaces during their working life, Millennials are part of a generation that jumps from job to job. Constantly leaving the familiar workplace behind and starting over somewhere else means that you have to prove yourself over and over again. This can trigger or exacerbate feelings of being an imposter.


The silver lining of imposter syndrome

Living in constant fear of being labelled an imposter is very stressful. Especially when this stress is added to your already demanding life. It can cause anxiety, affect your productivity and psyche, and lead to unhealthy habits such as procrastination and over-preparation.

So are all the "imposters" among us completely lost? Not entirely.

The Internet is full of tips on how to overcome imposter syndrome (from writing a success diary to making realistic demands).

But what if self-doubt had some benefit?

Recent studies by Basima Tewik, an associate professor at MIT, show this. In her first study, she used a survey to divide participants into two groups, one of which consisted of people suffering from imposter syndrome. On one task (meeting and diagnosing medical patients), those who perceived themselves as less skilled performed as well as those without impostor syndrome. In addition, the interpersonal skills of the "impostors" were rated as better than those of their colleagues.

In Tewik's follow-up study, members of the impostor group received even better performance ratings than those in the non-impostor group.

Dr Chloe Carmichael, a New York-based clinical psychologist and author of the book Nervous Energy, suggests some possible reasons why people with imposter syndrome perform better than their peers. "If you're constantly worrying about whether you're qualified, it drives you to constantly improve your job skills," she tells Lemonade. "The advantage is that you become more qualified in the end, because of that obsessive drive to excel.

Read on to find out what you need to know about imposter syndrome.

In his recent book Think Again, Adam Grant summarises the three main benefits of imposter syndrome:


1. Motivation to work harder than others around you.

Impostor Syndrome
Once you get involved in a task, the doubt about your abilities and talents motivates you to give 110%. All in moderation, of course.

But remember that too much work increases the risk of burnout.

2. Openness to new approaches

If you are not convinced that your way is the only right way, you are more open to suggestions from others, which can lead to a productive change of strategy.

3. Potential to become a better learner

Someone with impostor syndrome may think - whether true or not - that he or she lacks knowledge. A small dose of self-doubt may have its benefits and make you seek input and advice from others. This broadens your experience and makes you a better learner.

Adam Grant also suggests that a slight shift in your perception can also help you to perceive your imposter syndrome as an advantage (to reach what he calls the 'confidence sweet spot', or 'optimal range of self-confidence'). Instead of assuming that you simply don't have the right skills, try telling yourself that you simply haven't acquired those skills yet.

What happens to people who never doubt themselves?

Being afflicted by imposter syndrome may be better than unknowingly suffering from its opposite: what Grant calls "armchair quarterback syndrome", "when self-confidence exceeds competence". The phenomenon of mainsplaining, for example, falls into this category.

According to Grant, there is a theory that people who know the least about a particular subject believe they really know it all. "Based on what is now known as the 'Dunning-Kruger effect'," he writes, "it is likely that when we lack competence, we are brimming with overconfidence.

So, if you sometimes (or always) suffer from imposter syndrome, you can relax a bit and realise that this phenomenon may be even more tolerable than some of the alternatives. As long as your thoughts and doubts don't completely paralyse you, they have some advantages. They can even help to motivate and drive you.

Here's everything you need to know about imposter syndrome.

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