Don’t let it stop you- overcoming the Imposter Syndrome

Dale Carnegie, in his book ‘How to stop worrying and start living’, expresses his own astonishment at how his books written as textbooks for his own students at the night school and the YMCA, became bestsellers all over the world. He says in the book “Since it was written solely as a textbook for my own adult classes, and since I had written four other books that no one had ever heard of, I never dreamed that it would have a large sale: I am probably one of the most astonished authors now living.”

One would wonder why such a famous author would even think like that. Well, it doesn’t happen to few, the imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon. Several successful people doubt their skills and achievements and live in constant fear that their accomplishments will be exposed as a fraud. They doubt that they have any role to play in their success and that whatever they have achieved is either by luck or someone else’s credit.

It is one thing to share credit of your teamwork with other members of your team, but it is another matter altogether to deny you had any role when in fact, it was all your effort. This psychological phenomenon was first discovered and written about as the article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes published in 1978. They had studied 150 high achieving women who were acknowledged for their accomplishments by even their male colleagues. However, they lacked the internal confidence to own this success and attributed it to luck. That it was thought as something that only women suffer from, was soon dispelled when it was found that men too face this problem.

Causes of the Imposter Syndrome

Human beings are fragile creatures. Their ego is dependent on external validation. A person feels good when others laud him. But this enhanced feeling of joy must be in sync with his internal feelings as well. It is found that people from certain backgrounds feel guilty of getting the privilege, especially of higher education. Imposter syndrome is mostly seen in academic or professional settings. 

 

Certain groups are predisposed to the Imposter Syndrome

– Women in general

– Women from ethnic minority groups

– People from extremely downtrodden classes in developing countries

– people who have studied on scholarship or have been raised in foster homes

– People from certain ethnicities who have had very few people like them succeeding in life

– People who have faced childhood trauma

– People escaping war zones and migrating to countries where they flourish.

– Those who face immense family pressure to match the success of their siblings

– Those with low self esteem

– The perfectionists who feel they haven’t yet done that perfect work

 

Common men and women and even celebrities, highly accomplished people. I remember reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook where she tells at more than one instance when she felt she didn’t deserve to be where she was (Sheryl was part of the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society at Harvard). She goes to confesses to having the feeling even today. That book went on to open the cap on how highly accomplished women still harbor guilt of not being equal and having put their families to sacrifice their time.

Serena Williams has also spoken out about having been pressured to follow the steps of her much successful older sister Venus back then and having felt that urge to take a backseat. Even the grand old dame of motivational philosophy Maya Angelou once wrote “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.”

Why do people feel they’re a fraud?

The imposter syndrome is seen in people who have made it big in areas that don’t generally require toiling in the way we imagine it to be. For ex. When we see how Henry Ford or Elon Musk made it big in production of tangible objects, we attribute that accomplishment to their genius because we see how difficult it (the resultant product) was to create. In case of academic success or success in areas of software or literature, where you don’t see the tangible hard work, the people behind that success feel guilty that they didn’t work hard enough (in comparison with those who produce or create tangible things). This makes them feel they have got it easy. What they don’t realize is writing a book or a research paper or an algorithm or creating an app is also hard work, albeit that of the brain. It comes from the notion that hard work equals sweating it out and facing hardships. These stereotypes of hard work often come in the way of enjoying the fruits of one’s labor.

 

How to overcome the Imposter Syndrome

  • Accept that what you’re feeling is not normal and work towards correcting those notions (in time)
  • One must learn to enjoy the success, for very few people get to enjoy it.
  • Express how much hard work goes into/ went into achieving what you did. That way, not just the people whom you interact with but also you yourself know that it was not just a fluke
  • Get clarity on what accounts for fraud and understand you are not one. That way you stop feeling bad about something you haven’t done

    It’s a fine balance between being humble and yet enjoying the accolades that come with achievement and being arrogant about the same. Which side of the line are you on? Do share your experiences.

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