Impostor Syndrome: Turning Self-Doubt Into Self-Confidence

 

So you might be thinking, what in the world is impostor syndrome? Is it based on the general definition of the term “impostor?” Does an individual diagnosed with impostor syndrome pretend to be someone else in order to deceive others? In this article, you will discover the true answers to these questions and obtain knowledge about the history of impostor syndrome as well as the signs, symptoms, and consequences of this disorder, a suggested treatment plan devised by trusted professionals, and effective tips to turn your self- doubt into self- confidence.

impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome

What is Impostor Syndrome?

First things first, we must define impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon characterized by the inability of individuals to recognize their own accomplishments. An individual who suffers from impostor syndrome does not lead a deceitful life, but, in fact, he or she may experience an incapacity to recognize their own achievements and potential. They believe that any task that they’ve accomplished is due to luck or by deceiving and/or misleading others. An individual who possesses these characteristics discredits the positive qualities that have to lead them on a path to success.

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Self- doubt exists before, during and after a completed task. An impostor might turn to procrastination not because they are lazy or incapable, but because they are avoiding a self-inflicted fear of failure. During the completion of an intended task, an individual diagnosed with impostor syndrome can display perfectionist tendencies. They obsess and stress over their performances even if they are an expert in their own field or a student who embodies the knowledge and skills that are needed for completion. Even after they’ve proven themselves, an impostor will still base their achievements on luck due to an intense fear that their actions will expose themselves as a fraud.

History of the Impostor Syndrome

Coined by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, the effects of impostor syndrome were identified through their own psychological study. Centered around 150 successful and highly ambitious female faculty members and college students, Clance and Imes found that many of these women still believed that they were unskilled. Despite the fact that they had proven to have a great deal of victory in their educational and professional careers, they still served as their own worst enemies by falling victim to their lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem.

In their own psychological paper: “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women,” Imes and Clance confirmed that these alleged impostors did not internalize and celebrate their success. They created and became fixated on their own personal belief that they had deceived others into believing that they were highly skilled individuals and this is the reason why they are successful. Imes and Clance argued that individuals with impostor syndrome act out in ways that represent their lack of self-confidence. Impostors are always in conflict with themselves because although they feel motivated to work hard, that fear of being identified as a ‘phony’ will always hold them back from reaching their full potential. As a result, they avoid acts of success.

Based on their own experimental findings, Clance and Imes concluded that the societal and familial pressures faced by the individual contributed to the development of their impostor syndrome. The degree to which an individual is judged or criticized by family and society appears to affect the intensity of the syndrome. 

Impostor syndrome was to blame for the high resignation and dropout rates among numerous female faculty and students, since they felt they did not truly belong there.- Clance and Imes

In the 1980s, Pauline Clance invented the first ever test designed to help individuals determine whether or not they had impostor syndrome. The Clance IP Scale contained statements related to the syndrome and asked patients to rate, on a scale from 1 to 5, the extent to which each statement related to their own personal feelings. Statements included: “I rarely do a project or task as well as I’d like to do it” and “Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.” An individual’s overall score was positively correlated with the severity and frequency of their impostor syndrome.  

Throughout history, psychologists have expanded the diagnosis not only to women but to men. Although there are still a number of studies that suggest impostor syndrome still favors the female sex, men are now considered for a possible diagnosis. Today, societal pressures continue to explain why impostor syndrome develops in females.

impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome

Causes of the Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome and personal life changes 

In any person’s life, drastic changes can take a lot of getting used to. No matter the extent to which a lifestyle alteration takes place, change is change and people have different ways of dealing with it. For an impostor, change is not necessarily a good thing. Whether it’s graduating from college or receiving a new job, these examples cause a great deal of unanticipated or unexpected success. I guess you could say that an impostor suffers from an intense “fear of the unknown,” not knowing how these changes will affect their lives. Fear that these changes may do more harm than good. Fear that these changes will cause an outside individual to judge their initial lack of knowledge as unqualified.

Impostor syndrome and family life

The effects of family life on the development of impostor syndrome are most likely traced back to an impostor’s childhood. According to a study of the effects of familial relationships on people who suffer from impostor syndrome, scientists have found a possible link between parental overprotection and later development of the syndrome.

A trend that is most seen in individuals who struggle with impostor syndrome is an embedded belief established by the child’s parents. They teach the child that intelligence only comes to those who are naturally gifted when, in reality, academic success does not come easily or to those who are “gifted.” A parent who constantly alternates between praise and criticism are sending mixed signals to their children, causing the child to become confused about the quality of their performance.

A link also exists between impostor syndrome and labeling. Children that are labeled by their parents or siblings are more likely to act out and think in ways that fit their label. For example, a child who is labeled as “the handsome one” is most likely to grow up believing that they are only successful because they are attractive. If a child acts in a way that contradicts their label, they believe that they are not perfect or that they aren’t really what they seem, developing an excessive need to always act according to their label.

Impostor syndrome and perfectionism

Impostor syndrome is linked to a perfectionist trait. This individual tends to define failure as: any mistake or flaw that reveals them to be less than perfect. Compared to a non- impostor syndrome, a person who experiences high levels of impostorism feels that they must perform in a way that will gain the approval of others. Consequently, impostors will protect their “perfect” image and refuse to accept anything that is less-than-perfect, while refusing to ask for help for fear of “exposing” themselves.

Impostor syndrome- Labeling children

Impostor syndrome- Childhood labeling   

What Signs or Symptoms are in the Impostor Syndrome?

Are you someone who experiences self- complacency when faced with a seemingly impossible mission? Are you afraid that you are not capable of living up to your own personal expectations or the expectations of others? Or do you sometimes think that no matter how much positive feedback you receive from others, your performance could’ve been better or lack in self-appraisal? It is safe to say that everyone has encountered these insecurities at some point in their lives, but when do these ordinary uncertainties start to become unusual?

Here are 11 signs and symptoms to keep in mind when characterizing impostor syndrome

1.Difficulty accepting praise from others

Not because you do not value what others have to say, but simply because it is difficult to accept your worth and take full responsibility for a job well done.

An extreme feeling of unworthiness and low self-esteem places limitations on an impostor’s ability to believe in themselves, internalize their success, and take full credit for their accomplishments even when these qualifications are recognized by others.

2. Discounting your accomplishments, success, and abilities

“It was Jim that made this project come to life, I just assisted.”

Since those who experience impostor syndrome find it difficult to accept praise from others as the truth, they regularly blame their success and give credit to external factors that exist in their environment. In addition, an impostor will downplay their talents and potential.

3. Engage in superstitious thinking

“I obtained my present position because I just so happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

A superstition that occurs in the mind of an impostor includes a feeling that their success is solely due to luck or an unlikely chance of occurrence. Superstitious thinking occurs when an individual falsely believes that their success will cause others to view them as a “fraud.”

4. Becoming fully immersed in your perfectionist tendencies

“I need this project to be perfect because if it isn’t, I’ll let everyone down.”

From an impostor syndrome point of view, no task is too small and must be carried out effortlessly and flawlessly. If an individual does not perform these tasks to a T, they have automatically failed. An obsessive and overwrought approach to every detail fuels a standard of perfection that is impossible to achieve.

5. Fear of failure and not living up to the expectations of others sends a chill down your spine

“I’m often afraid that I may fail at a new assignment or undertaking even though I generally do well at what I attempt.”

Despite positive praise from others, an intense fear of failure occurs way before these “standards of perfection” are even acted upon. Failure is not an option for a person with impostor syndrome because they believe that if they fail, then it is highly possible that they will expose themselves to the outside world. These internal pressures to live up to certain expectations fuels this never-ending cycle of self- doubt.

6. You experience job dissatisfaction

“I’m so unhappy with where I am in my career, I feel like I’m not being challenged as much as I’d like to be.”

In a professional setting, the fear of failure or self-exposure stops an impostor from taking action to move up to a higher position or to take on additional responsibilities. They will remain in an entry-level position to feel comfortable, protected, mentally secure or avoid job stress. They might stick with this position because they believe they are not capable of doing better. Failure to recognize how other roles might place more importance on their abilities will most likely occur. This job dissatisfaction is caused by personal limitations and restrictions that are voluntarily placed upon the person with impostor syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome

7. You celebrate your success in silence

“If I show others how excited I am about this job promotion then they’ll think that I’ve deceived my boss.”

If an individual appears confident to the outside world, then a fraudulent suspicion might arise within their colleagues or employers. In the mind of an impostor, it is best to avoid success at all costs and seem unsure. In another case, a person might just lack self-confidence while believing their actions are unworthy and not good enough.

8. You feel that you need to outshine others

“If John sells more sales than I do then my boss will fire me. I need to work harder.”

Even though they’ve proven that they have a strong work ethic and contribute quality work to the position, an impostor will never settle for mediocrity. They must go above and beyond, overworking themselves to apply more effort in order to prove themselves as the best. They are unintentionally acting out in their own irrational fear of failure when accomplishing the same goals that others accomplish with less effort.

9. Biting off more than you can chew

“I need to take on this extra assignment. I don’t want my professor to think that I’m lazy.”

An impostor takes on a large number of tasks to try to overcome their self-doubt and prove to others that they are good enough. Again, always obsessing and stressing over the unpleasant emotional experience of failure, he or she takes on extra work to overly assure others that they are confident and have self-worth.

10. You constantly compare yourself to others

“Wow, Rose is a lot more intelligent than I am. I do not deserve this position.”

Constant comparison of others’ abilities plays a major part in impostor syndrome. These constant comparisons feed into their insecurities which causes an individual to overwork, overthink, and self- doubt.

11. Stepping out of your comfort zone is not your forte

“If I ask questions, then people might think that I am not as intelligent or capable as they thought I was.”

You avoid taking risks and asking questions out of fear of negative evaluations from others. With each sign comes a great amount of depression, anxiety, and frustration. Despite the fact that the severity and occurrence of these symptoms vary from person to person, they tend to always show up in vulnerable situations. If the syndrome goes untreated, a ripple effect can occur; passing a deep sense of unworthiness onto others, not just the impostor syndrome sufferers.

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Prevalence of Impostor Syndrome

At one point in psychological history, impostor syndrome was believed to affect mostly females. Now, 8 Subsequent studies have shown that Imposter Syndrome is an equal opportunity condition, affecting both genders within a wide range of occupations. Research and self-reported incidents have confirmed that nearly seventy percent of individuals will experience impostor syndrome at least once in their lifetime. However, because many impostors deal with this in secret, psychologists find it difficult to recognize and treat this syndrome.

Impostor syndrome- Signs and symptoms

Impostor syndrome- Signs and symptoms

 

Those who face an intimidating new task are seen as the most susceptible to impostor syndrome. Due to the stereotypes and pressures that society places on minorities, Clance argues that impostor syndrome appears more common among racial minorities in American society. Some members of the minority population have reported feeling as though they need to apply more effort to accomplish the same goals that others accomplish with less effort. In addition, impostor syndrome seems to be most prevalent in Asian Americans and in individuals who differ from members of the majority population.

Impostor Syndrome and Anxiety

High levels of anxiety are positively correlated with impostor syndrome. In a study of the role of social influence in anxiety and the imposter phenomenon, conducted by Christy B. Fraenza (a student at Walden University), impostor syndrome was observed among graduate students to determine whether a difference exists between online graduate students and traditional graduate students.

Using a theoretical approach to this study, Fraenza found that human behavior was a result of social influence. She hypothesized that students may feel pressured in a traditional setting because of the social cues of peers and instructors, as well as institutional norms. She compared 2 independent samples, 115 online graduate students, and 105 traditional graduate students, and used a cross-sectional survey design, with 4 different measures: the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale, the Zung Self-Rating Anxiety Scale, the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale, and a basic demographic survey. After carrying out this experiment with a thorough experimental design, Fraenza emphasized that traditional graduate students experienced higher IP scores, indicating a positive relationship between perfectionism, anxiety and impostor syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome and Depression

The relationship between the impostor phenomena and depression was measured among a group of 186 students attending a liberal arts university in southwest Arkansas. Loretta Neal Mcgregor, K. Elizabeth Posey, and Damon E. Gee (students at Arkansas State University, the University of Texas at Dallas, and University of Arkansas) hypothesized that a relationship between impostor syndrome and depression does exist. They claimed that negative thoughts and self-doubt associated with the IP are similar to the negative thoughts and self-doubt experienced by individuals with depression.

 

Impostor syndrome- Depression

Impostor syndrome- Depression

Using a Pearson product- moment correlation and a Multivariate Analysis of Variance, they showed that there is a positive correlation between IP scores and depression. Data suggests that impostors may indeed experience symptoms similar to individuals with mild depressive disorder but, the evidence does not support the notion that impostor syndrome causes clinical depression. There is a high possibility that an individual’s belief of being an impostor derives from their depressive thoughts, resulting in an inability to live a productive and successful life. Therefore, constant evaluations of their own performance do not allow for an impostor to overcome their depression. It is especially hard for individuals to detect symptoms of depression because of the overwhelming thoughts that are constantly running through their minds.

Although it is evident that an interaction between impostor syndrome and depression exists, this research data shows that IP scores were greater among females. With that being said, females typically experience greater feelings of being an imposter than men while there wasn’t a significant gender difference in scores of depression. Again, it is likely that people who feel that they are an impostor will undergo depressive symptoms.

Impostor Syndrome Test

Testing for impostor syndrome is best done by a psychologist however here is a small test you can take in order to give you an idea if you might have some symptoms of impostor syndrome.

Management of Impostor Syndrome

Since impostor syndrome is not a verified disorder, clear treatments do not exist. On the bright side, there are different types of therapies that treat it. All it takes is commitment and a combination of these therapeutic interventions:  

Developed by Arnold Lazarus, multimodal therapy is a combination of several therapeutic approaches that are most effective in altering the impostor belief in a client. An individual can benefit from the effects of multimodal therapy in a group therapy setting or an interactional group. This type of therapy provides a supportive environment where individuals are able to share their experiences and gain comfort from others without feeling ashamed, judged, or alone. As a result, they feel a sense of relief knowing that there are others out there who can relate.

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Another form of therapy, the client is motivated to enter an uneasy situation with an “I will” or an “I can” attitude rather than automatically feeling that they can’t or that they’ll fail. When she is able to succeed without the self-doubting beforehand, she has made a major breakthrough in undoing her ritual of predicting failure. When an impostor revokes their ritualistic prediction of failure, they formulate positive attitudes about the self as well as decrease compulsive work habits. However, studies have found that these exercises must be done in small, incremental steps to avoid acute anxiety and/or past feelings of phoniness and hard-work habits.

One potent Gestalt experiment is to have the client recall all the people she thinks she has fooled, to tell them in fantasy how she conned or tricked them, and to have her imagine out loud how each person would respond to her. A helpful assignment is to have the client create a T chart. On one side is positive feedback that the client receives from others and on the other, the behaviors and self- imposing thoughts that keep these impostors from accepting positive feedback. After the chart is complete, they are instructed to listen to the positive responses that they’ve received and get as much intellectual nourishment and self-improvement as possible out of it. With this Gestalt technique, the power of acting out one’s own fantasies is key. They will become aware of how and why they deny compliments from others and an approach that can be used to destroy their superstitious thoughts.

Another productive Gestalt technique is to have the client role-play the opposite of “I’m not bright,” to have her act out being bright, feeling it and expressing it in the presence of the group or therapist. By acting in a way that conflicts with their personal beliefs, this technique allows for the individual to move toward a realistic and self-affirming view of their own abilities and help some confront their fears of success. In allowing themselves to firmly believe that they are indeed bright and capable individuals, impostors will feel a rewarding sense of their personal power.

In a final exercise, an individual will face the outcomes that come with being themselves. The main goal of this therapeutic exercise is to show the client that the disastrous expectations, that occur in the mind of an impostor, will most likely not occur. An individual will gain the appropriate skills to eliminate the behaviors that are used to gain approval from others. With these behaviors, they will start to accept compliments from others regarding their intelligence as being “real” and can internalize the external reinforcement that they do not receive. It is extremely important for an impostor to surround themselves with a supportive environment and with people who understand the struggles that come with achieving a feeling of authenticity.

Impostor syndrome- Therapy

Impostor syndrome- Therapy

Tips for Impostor Syndrome

Although this may seem like the most difficult task of all, nothing is ever impossible without patience, a clear mindset, and a positive attitude. Here are 5 tips to help combat your impostor syndrome.

1. Put an end to all of your superstitious thoughts. Think about this, if everyone got to where they are today based on “luck” then wouldn’t every single person in this world be successful? Poverty wouldn’t exist, everyone would thrive, and there would be no such thing as failure. Luck is a random outcome, occurring without any type of effort. Instead of thinking you got lucky, realize that you’ve climbed higher and higher on the ladder of success due to your own efforts, skills, attributes, and capabilities, not because you were at the right place at the right time.

2. Focus on your strengths, weaknesses are only part of a learning experience we call life. Nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes and possess certain qualities that we can work on to improve ourselves. Never define yourself based on your weaknesses because at the end of the day, you can always turn a negative into a positive. Your strengths and weaknesses are what define you as a person and help set you apart from others so why be ashamed of who you are?

3. Silence your inner critic– When you start to battle with your inner conscience, treat that little voice in your head as a real human being. Stop, take a deep breath, and tell yourself that you will not allow your critical conscience to determine your worth. Mindful meditation can help you control your thoughts better. 

4. Transform your internalized thoughts into free expression– Are your internalized thoughts weighing heavy on your mind? Affecting not only your mind, but your body? Do you find it difficult to share your feelings of inadequacy with your friends and family? You are not alone. Seeking help from a trusted professional provides a safe space to share your true concerns without having to feel judged or exposed. I know this can seem scary, but a trusted professional can help put your life into perspective. Their main goal is to help you realize that your sense of self- doubt is simply an irrational fear, that your mental suspicions should not determine your reality, and that you bring actual value to the table.

5. Believe in yourself and know your worth! You are capable. You are worthy. You are authentic. If you don’t believe in yourself, then who will?

Before I go, I want to leave you with a quote by actress Natalie Portman. During her May, 2015 Harvard commencement speech, she relays this message:

“So I have to admit that today, even 12 years after graduation, I’m still insecure about my own worthiness. I have to remind myself today, You are here for a reason. Today, I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999 … I felt like there had been some mistake — that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove I wasn’t just a dumb actress. … Sometimes your insecurities and your inexperience may lead you to embrace other people’s expectations, standards, or values, but you can harness that inexperience to carve out your own path — one that is free of the burden of knowing how things are supposed to be, a path that is defined by its own particular set of reasons.” —Natalie Portman

If this successful and wealthy actress can overcome her impostor syndrome, then so can you! Let us know what you think in the comments below.

References

Clance, P., & Imes, S. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy, 15241-247.

Fraenza, C. B. (2016). The Role of Social Influence in Anxiety and the Imposter Phenomenon. Online Learning, 20(2), 211-224.

Gardner, M. (2016). Overcoming Impostor Syndrome. Veterinary Team Brief, 4(3), 51-53.

In: The Cut. Jan 12, 2017; New York Media Language: English, Database: General OneFile

McGregor, L. N., Gee, D. E., & Posey, K. E. (2008). I FEEL LIKE A FRAUD AND IT DEPRESSES ME: THE RELATION BETWEEN THE IMPOSTER PHENOMENON AND DEPRESSION.Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 36(1), 43-48.

Mount, P. (2015). Impostor Syndrome. Training Journal, 5-8.

Rakestraw, L. (2017). How to Stop Feeling Like a Phony in Your Library: Recognizing the Causes of the Imposter Syndrome, and How to Put a Stop to the Cycle. Law Library Journal, 109(3), 465-477.

Ruth, M. (2017). Impostor syndrome. Salem Press Encyclopedia

Sprankles,Julie.“12 Signs You Might Be Suffering From Imposter Syndrome — Fellow Perfectionists, I’m Looking At You.” Bustle, 23 Oct. 2015

 

 

Linda is currently a student at Stony Brook University, studying a Bachelors in Psychology. Through her writing, she hopes that she will be able to expand her own knowledge on the motivation behind human behavior and how the brain works. She hopes that she will be able to inform others about psychology- related topics in a fun, easy, and creative way.