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Impostor Syndrome (also known as impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a pervasive feeling of insecurity, self-doubt, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  It usually strikes intelligent and successful individuals and it often comes to surface after an especially notable accomplishment – be it an admission to a prestigious university, winning an award, earning a promotion or obtaining public acclaim. 

The syndrome has been defined as a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.

Impostorism does not discriminate: people of every demographic suffer from feeling like a fraud, though minorities and women are hardest-hit. 

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.’

Clarifying and Measuring the Imposter Syndrome

Impostor syndrome occurs when we feel that our successes are undeserved. We convince ourselves they’re based on luck, timing, or other factors outside of our control, instead of embracing the fact that we’re actually responsible for having made those successes happen. Fraud syndrome makes us think irrationally about our aptitudes and performance.

The irony is that the further you go in your career, the more opportunities there are for impostorism to rear its ugly head. 

The first scale designated to measure characteristics of impostor phenomenon was designed by Dr. Pauline R. Clance (buy her books from Amazon) in 1985, called the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIP). The scale can be utilized to determine if characteristics of fear are present, and to what extent. The aspects of fear include:

  • fear of evaluation
  • fear of not continuing success
  • fear of not being as capable as others.

In a paper written in 1985, Clance explained that impostor phenomenon can be characterised by the following six dimensions:

  1. The impostor cycle
  2. The need to be special or the best
  3. Characteristics of Superman/Superwoman
  4. Fear of failure
  5. Denial of ability and discounting praise
  6. Feeling fear and guilt about success

Different types of Impostor Syndrome

Contemporary expert on the subject, Dr. Valerie Young, has categorized the syndrome into five subgroups which are listed and explained below. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Young builds on decades of research studying fraudulent feelings among high achievers.

Through her personal research, Young uncovered several “competence types” — marked by internal rules that people who struggle with confidence attempt to follow. Reading about it can be really helpful in identifying your own internal rules and correct the bad habits or patterns that may be holding you back from your full potential.

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome often go hand-in-hand. It makes perfect sense seeing that perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach one, they experience major self-doubt and worry about measuring up to the standards. Whether they realize it or not, this particular group can also exhibit control freak manifestations, usually feeling like if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves.

If you want to know if this subtype applies to you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you ever been accused of being a micromanager?

  • Do you have great difficulty delegating? Even when you’re able to do so, do you feel frustrated and disappointed in the results?

  • When you miss the (insanely high) mark on something, do you accuse yourself of “not being cut out” for your job and ruminate on it for days?

  • Do you feel like your work must be 100% perfect, 100% of the time?

For this type, success is rarely satisfying because they believe they could’ve done even better. But that’s neither productive nor healthy. Owning and celebrating achievements is essential if you want to avoid burnout, find contentment, and cultivate self-confidence.

Since people who experience this phenomenon are convinced they’re phonies amongst real-deal colleagues, they often push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up. This is just a false cover-up for their insecurities, and the work overload may harm not only their own mental health, but also their relationships with others.

If you want to know if this subtype applies to you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you stay later at the office than the rest of your team, even past the point that you’ve completed that day’s necessary work?

  • Have you left your hobbies and passions aside, sacrificing them to work?

  • Do you feel like you haven’t truly earned your title (despite numerous degrees and achievements), so you feel pressed to work harder and longer than those around you to prove your worth?

Impostor workaholics are actually addicted to the validation that comes from working, not from work itself. Start training yourself to veer away from external validation. Learn to take constructive criticism seriously, not personally. Make a goal in learning more about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and auto-evaluate what fuels your motivation

As you become more attuned to internal validation and more able to nurture your inner confidence, you will be able to realistically assess just how much work is reasonable.

Young says people with this competence type believe they need to be a natural “genius.” Because of this belief, they judge their competence based ease and speed as opposed to their efforts. In other words, if they take a long time to master something, they feel shame and begin to think they are incompetent, despite the fact that they did eventually learned what was required.

These types of frauds set their internal bar impossibly high, just like perfectionists. But natural genius types don’t just judge themselves based on ridiculous expectations, they also judge themselves based on getting things right on the first try. When they’re not able to do something quickly or fluently, their alarm sounds.

If you want to know if this subtype applies to you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you used to excelling without much effort?

  • Do you have a track record of getting “straight A’s” in everything you do?

  • Were you told frequently as a child that you were the “smart one” in your family or peer group?

  • Do you dislike the idea of having a mentor, because you believe you can handle things on your own?

  • When you’re faced with a setback, does your confidence tumble because not performing well provokes a feeling of shame?

  • Do you often avoid challenges because it’s so uncomfortable to try something you’re not great at?

To move past this, try seeing yourself as a work in progress. Accomplishing great things involves lifelong learning and skill-building—for everyone, even the most confident people. Rather than beating yourself up when you don’t reach your impossibly high standards, identify specific, changeable behaviours that you can improve over time.

Sufferers who feel as though asking for help reveals their phoniness are what Dr. Valerie Young calls Soloists. It’s OK to be independent, but not to the extent that you refuse assistance so that you can prove your worth.

If you want to know if this subtype applies to you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you firmly believe that you need to accomplish things on your own?

  • “I don’t need anyone’s help.” Sounds familiar?

  • Do you frame requests in terms of the requirements of the project, rather than your needs as a person?

Experts measure their competence based on “what” and “how much” they know or can do. Believing they will never know enough, they fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable.

If you want to know if this subtype applies to you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you shy away from applying to job postings unless you meet every single educational requirement?

  • Are you constantly seeking out trainings or certifications because you think you need to improve your skills in order to succeed?

  • Even if you’ve been in your role for some time, can you relate to feeling like you still don’t know “enough?”

  • Do you shudder when someone says you’re an expert?

Try to practice just-in-time learning – acquiring a skill when you need it. For example, if your responsibilities change, try learning things step by step, rather than hoarding knowledge for (false) comfort.

The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh God, they're on to me! I'm a fraud!' So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.

Quick Tips for overcoming Impostor Syndrome

1. Come off it – Usually you feel like a fraud when you think you are more important than you are. 

2. Accept that you have had some role in your successes.

3. Focus on providing value.

4. Keep a file of people saying nice things about you.

5. Stop comparing yourself to that person – usually someone you deeply admire for whatever reason.

6. Treat your job as a business/experiment – try not to make it about yourself.

7.  Say to yourself  “It’s Impostor Syndrome” and it will help you gain some perspective.

8. Realize that when you hold back you’re robbing the world of the things you could actually accomplish.

9.  Schedule a time of the day when you can focus on stream-of-consciousness writing.

10. Realize that nobody knows what they’re doing.

11. Take action – the more you focus on the actual work or activity, the less likely you are to keep thinking about your own insecurities .

You can have all the confidence in the world and still be reluctant to self-promote out of a steadfast belief that a person’s work should speak for itself. It doesn’t.

Conclusion

Perhaps the most tragic part of dealing with impostor syndrome is that it can limit our courage to go after new opportunities, explore potential areas of interest, and put ourselves out there in a meaningful way.

You might find it extremely helpful to do further research on: attribution theory, metacognition and perceptions related to motivation.

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