What do Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou, Kate Winslet and Mike Myers all have in common? They have all suffered from imposter syndrome.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is a term to describe a feeling high achievers have when they cannot recognize their success and are afraid of being exposed as a fake.
Coined in the late ‘70’s by psychologists Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes, traits of imposter syndrome can be defined in three ways:
- Feeling a fraud and being afraid of being ‘found out’.
- Attributing success to anything but your own achievements.
- Downplaying your achievements.
Imposter syndrome doesn’t strike everyone, only the highly successful ones. However, in a study of successful people by Gail Matthews, a whopping 70% said that they had experienced feelings of imposter syndrome in their lives.
But these people are already successful, the problem seems to be that they cannot reconcile their achievements with themselves. There is some disconnect with what they see on their CV and what they tell themselves is their own story.
And it appears to affect women more than men.
So could you be suffering from imposter syndrome?
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you think that you faking it with your work?
- Is it only a matter of time before you are exposed as a fraud?
- When you do succeed does it worry you that you’ve fooled people again?
- Do you say that ‘if I can do it anyone can?’
- Do you attribute your success to luck?
- Does your performance or work always have to be perfect?
What triggers Imposter Syndrome?
Studies have shown that imposter syndrome strikes women more frequently than men, especially when women are asked to judge their own performance. In a surgery rotation, when asked to evaluate themselves, men were found to give favourable or better scores than they had actually achieved, whereas women tended to underscore. This appears to be true even when women had outperformed the men.
In a political survey, despite having similar qualifications, men were 60% more likely to think they were ‘better qualified’ to run for office.
In a Harvard law study, in every aspect of the law, women gave themselves lower marks than men.
So why are women so prone to under-marking, underestimating their achievements or devaluing themselves?
One theory is that if you feel you do not belong and are an outsider in the first place, it is very common to under-value yourself. So women who are taking part in what could be seen as a male-dominated workplace, like the law, medicine or politics, are going to immediately feel like outsiders. This then leads onto developing feelings of imposter syndrome.
Studies have also shown that it could be the simplest thing that triggers a negative response, like having to tick your gender box on a maths test.
And although it affects more women than men, men can be affected. When men were tested in predominantly feminine areas, such as social sensitivity, and were informed beforehand that men historically perform more poorly than women, they too underrated their performance.
What can be done about imposter syndrome?
There is hope. The first factor to recognise is the outsider problem and to try and redress that balance.
At the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, for example, as soon as they raised the percentage of female students in one particular department to over 15, academic performance of women improved.
It has been shown time and time again that girls perform better and have higher career aspirations in single sex schools. African Americans also perform better when they attend black colleges.
Getting rid of old stereotypes where society says women should not study maths or sciences is also a good start, or at least not reminding them that these are historically not popular subjects for women.
As for individuals who are suffering, here are three suggestions on overcoming imposter syndrome:
- It doesn’t have to be perfect. Make mistakes, make your work ‘good enough’. Remind yourself that your best is fine.
- Talk to someone. You are not alone, many highly successful people struggle with this syndrome, try and find one and talk to them.
- Believe in yourself and acknowledge your achievements. Take recognition for your work, you did it, treat yourself and move on.
Some nice quotes about imposter syndrome:
If I remain worthless in my own mind, I will be the king of show business.
…the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.
I have written eleven 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.”
At any time I still expect that the no-talent police will come and arrest me.
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
- Journal of Personality Assessment
- “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It” by Valerie Young