What do Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Maya Angelou, celebrated Canadian comic actor Mike Myers, and Academy Award-winners Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet have in common? They all have impostor syndrome.
And the evidence is in their statements.
“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?'” Streep once said.
Her thoughts were echoed by Winslet’s nagging thoughts of “I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.”
What is impostor syndrome?
A term that was coined in the 1970s, impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon) occurs in people who don’t believe that what they’ve achieved is based on merit.
People who suffer from impostor syndrome fear that they’re duping others into believing they’re capable, thus acting like impostors, and attribute their success to luck as opposed to ability, according to the American Psychological Association. Although it’s not considered a mental disorder, it is viewed as a specific form of self-doubt, and is often accompanied by depression and anxiety.
“They explain away their achievements, and as a result they feel like they’ve managed to fly under the radar undetected and fear being found out,” says Valerie Young, an expert on impostor syndrome and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. “It affects such a broad range of people and occupations, from those who work in creative jobs to people in the STEM field.”
Women vs. men
Although Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, the psychologists who first identified impostor syndrome, initially thought it was exclusive to professional women, later studies showed that men are also susceptible.
It’s not that men didn’t have these feelings before; it’s that they didn’t talk about it. Young credits millennial men and their ease with expressing their feelings (versus baby boomers) with shining a light on impostor syndrome among men.
However, she says, studies on confidence make it clear that this is more of an epidemic among women.
“Research has shown when asked to estimate how they would perform on a future task, women consistently underestimate their abilities,” she says. “When women and girls make a mistake or fail at something, they tend to internalize it and take complete ownership over it, while men are more likely to blame it on an external reason.”
And as impostors are especially wounded by criticism, any perceived failure can send them into a tailspin.
“If you think the reason you flunked a math test is because you didn’t work hard enough, you’ll work harder next time. But if you feel that you failed because you’re bad at math, what’s the solution?” Young asks. This is why, she says, women are more likely to drop classes or change majors in university versus men.
When it comes down to it, experts say, people who suffer from impostor syndrome share one particular characteristic: they’re high achievers.
“The higher the performance expectation, the more likely people with impostor syndrome will feel that they’re not ready for it,” says Alan Kearns, managing partner of CareerJoy, a national career counselling company.
“Studies have shown that 70 per cent of professionals feel this at some point. When they’re doing something they’ve never done before, the combination of pressure and the self-imposed expectation for excellence makes them believe they got the job out of luck.”
How does it affect minorities?
A small study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin earlier this year found that there’s another group that’s particularly susceptible to impostor syndrome: ethnic minorities.
Published in the Journal of Counselling Psychology, the study found that African-American, Latino and Asian students at an unnamed (to protect the identity of students) Southwestern university all reported feelings of “impostorism,” and subsequent anxiety and depression due to perceived discrimination.
“For racial minorities who have to combat stereotypes, the pressure can be exacerbated,” Young says. “Students in particular are more susceptible because they’re having their knowledge and intellect tested on a daily basis. There is competition and the bar is set very high.”
Signs of impostor syndrome
Because impostor syndrome sufferers have such difficulty processing criticism, it’s easy for them to couch it in laziness.
“Some people pair impostor syndrome with ‘low effort syndrome’ and use it as a protective device. The unconscious thinking is: ‘I’d rather people think I’m lazy than stupid,'” Young says.
But when paired with the most common coping behaviour — procrastination — it further feeds the feelings of impostorism. By waiting until the last minute to complete something, Young says, this gives people a built-in excuse to convince themselves that if they’re successful, it’s because they’ve fooled someone.
Other warning signs include diminishing your achievements, discounting evidence of your abilities and avoiding challenges or risks.
“Ask yourself what’s true versus what is the truth,” Kearns says. “Maybe you’ve never done a particular job before, but while [it’s true that] you doubt your abilities, the truth is that your leaders believe you’re the right person for it.”
Ways to combat impostor syndrome
Young says the first step in fighting off the limitations of impostor syndrome is to recognize your natural limitations. By normalizing your feelings of self-doubt, you’ll grow to realize that most people also experience these thoughts.
The next step is to reframe your thinking. Become aware of the impostor conversation in your head and reframe it in a way that a non-impostor would.
“A non-impostor looks at failure differently. They tell themselves, ‘You have good days and bad days,’ ‘I’ll get them next time,’ and ‘No one wins them all.'”
Most importantly, Young says, learn to separate shame from disappointment. It’s OK to be upset when something doesn’t turn out, but impostors will often take that personally instead of using it as a learning moment.
“Impostors have an unsustainable expectation that no human could possibly hit; that’s why criticism is so wounding to them. But non-impostors use criticism as an opportunity to improve by asking what they could have done differently.”
Kearns says this is the perfect time to ask a superior for detailed feedback — if it’s negative, it’ll provide the impetus to make changes, and if it’s positive, it will hopefully build confidence and help to quell nagging feelings of impostorism.
There can be an upside to impostor syndrome, however.
“It can have a reverse psychology effect on performance,” Kearns says. “It encourages people to do their best and bring their best game to work because they’re always trying to prove themselves. But if it’s linked to a tremendous amount of stress or feelings of anxiety pre- and post-work, that’s something to pay serious attention to.”