Impostor Syndrome: “What if they find out I’m a fraud?”
By Dr. Anita Jimmie and Christine Lau
“Am I good enough?” “Why is it me?” “Do I really belong here?” A person experiencing Impostor Syndrome would typically ask themselves these questions.
According to TIMES magazine, approximately 70 per cent of individuals may experience Impostor Syndrome at some point in their lives. This syndrome is not specific or unique to any particular group of people. In fact, research has shown that Impostor Syndrome affects women, men, students, young adults and professionals across all ages, ethnicities, nationalities and cultures, although the syndrome seems to affect females more than males.
So what exactly is Impostor Syndrome? Coined in 1978 by psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Clarence, the impostor phenomenon is used to refer to individuals’ perceptions that their achievements and successes are due to sheer luck or a matter of ‘right timing’ rather than their abilities or competence.
In their research, Imes and Clarence discovered that individuals who experience Impostor Syndrome are often high achievers, who tend to suffer in silence for fear of being unmasked. These feelings often lead to anxiety, high levels of stress and, in some extreme cases, mental illness.
Interestingly, having impostor feelings is not directly correlational to low confidence or self-esteem. What makes this phenomenon more interesting is that there is evidence to suggest that perfectionists are more likely to experience impostor feelings compared to other groups of people.
Perfectionists often feel the need to over-achieve for fear that their ‘inadequacies’ will be discovered or exposed. However, it is important to note that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer as to why people may experience impostor syndrome. There is no definite factor to pinpoint why a person might feel this way.
Psychologists explain that the tendency to experience Impostor Syndrome is contributed by individual personality, but often other factors such as family expectations, the environment and the society where the individual resides also come into play. Research shows that quite a large number of individuals who have impostor feelings come from families that place greater emphasis on achievement, which signals the role of familial expectations in affecting children’s attitude later in life.
It is worth noting however that although experiencing impostor feelings can have a negative impact on mental health, there are various strategies to help a person cope with such overwhelming thoughts.
Firstly, it is important to learn how to share one’s thoughts and feelings with trusted individuals or seek help from professionals. Those experiencing Impostor Syndrome tend to be overly critical of themselves, or doubtful of their abilities, and having an outsider’s input can help to put things into perspective. Getting feedback and input from a trusted source can help a person reframe their thought process and build their self-confidence and self-esteem.
Another way to try and manage these feelings is by monitoring one’s self-talk. Imagine giving advice and speaking to yourself the way you would speak to a friend who downplays their achievements. It is useful to apply the same support and language when speaking to yourself.
Finally, try to celebrate small successes as often as you can. Even if a task is simple, it is important to acknowledge your achievements as self-recognition, allowing you to increase your self-confidence. It is important to constantly remind ourselves that we are deserving of success obtained through our hard work and efforts.
Dr. Anita Jimmie is a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and Health Sciences at Curtin Malaysia and Mdm. Christine Lau is a counsellor with the Sarawak Welfare Department. They can be contacted via email at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively.