Imposter syndrome, a.k.a Imposter phenomenon/fraud syndrome/perceived fraudulence – an internal psychological experience of belief amongst individuals who, despite objective success, fail to internalise their accomplishments and experience persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. These individuals believe that they are not as competent as others perceive them to be and that their accomplishments result from pure luck.
I know most people don’t like labels in life, but I’ve realised that placing labels on myself helps me identify a problem and grants me the tools to solve it. If I don’t know it exists in me, I will never work to address it. Hence, I have labelled myself with FFPG. Before you try and google it, it doesn’t exist on google (or any internet). I made it up for myself because somehow, it is easier labelling myself than choosing a label from the world (don’t ask me why, but it works for me). FFPG is what I call my Fantastic Four Psychological Gifts. When I feel emotions consuming me, I would be like, “Oh boy, FFPG is coming by, lets pay attention to who’s being dropped off”. My Fantastic Four Psychological Gifts are: Anxiety, Self-doubt, Perfectionism, and Fear of failure. With these ranking high on my list, it’s no wonder why I walk around feeling like an imposter every day. It is truly the most immense killer of joy because it can find you celebrating, and it will instantly creep in to tell you that it was all luck and that you indeed have not accomplished anything on your own intelligence.
The word “imposter syndrome” may be new terminology for most people. But, it certainly isn’t any new condition and most people battle with it even unbeknownst to them. Some studies show that 70% of people deal with imposter syndrome in their work. Certainly, it is found more in women than in men for several obvious reasons that I will not go into today. But as with most mental disorders, there is detrimental psychological and mental health harm to dealing with imposter syndrome. Most importantly, imposter syndrome is often associated with depression and anxiety, which can often lead to poor work performance, burnout, and poor career/job satisfaction.
So what exactly is imposter syndrome, and how can you know if you’re suffering from it?
The way I came to realise that I battle with imposter syndrome is quite ironic. I was aware of the term, but I never believed I could suffer from it because it was for “high-achievers“/”people with real success“/”smart professionals“! I mean people with REAL competent skills and accomplishments in life. Ironic how my psychology about imposter syndrome was literally the definition of imposter syndrome. For most of my life, I’ve had a great support system from my family and friends. I remember I would always respond to some of my close cousins when they would give me praise saying: “Yakwetu ohamu bumuka kiinima iishona. Relax, it’s not a big deal” (Translation: “Y’all get amazed by little things. Relax, this is not a big deal”)! All the while, I was battling with accepting praise because I never believed I was succeeding at anything. I always felt there were flaws in everything I did. So even when I do succeed at something, I recognise it as mere luck.
I believe I have great strategic coping mechanisms with my imposter syndrome. But it has a way of leaving me and returning disguised differently with every new advancement in my life. Like the saying goes, “Same Hell, Different Devils“! It stops me from taking on amazing projects, it inhibits my will to share my work, it paralyzes me in a deep state of procrastination, and it limits my belief in myself that hinders me to apply for certain things.
Recently, I realised that regardless of my mindfulness practice for anxiety, I’ve been experiencing more anxiety attacks and just rough mood kills. It dawned on me later that I have a fear of introducing myself. By that, I mean, once I tell you my name, I don’t know what to follow it up with because I don’t feel competent in any of my skills – Dr? Scientist? Writer? And recently, businesswoman? Yes, these are areas I invest my time in, but I don’t feel skilled in any. My imposter syndrome was so extreme in the past that I experienced anxiety attacks while graduating from med school. And it especially did not help to see my family celebrate me all over social media, and I couldn’t tell them to take down my pictures. I couldn’t join in the celebration because I just didn’t feel skilled and competent enough to celebrate being a “Dr”.
Moons later, I find myself in grad school. Boy, nothing like going to grad school if you want to completely feel like a failure with no competent skills in life. I mean, nothing ever works out here. Your experiments keep failing; you have a supervisor on your neck who constantly keeps assigning you impossible tasks in your view; your presentations get scrutinised and torn apart; you’re a student, yet, considered an expert in your field, so you get incredibly anxious about what you don’t know; and finally, every morning you wake up starring at the ceiling asking yourself: “Am I really smart enough?!” The worst of it all is that the one time you succeed at an experiment and procedure, or publish a paper, or get an applaud from your supervisor, or answer someone who came to you with an expert question, you only get to smile for a good 5 minutes. Because after that, the “imposter” in you will remind you that this was all mere “luck”. When people compliment your work, you believe they are just being “polite”. Or in my case, I always assume people don’t understand. Because if you really understood, you would’ve figured out that I’m a fraud, and I actually really don’t know what I’m doing.
This, basically, is the life of people who suffer from imposter syndrome. They never feel accomplished enough in anything they do. You walk around constantly agitated, waiting for when people will finally figure you out and realise that you don’t actually belong. The vicious cycle of it is that regardless of whether you have a fear of failure, failing somehow calms you down because you identify yourself more as a failure than an intellect. You consider every win as mere “luck” and every failure as who you actually are.
Dr Valerie Young is an Imposter Syndrome expert who studied it for years. I recently came across her book: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why capable people suffer from the imposter syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it. In her research, she categorised 5 types of imposter syndrome. She refers to them as “competence types”, and they are a reflection of one’s internal believes about competency. I found these very useful and practical to classify my imposter syndrome and how best to deal with it. I hope you find them guiding too and find some value in my suggestive tips that I offer:
1. The Perfectionist
The perfectionists measure competence on how something is done, often with excessive-high goals. They feel like 99 out 100 is a failure and expect things flawlessly achieved every single time. They tend to undervalue their work and efforts and suffer from self-doubt with the slightest flaw in their work. They often appear to be controlling and unable to delegate work.
Tip: “Perfection” is an illusion, and work can never be 100%. Learn to accumulate your skills through your mistakes because, without mistakes, you don’t have a blueprint for improvement. My special trick here is I classify my flaws into two categories: 1. If they are within my capabilities, these are my “next projects” to work on and study instead of thinking I’m a failure; 2. If they are not within my capabilities, these are the flaws that make me human, just like everyone else.
2. The Expert
The experts are the knowledge perfectionists. They rate competence on what they know and by how much of it they can do. They feel the need to be constantly reading more, taking more courses, accumulating more certificates. They often will not go for a promotion because they never feel qualified enough. They have extreme fear from lack of knowledge. The thought of being called an “expert” in their respective fields sometimes would make them extremely uncomfortable because they believe they don’t know enough.
Tip: Start teaching/tutoring/mentoring. Teaching doesn’t only benefit those who are learning, but it significantly reinforces the knowledge you have. More importantly, imparting your knowledge onto someone else will give you the confidence that you are indeed knowledgeable in your field. There is no end to knowledge. Acquire necessary skills when expected of you, but stop holding yourself back from that job, promotion or big project because you haven’t read every book in the library.
3. The Soloist
The soloist refuses to receive praise for something that they received help to accomplish. They measure competence on who gets the job done. They believe if they didn’t do the work all on their own, it doesn’t count. They have the hardest time asking for help because they perceive that as them being incompetent. They can only prove their worth if they complete all the work with their own efforts.
Tip: Understand that working smart makes you more competent than working hard. Smart people seek guidance and coaching in everything they do. They ask for help. Nothing great is ever built alone. Re-programme your mindset to believe that every time you ask for help, that is 10x effort made on your side. Once the work is done, your efforts to get help were 10x more valuable to accomplishing it.
4. The Natural Genius
The natural genius thinks intelligence must be innate. These individuals measure competency with how naturally they can do something. Any amount of days, weeks or even years spent trying to do something results in extreme self-doubt and the belief that they are not competent enough. Struggling to master something is perceived as proof that they are an imposter and don’t belong.
Tips: Start accepting yourself as the human being you are, who evolves every day with a new set of skills they never had before. Challenges are the opportunities where skills are developed. Move past seeing your struggles as you being incompetent, and retrain your mindset to embrace the skills you are building along the way.
5. The Superhuman
The superhumans measure competency on doing it all. They believe they must excel in all the different areas of their lives – career, school, parenting, partner, community leader, volunteering, friendships etc., all at the same time. They struggle with extreme insecurities and often find themselves involved in every work assignment, social event, family commitment, community project etc. They value their worth as succeeding professionally and personally. Any failure in any area would make them feel like a fraud.
Tips: Insecurities can drive you to seek external validation from your life. Nature your inner confidence and start working on accepting yourself for all that you are and not all that you can do. Understand that this unbalanced life sends the wrong message, especially with your personal/family life. Where you can delegate work, do that and allow your focus on the things you actually value. Everyday, tell yourself: “I am enough. I am doing enough.”
Personally, I am learning to say “Thank you!” when someone calls me smart, beautiful, and intelligent. I am learning to celebrate my small wins with champagne and sushi (because I deserved it). I am affirming myself every time I enter a room that I belong. And when my inner critic creeps in, saying, “This room is full of smart people”. I respond, “Yep it is, including myself. What a great room to learn and exchange ideas.” When it tells me that “You succeeded because of luck.” I respond, “Maybe. But we all walk around with a little bit of luck in our pockets every now and then. Not a whole lot, but some. So, it’s impossible for me to have come this far on mere luck. I worked hard to get here. Therefore, there is no shame if luck was what worked in my favour today.” Only you have the power to define yourself in this world.
I dare you to challenge your inner critic. There’s enough sorrow going around in this world stealing joy. Don’t allow your mind to be that too. If you can make a mean omelette that leaves everyone begging for more, babe, YOU ARE A CHEF! It doesn’t matter if it’s not the perfect shape, or you don’t have a PhD in food science, or that you had to get assistance for the measurements, or it took you 2 years to perfect the recipe. You are here now. Own yourself, Own your talents! Smile, you are capable and competent. You are more than enough!
Until the next time, leaving you with some of those good-good mental health vibes…