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Feeling Like an Imposter? You Are Not Alone!

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. (Aristotle)


Imposter syndrome
Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Introduction


Imposter syndrome (or impostor syndrome) is nowadays such a commonly spoken phenomenon, although not always handled with depth. It gets confused with low self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth issues. Although most people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their life, there are also those, who live the reality of imposter syndrome more profoundly (without even realising it) most of the time.


While imposter syndrome can result in over-working and self-sabotage, both unhealthy behaviours, it is not a disease and it is nothing dangerous by itself. However it is important to mention that Clance & Imes (1978) did discover that the women in their study experienced symptoms of “generalized anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression and frustration related to inability to meet self -imposed standards of achievement”.


And of course, far too often, imposter syndrome is the barrier standing between intelligent women (and also men!) and their dreams!


I decided to dig a little bit deeper about the topic just to understand it better for myself as a human being and also for the purpose of my coaching practice. Little did I know that what I was about to discover was going to be so relatable for my own personal experience. Suddenly I understand much better my younger self, who always drove for perfection, holding extremely high standards for herself.


The goal of this article is not only to give a brief overview of what imposter syndrome is and how it shows up, but also through increased awareness to assure you that what you are feeling is common and experienced by most.


You Are Not The Only One Feeling Like an Imposter Out There


As said before, most people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their life. According to Impostor Syndrome Institute, the percentage goes up to 84%! It is safe to say that you are not alone in this, not at all!


While imposter syndrome is so common, the feeling of inadequacy despite evident success, is even more common among high achievers, who set extremely high standards for themselves, and tend to compare themselves with others. High achievers, successful and intelligent people, are especially afraid to make mistakes or fail, and depend a lot on external validation.


Many famous accomplished people have openly spoken about their impostor syndrome, and while it feels highly surprising to us, it has been very real experience for them.

For example, the Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou has famously said “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.“


Or Meryl Streep, one of the best actresses out there, has been quoted to say “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?


What Is Imposter Syndrome?


The term impostor phenomenon was first introduced in 1978 by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” in the context of high achieving women, who “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, persisted in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”


According to the dictionary of Oxford Languages: the imposter syndrome definition (or impostor syndrome definition) is:

“The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”

Imposter syndrome is NOT A CLINICAL DIAGNOSIS, instead it is a “group of THOUGHTS, BEHAVIOURS, AND FEELINGS that cluster together to create this syndrome and have a significant impact on your emotional functioning” (Source: Own Your Greatness).


According to Dr. Valerie Young, leading imposter syndrome expert, imposter syndrome “describes the belief shared by millions of men and women around the world that deep down we really aren’t as intelligent, capable, qualified, or talented as everyone seems to THINK we are — despite evidence of our accomplishments.” (Source: www.impostorsyndrome.com)


Imposter Syndrome: Signs & Symptoms


As previously stated, imposter syndrome is a set of thoughts, behaviours and feelings. In case you are experiencing imposter syndrome, it is likely that some (or all) of the below listed statements ring true to you.


  • You are a high-achiever (likely Type A!).

  • You undervalue your knowledge, your achievements and credentials.

  • You are constantly worried about “when will they discover that I am a fraud?”

  • You are self-sabotaging, second guessing your opinions and overthinking.

  • You tend to over-work.

  • You struggle with perfectionism.

  • You feel stuck but are afraid to take risks, to change, to go after for more.

  • You are afraid to speak of yourself highly or to market yourself.

  • You do not take compliments and praise seriously.

  • You do not believe your accomplishments are earned, you rather see them as good luck or coincidence or even a mistake.

  • You do not feel intelligent and successful despite your achievements.

  • You depend on external validation.

  • You are afraid to fail the expectations of others and of yourself.

  • You have self-esteem issues, anxiety, depression, frustration from your own standards.

  • You overestimate others and underestimate yourself.



Imposter Syndrome Hallmarks
4 Hallmarks of Imposter Syndrome

According to Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin and Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin Clance & Imes (1978) found in their research work 4 hallmarks of imposter syndrome:


1. DILIGENCE AND HARD WORK

The fear that “my stupidity will be discovered” is constantly present; consequently the woman studies or works very hard to prevent the discovery.”


Feeling good about praise is temporary as successful experiences are not attributed much value and are not integrated as successful accomplishments, the cycle of hard work restarts.


2. INTELLECTUAL INAUTHENTICITY

“They have chosen at times not to reveal their real ideas or opinions. Instead they have accurately ‘“psyched out” their professors, supervisors, and colleagues and given them what they most wanted to hear.”


Downplaying skills, knowledge, abilities, hiding truth to protect feelings of others.


3. CHARM AND PERCEPTIVENESS

High achieving women with impostor syndrome have often high emotional intelligence and the ability to get people to like them, using it to hide “being fraud”.


4. SEEKING MENTORSHIP FOR THE PURPOSE OF EXTERNAL VALIDATION.

“She is looking for a mentor to discover her genius and thereby help her believe in her intellect.”


💡 Take a moment to reflect about the statements and about these four hallmarks. What do you know in the heart of your hearts to be true for you?


Origins of Imposter Syndrome


Clance and Imes (1978) believed that the formation of impostor beliefs was significantly impacted by factors like gender stereotypes, certain early family dynamic, cultural norms and attribution (how women perceived the causes of every day experiences, being either external or internal).


Every one of us has their own unique imposter story. It just so happens that impostor syndrome is strongly rooted in our past, in our family dynamics, experiences and expectations. As a coach I have found impostor syndrome showing up frequently in connection to expectations of family members and other superior figures from childhood and early adulthood (e.g. (grand)parents, teachers, professor, superiors at work).


My personal imposter syndrome story has its roots in my childhood experiences related to lack of self-worth, which led me to seek validation through excellence in results at school and in perfectionism, overstudying and overworking later in life.


Shared all that, at no point am I minimising the impact of racial and cultural factors as well as gender stereotypes on imposter syndrome, I fully acknowledge the freedom and possibilities I have experienced throughout my life, which are not to be taken for granted and not available equally to all, thus the possible differences in how we all experience and relate to imposter syndrome.


Gaining full awareness of how my childhood experiences have impacted who I am today and accepting and honouring my own unique story, have been the most important parts for my healing, for my growth and for my happiness.


[Sign up for my free 4-week imposter syndrome challenge to find out the deeper source of my personal imposter story!]


Joining this deep awareness of myself with more practical imposter syndrome approach from Dr. Valerie Young, has been the missing piece of my personal imposter syndrome puzzle! While I have long understood the origins of my need for achievement and excellence, I did not understand the importance of the part related to my “notion of what it means to be competent”.


💡 Have you ever thought about the origins of your imposter story? (E.g. Maybe your parent had high expectation for you or maybe your teacher never acknowledge your efforts?)


5 Types of Imposter Syndrome


Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally recognised imposter syndrome expert and co-founder of impostor syndrome institute, believes that while, it is important to have a proper understanding about “the societal, familial, occupational, situational and organisational sources of impostor syndrome”, the CORE SOURCE of impostor syndrome is not rooted in unworthiness, but it comes down to:


  • “an unrealistic, unsustainable notion of what it means to be “competent”,

  • an unhealthy response to failure, mistakes, setbacks, and constructive feedback, and

  • the false belief that if we were “really” competent, intelligent, qualified we’d feel confident 24/7… “


According to Dr. Valerie Young:

“Your notion of what it means to be competent has a powerful impact on how competent you feel. It’s also at the core of impostor feelings.”

Valerie Young says that as PEOPLE DEFINE COMPETENCES DIFFERENTLY, they do not experience failure related shame the same way. As a result of her research, Dr. Young has come up with 5 DIFFERENT IMPOSTER SYNDROME TYPES:


Imposter Syndrome
5 Types of Imposter Syndrome

5 Types of Imposter Syndrome by Dr. Valerie Young:


  • “The Perfectionist’s primary focus is on “how” something is done. This includes how the work is conducted and how it turns out. One minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance or 99 out of 100 equals failure and thus shame.


  • The Expert is the knowledge version of the Perfectionist. Here, the primary concern is on “what” and “how much” you know or can do. Because you expect to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge denotes failure and shame.


  • The Soloist cares mostly about “who” completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it has to be you and you alone. Because you think you need to do and figure out everything on your own, needing help is a sign of failure that evokes shame.


  • The Natural Genius also cares about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. But for you, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. The fact that you have to struggle to master a subject or skill or that you’re not able to bang out your masterpiece on the first try equals failure which evokes shame.


  • The Superhuman measures competence based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role — as a manager, team member, parent, partner, friend, volunteer — all evoke shame because they feel they should be able to handle it all — perfectly and easily.”


💡 How do you relate to competence, failure, results?


4 P-s Model of Imposter Syndrome: To Spot the Early Signs


Whatever is your imposter syndrome type, the fact is that if you are suffering from imposter syndrome you are very likely engaging in patterns of self-sabotage and overworking that can result in burnout on all levels.


Overworking Imposter Syndrome
Overworking (Photo by Vitaly Gariev on Unsplash)

Clare Josa, a global Imposter Syndrome authority has defined based on her landmark Imposter Syndrome Research Studies, a research-backed model helping people to spot the early warning sings before self-sabotage occurs.



  1. Perfectionism — setting standards incredibly high, and if you dear to achieve them, you write them off as luck or fluke.

  2. Procrastination — sometimes in form of doing the task like “dancing around the edges of the work you are supposed to be doing, instead of diving in and getting it done”.

  3. Project Paralysis — hiding from the thing we need to do, using then the stress and adrenaline to getting it done by the deadline.

  4. People Pleasing — lack of boundaries, over-giving, giving for free in order to “feel safe, to feel we belong and not be rejected”.


According to Clare Josa, once you are able to understand your coping mechanisms, you will be able to spot and deal with your imposter syndrome earlier.


💡 What of these 4 Ps is your most favourite coping mechanism when imposter syndrome kicks in?


Conclusion


Imposter syndrome is very real and experienced by many. It is likely that if you are a high achiever, you know exactly what this article is talking about.


Hopefully learning about the origins and the hallmarks of imposter syndrome, getting to know the 5 imposter syndrome types proposed by Dr Valerie Young and the early warning signs model of 4 Ps of Clara Josa have helped you to increase your awareness about imposter syndrome in your life and in general.


Normalising talking about it is your way out! Like shame looses its power when it is shared, it is a bit the same with imposter syndrome. As your thoughts and feelings are not facts and can be changed, also the thoughts and feelings of imposter syndrome can be changed!


The first step “gaining awareness” on the journey of overcoming your imposter syndrome has been taken. The next step is to do some inner work and and mindset re-programming in order to take back your power and to start living your life to the fullest.


While my next article will give you some more practical tips about how to overcome imposter syndrome, in the meanwhile you are welcome to sign up for my free 4-Week Imposter Syndrome Email Challenge (downloadable worksheets!)


 

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