Feeling too good to be true?

Ever thought your achievements are not your own? You are not alone

Perfectionists who set very high standards for themselves, feel like failures even if they perform at the 99% mark. Even a small mistake makes them question their own capability.

I was asked to deliver a presentation at an Asia-Pacific Conference a couple of years ago. My boss fell ill and could not travel to the conference to present it herself. She entrusted me with the onerous task of stepping into her shoes. Seriously! Did she think I was good enough to do it! Must be a grave error of judgment on her part.

A youngster got admission into a premier college in the US and thought the institution made a mistake in selecting him because he wasn’t really that smart. When feared that when he finally got to college they would find out that he was a fake and that they made a mistake. A sixth grader got a top rank in an Olympiad test and believed it was because the invigilator happened to be standing next to her and nudged her towards one answer. A 30-year-old techie bore an enormous amount of guilt for having “paid” for his seat in an engineering college 12 years ago, with the result that he now thinks any professional success that comes his way is not really his doing.

A senior executive got promoted to the rank of the CEO in a large corporation. He was plagued by self-doubt and was sure he didn’t deserve the role, and that he will not be able to do justice to it. Pretty soon the customers, shareholders, employees and other stakeholders would recognise him for the imposter he really was.

Just plain luck?

Yes, that’s right! This is the imposter syndrome I am talking about. It is a psychological phenomenon that affects high achievers of any gender, age group or walk of life. It is the fear of being exposed as a “fraud” as one doubts one’s successes, achievements, talents, qualifications and abilities. The “imposters” believe they have “tricked” others into thinking that they are smarter than they actually are — a self-perceived intellectual phoniness (to use the words of Dr Pauline R Clance and Dr Suzanne A Imes). This is accompanied by thoughts like, “I feel like a fake”, “I must not fail” and “I just got lucky”.

After winning an Academy Award in 1988, actress Jodie Foster said “I thought it was a big fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back.” And Albert Einstein is known to have said, “The exaggerated esteem in which my life work is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

Where does this inability to validate oneself, internalise one’s successes and own one’s accomplishments, stem from? Is it fear? Fear of what? Well, often it is fear of evaluation, fear of failure, fear of not continuing success, and fear of not being as capable as others. But it is not a clearly defined mental disorder, nor is it something that is prevalent all the time. Some days you may feel like an imposter, and some days you may not. It is known, though, to be more prevalent amongst people who have overcome adversity through hard work to earn their success and nearly 70% of individuals experience it at least once during their life.

Popular stereotypes

Perfectionists who set very high standards for themselves, feel like failures even if they perform at the 99% mark. Even a small mistake makes them question their own capability. Those who view themselves as experts think they need to know everything there is to know. If they realise there is something they don’t know they think they are stupid. Those who believe they are a natural genius, struggle with the imposter syndrome if they need to put in effort or hard work towards achieving something because they believe they should have been able to do it easily. Those who believe they need to be self-sufficient and do everything on their own, think they are a failure if they need to ask for help. Those who think they need to be super-men (or women) believe they need to succeed in all aspects of life and a slight problem in one aspect makes them feel incompetent. This often plays out even more for women who deal with gender disparities in the workplace, and gender stereotypes in the home.

Where does this feeling of being an imposter stem from? Sometimes it has to do with being a more anxious or neurotic person. At other times it stems from childhood environments that reinforced the idea that in order to be loved, and to be lovable, one needs to achieve to high standards and do things that are “lovable”. Belonging to groups that have stereotypes around competence, like Indians students in America, women in STEM, graduates from IIT+IIM, etc. add to this fear and feeling of incompetence.

Where it comes from, however, is really not that significant. More important is to be able to understand what to do with it. How to overcome it, take advantage of it, and not let it sabotage you.

Here are ways in which you can overcome impostor syndrome:

  • The first thing to do is to become aware of your thoughts. What are you telling yourself about yourself? Just observe it. And then understand if the thought is helping you, or sabotaging you. If it is sabotaging you, let it go. Reframe it, which really means look at it in perspective, and from another angle.
  • Understand the impact of your thoughts on your progress. And if all this is too much for you to handle on your own, muster up the courage to share the self-sabotaging thoughts with a trusted friend, mentor or a counsellor.
  • Owning and celebrating your achievements is essential to avoid burnout, feel content and build your self-confidence.
  • Learning to accept mistakes in their stride and recognising that there is no such thing as “perfect” in life is an essential ingredient of self-acceptance.
  • Veering away from the need for external validation, and developing the skill of internal validation and accepting constructive criticism can be helpful.
  • Recognise that you are work-in-progress and that life-long learning and skill-building are essential elements of living a meaningful life; and that your self-esteem and self-worth are for you to define, not others.

According to Valerie Young, an imposter syndrome expert, your goal should not be to never doubt yourself but to be able to have the insight to talk yourself out of your self-doubt when you do feel like an imposter. “To have an imposter moment, not an imposter life.” Quite like the one I had, when I was asked to write this article!

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