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Imposter Syndrome

By J. Lynn Holsman, PRS

Health & Recovery Content Specialist

Edited for Medical Content by Dr. Pennington, NP

Almost everyone experiences some self-doubt in their career or education. But what if it goes deeper than that? What if you are walking into work every day feeling like you don’t belong? What if the doubt goes so deeply that you feel like a fraud? If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Also, there is a name for what you’re experiencing. This is called Imposter Syndrome, and we are going to take a closer look at it to gain a better understanding of exactly what it is, and how it can be managed.

What Is It?

Imposter Syndrome is also referred to as Perceived Fraudulence. What it is, is having powerful feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt in your career (and sometimes education at the master’s and PhD level) even though you have been through the proper education and training required for the position, and despite any and all accomplishments or accolades. Most studies on Imposter Syndrome are done on female executive-level workers, but it can affect literally anyone, in any position, of any sex.

The problem lies between an individual’s own self-perception and the way other people perceive him or her. The individual believes that she is not worthy of her position. She may feel that she is not smart enough, not qualified enough, or simply just not a good fit for the position. Despite having earned her position, she feels like she wrongly acquired the position, and is constantly going above and beyond to ensure that no one finds out she’s a “fraud”. Whenever she receives a raise, an award, or any other type on recognition, she writes it off as luck, sympathy, or pity. She cannot take ownership for any of her achievements, because fully believes that she is not worthy of them.

Different Types

The Perfectionist

People with Imposter Syndrome fall into five types, each with their own characteristics. Starting with the Perfectionist, this type of person with Imposter Syndrome requires perfection of themselves in every single aspect of her life. As we know, perfection is not achievable, for anyone. This doesn’t stop the individual from trying. And when she inevitably falls short of perfection, she feels like a failure. This is not simply making a mistaking and feeling bad about it. These feelings of failure can turn into deep-seeded feelings of guilt and shame, potentially leading to depression and anxiety.

The Natural Genius

A natural genius with imposter syndrome is someone who easily picks up new skills. For example, Kaley saw a video about acrylic pour painting and decided to give it a try. Immediately she is skilled at creating beautiful pieces of artwork. Any time she tries a new hobby or skill, it comes to her with ease. Naturally, when she makes a mistake, which will inevitably happen because she is a human being, she will experience doubt, shame, and embarrassment. Normally things come with ease, so when she struggles, she begins to believe that she is a fraud.

The Soloist

A soloist (or rugged individualist) with Imposter Syndrome believes that she should be able to handle everything on her own. Many times, the soloist views asking for help as weakness. If she is unable to handle something on her own, she sees herself as a failure. If someone were to offer help, she could never accept it. Agreeing to allow someone to help her would be an admission of her own shortcomings.

The Expert

Someone in this category needs to know everything there is to know about a particular topic as it relates to their project. When they come across something they didn’t know, or if a question us raised that the expert cannot answer, she feels like a fraud. She should have all the answers. As with the soloist, it is impossible for one person to know everything about any given topic. Setting yourself to such high standards is setting yourself up for disappointment.

The Superhero

The superhero interprets success to mean being successful in every role that she holds, for example, daughter, student, worker, friend. In each of these roles, she pushes herself to her own limits on a regular basis… because success means being able to navigate these roles perfectly. When she inevitably gets burned out or fails to meet one or more of the demands placed on her, she feels like a failure.

Causes And Contributing Factors

Several factors play into whether someone will have a hard time accepting his or her success. It is common for folks to develop Imposter Syndrome if they have had parents who put high pressure on them to do exceptionally well in school, were always comparing you to your siblings, were controlling or overprotective, or were highly critical of your mistakes. Parenting style isn’t the only link. People who have pre-existing mental health conditions are also likely to develop Imposter Syndrome. For instance, if you are someone who already struggles with anxiety and depression, it’s entirely possible that you have a difficult time taking ownership of your own successes.

Women & Imposter Syndrome: Why It’s Not Your Fault

The concept of Imposter Syndrome was developed in the late 1970s and was done so without looking into the systemic biases of the workplace. Since the beginning of this country, women and people of color were seen as less than. This is evident in many social arenas, and the workplace is no exception. There are some people who believe that Imposter Syndrome is not worthy of being called a syndrome at all, and who argue that women and people of color often feel like we are unworthy of accolades and success, because systemic oppression keeps it that way. Instead of telling women that we need to stop questioning our success, the system needs fixing. As white males progress in their positions, their doubt subsides as they demonstrate their abilities. However, women and people of color are constantly met with challenges, micro-aggressions, and expectations that result in holding us back. Questioning ourselves shouldn’t be a syndrome or a problem that needs fixing. Instead of women and people of color “fixing ourselves”, maybe the system is in fact what needs to be fixed. Until that happens, we can help manage our feelings of inadequacy by sharing how we feel. Oftentimes a problem shared is a problem cut in half. Talk about it. Surround yourself with people who build you up and remind you that your successes are your own. And of course, if you feel like your self-esteem is suffering badly enough, it doesn’t hurt to talk to a mental health professional. He or she can help you navigate your Imposter Syndrome and help find strategies that work best for you.

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