Ironically there has always been a tendency among the brightest minds to doubt themselves and their accomplishments. Disregarding how ground-breaking and relevant their successes might have been, they still might think that they have not done anything important. Whereas, on the one hand, such thoughts can push their work forward, achieving and contributing to society even more, on the other hand, there is no threshold of accomplishments that can stop this feeling.
As an example, Albert Einstein experienced something similar. He thought that his work did not deserve as much attention as it had received. In his later years, he once confided to a close friend:
“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.”
Another example is Maya Angelou, who has written 11 books and has won prestigious awards, but who is yet another example of a person who believes that she has not earned her accomplishments. The Nobel Laureate was once quoted saying, “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.’” Even though achievement at this level is pretty rare, the feeling of fraudulence is very common.
So why is it so hard for some people to believe and feel that they have actually earned what they have and that their thoughts and ideas are worth sharing and merit other people’s attention?
Imposter Syndrome Is the Answer
Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to accept their own accomplishments and are afraid of being exposed as frauds. The first person to study this phenomenon was the psychologist Pauline Rose Clance. In her study, she noticed that many undergraduate students were sharing similar concerns. Namely, although they had high grades, they did not believe that they deserved a place at a university. Moreover, some even believed that their acceptance was an admissions error. Now, however, thanks to professionally conducted studies, this phenomenon has been identified and established across gender, race, age, and multiple occupations.
The results of the studies have been that people who are highly skilled often tend to think that others are just the same and, therefore, they on their own do not deserve to have opportunities that other people do not have because there is nothing special about them. However, imposterism is not at present limited to highly skilled individuals. It is also to be observed among everyday people. To all of us, the phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance can be familiar – where we personally doubt ourselves but deny that anyone else feels the same way.
Where Do These Feelings of Fraudulence Come from?
Imposter syndrome is not a disease or an abnormality, nor is it connected to depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. This happens simply because no one else voices their doubts. Since it is so hard to know how other people work, and if they find a certain task hard, and how much they doubt themselves, we can see just the final result – a finished task. Not being able to see that other people also struggle in some cases, as normally everybody does, brings us to the belief that we are the only ones who do not understand something or find it hard to accomplish something.
The roots of imposter syndrome can be found back in our childhood, as it is almost incomprehensible to children that their parents were once also kids and were unable to do certain things that they are now able to do perfectly. This fact has a lot to do with the basic human condition. We know ourselves from insight, whereas we can only know other people from what we see and what they show and tell. In everyday life, it is physically impossible to know what other people feel inside or really think until they share it. As a result, we have an altered image of other people, isolating ourselves.
Nowadays, imposterism is even more common due to the “wrong” perfect picture of other people. Different types of social media promote images of happy, healthy, successful, and independent people who seemingly have perfect lives and zero flaws. That is why so many people, especially young people, might feel like imposters, not because they actually are but because they fail to imagine how many others are or feel the same way.
An intense feeling of imposterism can prevent people from sharing their ideas, as they think that they are not worthy to share, or they are wrong, or simply irrelevant.
What to Do about It?
The only optimal way to overcome imposterism is rather simple – to talk about it, share feelings, and understand that other people function in the same way that we do. Simple, open conversations have a significant impact on people, as they start seeing that almost everyone around them faces the same feelings. Finding out that you are not alone in this, and maybe even some close friends or your role models have experienced the same, helps a lot. Even simply finding that there is a term for such a phenomenon can already be a relief as you are aware that it is not just you who feels this way.
Another helpful technique is simply to pay same attention to your own successes and positive outcomes rather than focus on failures and self-doubt. This can be achieved by tracking your own achievements and successes, as a result of which you will see that you are actually doing well. One of the ways is, for instance, to create a folder, where you will gather all your happy and remarkable milestones, like college acceptance, praises from friends and colleagues, etc. Once you are feeling down and fraudulent, you can easily get rid of such thoughts by re-reading and reassuring yourself that you are really good enough and own what you have earned.
Having learned about the phenomenon, we can be more aware of it and, therefore, try to understand what are the causes. For instance, if you fail all the time in any one activity, whether it is making new friends, running experiments, or simply cooking, think of what are the causes for that rather than self-criticizing. This might be as simple as malfunctioning equipment, different interests of people, or any other external factors that affect your performance but not you as a person in essence. This, however, does not mean to start putting the responsibility on other people or things, blaming them for your feelings. On the other hand, this means working with your own mind and perception of things. Moreover, being aware of how common this phenomenon is can make you more open in terms of your feelings and will result in a more positive and easy way of handling things.
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