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The Psychology of The Imposter Syndrome

The Harmful Side of ‘Fake it til you Make it’

By Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)Published about a year ago Updated about a year ago 7 min read
The Psychology of The Imposter Syndrome
Photo by Sander Sammy on Unsplash

I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out. — Maya Angelou, civil rights activist, author, poet and Nobel Laureate

The imposter syndrome is a phenomenon in which individuals are beset by feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and the fear of being exposed as a “fraud” despite evidence of their competence and achievements. This internal, often subconscious experience can be debilitating and can impede personal and professional growth.

What it is. How it feels.

The imposter syndrome was first described by researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Their studies indicated that a significant number of high-achieving women suffered from feelings of fraudulence and inadequacy despite their professional and academic accomplishments. Since then, the imposter syndrome has been studied in a variety of contexts and populations and has been found to be a relatively common experience among high-achievers, especially women and members of minority groups.

The key psychological factor that underlies the imposter syndrome is a discrepancy between internal feelings of self-doubt and external perceptions of competence. Individuals who experience the imposter syndrome often attribute their achievements to external factors such as luck or help from others, rather than their own abilities. They also tend to have a heightened sensitivity to feedback, interpreting even constructive criticism as evidence of their fraudulence.

Moreover, imposter Syndrome is often associated with perfectionism and high standards for oneself, often in the context of achievement-oriented environments such as education or career. These high standards can lead to a sense of intense pressure to achieve, as well as a fear of failure. Furthermore, when one successfully achieves their standards, they may feel that it is not due to their own ability but rather luck or a mistake.

Related to these characteristics is the critical role of self-esteem. Individuals with low self-esteem may be more susceptible to experiencing the imposter syndrome, as they may doubt their abilities and accomplishments and may attribute their success to external factors rather than their own abilities. Low self-esteem is also associated with negative self-talk, which can contribute to feelings of fraudulence and self-doubt.

Research has also suggested that the imposter syndrome may be related to one’s career development and work identity. Individuals who reported higher levels of the imposter syndrome also reported lower levels of career adaptability, indicating that imposter syndrome may impede career growth and development. Furthermore, individuals who experience the imposter syndrome may have difficulty forming a secure and stable work identity, which can lead to a lack of sense of belonging and purpose in their work, which in turn can develop into a “self-fulfilling prophecy” whereby one’s fears manifest in lower levels of performance, thus reinforcing the feelings of inadequacy in a negative feedback loop.

It is important to consider this relationship between imposter syndrome and identity, a critical concept in psychology with strong implications for mental health and stability. Studies have found that individuals who experience the imposter syndrome may have a weak sense of self or a fragmented sense of identity, which can make it difficult for them to internalize their accomplishments and feel a sense of belonging. Furthermore, imposter syndrome can also be linked to a lack of fit between one’s self-concept and the role or identity that one is expected to embody, whether it is in the workplace, school, or other settings. This lack of fit can lead to feelings of incongruence and fraudulence, which can contribute to imposter syndrome.

Closely related to identity, the social comparison process represents another important psychological factor that contributes to the development and maintenance of imposter syndrome. When individuals compare themselves to others, they may feel inadequate, especially if they perceive others to be more competent or accomplished than themselves. This can be particularly detrimental in environments where there is a high degree of competition or where success is highly visible, such as in academic or professional settings. Interestingly, individuals who exhibit high levels of imposter syndrome often compare themselves to the highest achievers in multiple, often unrelated categories (e.g., recognized success in multiple career fields, as well as sports, and/or creative endeavors) thus creating impossible expectations for achievement,

The experience of traumatic events has also been associated with the development of imposter syndrome. Research has found that individuals who have experienced traumatic events are more likely to experience imposter syndrome. Trauma can impact an individual’s sense of self and self-worth, which can make it difficult for them to internalize their accomplishments and feel a sense of belonging, leading to imposter syndrome.

By John Noonan on Unsplash

Impact and Consequences

In terms of the impact, imposter syndrome can have on one’s mental health, it is often associated with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. It can paradoxically affect performance and impede personal and professional growth by causing individuals to doubt their abilities and avoid taking on new challenges.

Another area of recent research is the relationship between imposter syndrome and resilience. Studies have found that imposter syndrome is negatively associated with resilience, meaning that individuals experiencing imposter syndrome tend to have lower level of resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back after adversity and being resilient can help individuals to develop more effective coping mechanisms, which can ultimately help them to overcome the imposter syndrome.

The phrase “fake it until you make it” has become a popular cliche in recent years, often used to encourage individuals to push through their doubts and insecurities and act confidently even when they don’t feel ready. While this phrase may be well-intentioned, it can actually be harmful for those who experience imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is characterized by feelings of fraudulence and self-doubt, and the pressure to “fake it” can exacerbate these feelings. When individuals feel like they are constantly pretending to be something they are not, it can lead to feelings of inauthenticity and disconnection from one’s true identity, which can further contribute to imposter syndrome. Furthermore, the pressure to “fake it” can also create an unhealthy cycle of perfectionism, as individuals may feel like they have to constantly prove themselves in order to avoid being exposed as a fraud.

Instead of “faking it,” it is important for individuals to work on developing a healthy level of self-acceptance and self-compassion, as well as a realistic sense of their own abilities and accomplishments. This involves learning to recognize and acknowledge one’s own strengths and limitations, rather than downplaying or exaggerating them. By adopting this more realistic and compassionate approach, individuals can learn to internalize their accomplishments and build self-confidence, rather than relying on external validation or pretending to be something they are not.

It is also important for individuals to recognize that it is normal to have doubts and insecurities, and that it is okay to seek support and guidance when needed. Seeking out a supportive community or mentor can provide a sense of validation and encouragement, which can help individuals to overcome imposter syndrome and achieve their full potential.

Strategies and Interventions

In terms of interventions, some studies have suggested that using techniques such as identity exploration and validation can be helpful in addressing imposter syndrome. By exploring and validating one’s sense of self and identity, individuals can learn to accept and internalize their accomplishments and experiences, which can help to counteract feelings of fraudulence.

Other research has found that using coping strategies such as self-affirmation and mental contrasting can address underlying issues. Self-affirmation, which involves focusing on one’s positive qualities and values, can help to counteract feelings of fraudulence by promoting self-compassion and self-acceptance. Mental contrasting, which involves picturing a desired future outcome and identifying potential obstacles, can help individuals to overcome imposter syndrome by developing a sense of self-efficacy and optimism.

For those who have experienced traumatic events, it is important to explore interventions that address their trauma, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. This can help them heal from their past experiences and improve their sense of self-worth, which in turn will help to reduce imposter syndrome symptoms.

In addition, team-building interventions may also be beneficial in addressing imposter syndrome, especially in work-related settings. Team-building interventions can help to improve team cohesion, trust, and communication, which can help to create a supportive environment that can counteract feelings of fraudulence.

Imposter syndrome is a complex phenomenon that is driven by a variety of psychological, societal, and cultural factors. Recent research has highlighted the role of self-esteem and has shown it to be particularly prevalent among high-achievers, especially women and members of minority groups.

When not acknowledged, it can have significant detrimental impact on an individual’s mental health and can impede personal and professional growth. To overcome the imposter syndrome, it is important for individuals to develop self-compassion, practice realistic self-evaluation, seek out a supportive environment, improve their resilience and potentially seek professional help. By addressing the underlying issues, individuals can learn to internalize their accomplishments, build self-confidence, and achieve their full potential.

By Tamara Gak on Unsplash

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About the Creator

Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)

Writer, psychologist and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, human and animal rights, and industrial/organizational psychology

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