Do you ever have that feeling during a business meeting or in a university seminar that everybody knows more than you do? They’re better read, more articulate and smarter than you, while you’re only there because you got lucky.
If you’re feeling this way then you’re definitively not alone. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70% of people feel like a fraud. But can we really believe a statistic so staggering?
Two psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes were the first to document the phenomenon of Imposter Syndrome in the 1970s, and since then the phrase ‘Imposter Syndrome’ has slipped pretty much unchallenged into the English vernacular.
Impostor Syndrome involves a suspension of rational thought. No matter how much we know the truth, we choose to ignore it. We conveniently forget or misplace all those memories of countless hours of practice or revision in favour of thinking of ourselves as amateurs who are ill-prepared for the task in front of them. No matter how much logical thought we apply there seems to be a disconnect between what we think we are and what we actually are. As a result, we are unable to accept our successes. We disregard the work we put into achieving our triumphs and instead chalk them up to luck rather than ability. And we fear that at any moment we may be unmasked as a fraud.
What’s In A Word?
Let’s back up a little and first look at the word impostor itself. Its definition is straightforward but also revealing. Merriam-Webster defines the word as: ‘one who makes false claims of identity or expertise.’ This definition implies a little more than just ‘getting lucky’. It suggests a deliberate act of dishonesty. We’re not just lucky – we’re liars, fakers, and phonies. We’re frauds. We’re dishonest and must be punished by feeling like crap when we achieve success.
If you’re at a business meeting or in a class at university then it’s surely safe to assume that you’re there because you’ve earned the right to be there. A business generally isn’t going to hire someone who isn’t competent to do the job. And maybe universities are getting a little slack on admission these days, but they still want good pass rates – they’ve got to keep the cash rolling in. And so the Impostor Syndrome leads us to view ourselves very differently to how others do. We think ‘holy shit, how did I get this job?’ while your boss simply matched the skills on your CV with those that she needed. Job done.
We’re used to feeling crappy about our abilities. We’re just a bunch of nobodies from nowhere. So it’s surprising to hear that successful and famous people also suffer from feeling like an impostor.
Meryl vs. Oscar
This leads me to three-time Academy Award winner, and self-professed ‘impostor’, Meryl Streep. Does she really believe she’s a shit actress? I know awards, especially the Oscars, which are about as diverse as a Trump rally, are often more an indicator of popularity rather than great acting ability. They tend to reward actors for ‘bravely’ playing gay when they’re actually straight, or for taking on the role of someone who’s mentally disabled, or for being in pretty much any movie about the Holocaust (I’m looking at you Roberto Benigni). It’s hard to believe that someone so insanely talented could be harbouring thoughts of self-doubt. Yes, the arts is a highly-competitive sector, and so a certain amount of luck is bound to play a role, especially at the beginning of a career, but to hear that Meryl Streep still feels like a fraud after decades of being at the top of her profession is surprising. But then we don’t see the countless hours she spent training to be an actress and the failed auditions and the pervy directors she had to bat away. We don’t see what Meryl sees: the self-doubt and insecurity over her acting choices, or the worry that it won’t turn out right. We only ever see polished Meryl, red carpet Meryl, Oscar-winner Meryl.
The trouble with famous Impostor Syndrome sufferers is that we don’t believe them. I look at the picture of Meryl holding her Academy Awards and my first instinct is to say ‘bollocks, Meryl, bollocks.’ I know I’m an impostor, while Meryl only thinks that she is. The trouble of course is that Meryl is a good actress and so she’s probably pretending to be confident, regardless of whether she is or not.
Why do so many people experience Impostor Syndrome? When Clance and Imes first started investigating the phenomena, while working as lecturers at Oberlin College in Ohio, they initially thought that only women experienced Impostor Syndrome. It’s easy to see why two women in the male-dominated world of academia in the 1970s would feel less secure in their abilities than their male colleagues. But it wasn’t until Clance and Imes noticed that their female students were also experiencing the same feelings that they themselves had had as students, that they started to investigate. It seems that the first and second waves of feminism had done little to eliminate female fears of being ‘found out’. Women still felt like frauds. Clance explains: ‘I noticed that my students were full of doubt about their abilities and worried about continuing their successes […] For example, saying “I am afraid” and “this time I will blow the exam”, yet when I asked them, they had never blown an exam. In fact, their SAT scores and grades were excellent. One of them said to me, “I feel like an impostor here with all these bright people”.’ Clance and Imes interviewed dozens of female students and professionals about their experiences of Impostor Syndrome. But they realised that the men they saw in their counselling sessions were also affected by the phenomena, though they were much less likely to bring up their feelings than women.
Dr Valerie Young, founder of www.impostorsydrome.com, says that although some social conditions have changed, many people, not just women, are still likely to suffer from Impostor Syndrome. ‘While an undergraduate majoring in English literature or art may not feel like a fraud, once she (or he) gets to graduate school these feelings can emerge due to the culture. Similarly, attending school or working in another country, being a first-generation professional, or being one of the first or the few in a field are all experiences that do not change with the era.’ In fact, many people, such as graduate students, who are embarking on new endeavours are particularly susceptible to Impostor Syndrome. Getting a new job, travelling to a new country, or meeting new people pushes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to experience and talk about topics we’re unfamiliar with.
There are some people who are more likely to experience Impostor Syndrome than others. If you differ from your peers in any great way – race, gender, sexual orientation, age – then you’re probably going to feel like a fraud at some point. My own experience of starting a degree in my thirties and studying along side people, who were not far off being half my age, often made me feel like some kind of strange lurker at a kids birthday party. Although most people I revealed my age to either didn’t realise I was ‘that old’ or didn’t particularly give a monkeys. The difference I felt, crucially, was in my own head – I felt I didn’t belong. I also didn’t share many of the same interests as my peers, which when your 18 is mostly drinking and shagging. I’d already had my drunk phase in my teens and early twenties. I realised some time ago that I much prefer a cup of tea over tequila shots and that I hate clubs because they filled with sleazy entitled blokes pawing at you, besides some time around the age of 25 I mysteriously lost the ability to dance, dancing for me now consists of a slow shuffle from one foot to the other whilst also awkwardly shimming my body about. Besides, I was convinced that the only reason I had gotten into university was because I was poor and old (UK universities can only charge £9000 a year if they offer a certain amount of places to the poor folks). I felt this way for much of my degree, only realising this was not the case during my final year when I spoke with one of my lecturers, whom I had gotten to know pretty well. I remember him screwing up his face and looking at me as if I was insane when I shared my theory with him. He politely tilted his head to one side and told me, ‘that’s not how we do things here.’ Needless to say, I felt like a bit of a tit, but hearing a lecturer I respected tell me that I not only belonged, but that I’d won my place on merit boosted my confidence no end. For the first time, I felt that I was in the right place and that I had a unique view of the world (just as everyone of us does).
I Have Know Idea What I’m Doing
But couldn’t Impostor Syndrome just be symptomatic of becoming an adult, or even be a phenomenon of the modern world – I can’t imagine too many Stone Age folk worrying about being a fraud. At times, it’s hard not to feel that Impostor Syndrome is an indulgence. It smacks of being, dare i say it, a ‘first world problem’, not quite as bad as some of these beauties on Reddit though:
- All of my shoes are made of high quality leather so I never know which to wear in the rain.
- I can’t think of a clever enough name for my wifi network
- I had to brush my teeth manually when my electric toothbrush went flat.
Impostor Syndrome can sound a little ridiculous. If I boiled down my problems at university to their bare bones they’d come out like this: while receiving higher education in one of the richest countries on Earth, I felt I wasn’t quite as smart as all the other people who were also receiving higher education in one of the richest countries on Earth. This made me sad and anxious for a bit until I realised I was actually pretty smart after all.
Do we really believe we’re inadequate though? Sometimes I have negative thoughts. I feel like a fraud, or that I’m not smart enough, or that I haven’t read the right books. But other times, on a good day, I feel quietly determined, like Alec Guinness or Kenneth More in those old black and white war movies. I know I’m going to win the war, just like they did. Perhaps the root cause of Impostor Syndrome is fear.
The Horner Effect
Psychologist Matina Horner identified the phenomenon in 1969, but it has been widely debated and pretty much discredited since then. Horner posited that the reason women often underperformed when competing against men is because they were afraid of success. But as Clance and Imes’s work on the Impostor Syndrome shows us, the women and men they interviewed often experienced the same thoughts, only men were less inclined to share their negative thoughts and feelings, and so perhaps this also happened with Horner. It certainly doesn’t seem too unreasonable to assume that men too can get a little scared about the thought of being successful.
When it comes to Impostor Syndrome the worry is that you’ll be ‘found out’ and fail. What’s interesting about Horner’s investigation is that she explored the flip side of the same coin Clance and Imes also studied. Instead of failure though, she was interested in success. What happens if you don’t get ‘found out’? Both Horner and Clance and Imes were dealing with hypothetical outcomes. Both failure and success scenarios are played out in our brains, so much so that we can often talk ourselves out of doing a particular activity long before we’ve even attempted: I won’t be strong enough for boxing, I’m not flexible enough for yoga, I was a crap runner at school so I won’t bother jogging.
Follow The Yellow Brick Road
Perhaps what we’re really afraid of is where success might lead us? I know this was an issue for me. Doing well academically lead me to move away from my family and friends, and not just in a physical sense. I found that the more I learned at university then the more removed I felt from those at home. I had wanted to improve my career opportunities because I was tired of working crappy jobs that paid shit money and where I was exploited and treated like an idiot. I remember being thrilled just to be at university. I couldn’t bloody believe it. But I was also painfully aware of the fact that with every lecture, essay and book I devoured, I slipped the moorings of the working-classes and headed towards the choppy waters of the middle-classes, as much as I hated to admit it to myself at the time. I come from a world where you downplay you achievements. It’s uncouth to brag.
The notion of bragging brings me nicely on to my final point. Is Impostor Syndrome just self-indulgent bullshit? And bear in mind I feel a fraud most days, but there’s also a part of me that thinks, ‘I should really stop thinking about myself so much.’
Much like famous Impostor Syndrome sufferers are disbelieved, so are humblebraggers despised. A humblebrag is so very obviously a display of egomania that we roll our eyes and utter the word ‘wanker’. We can’t help it because false modesty is worse than outright bragging. If Meryl Streep were to drive by me, wind down her window and yell, ‘Hey arsehole, I’m richer and more attractive than you’ll ever be!’ The likelihood is that I’d think fair enough, she’s right. But when Meryl says ‘I don’t know how to act,’ I just can’t help my brain from thinking ‘bollocks!’ (I’m sorry, Meryl, I love you, I really do. I didn’t mean this post to turn out this way!)
Tina Fey hits the nail on the head with her quote on Impostor Syndrome. There is a kind of egomania or humblebrag quality to feeling like an impostor, because essentially you’re obsessed with your own self. You’re stuck in your own head space, only considering your own thoughts and feelings in that particular situation. You’re not looking around the table in that business meeting and thinking I wonder who else might be thinking what I’m thinking.
Perhaps what Impostor Syndrome sufferers need is to give ourselves a good kick up the arse. Let’s stop this namby-pamby, poor me, I feel insecure, I’m a massive fraud, self-centred thing, and instead look outwards. Let’s take a spin in the real world for a spell and stop making everything about ourselves. It’s hard of course. I’m still trying to do this and it’s really not easy when you’re at a job interview, for instance. But here’s a few things I try to bear in mind when I feel like an impostor.
- Don’t compare yourself to others.
- Accept compliments and praise.
- Be proud of your achievements – accept them – you earned them.
- Focus on others – how can you help them overcome their challenges?
- There’s no best, only different.