Decoding imposter syndrome

Hannah Cardozo explores why some people feel like they are living in a real-life ‘Among Us’, except that they are the imposter and live in fear of being found out.  

A new-to-the-firm, top-of-her-class lawyer lands her dream assignment. Two days before she is set to begin, excitement is replaced by dread as she begins to wonder, ‘Did I earn this? Was it just luck that got me here? Do I deserve to be here?’ Fear of failure and letting her team and her boss down haunted her during the proceedings. With the case won, her team stepped out to celebrate, she joined them and reluctantly accepted the praise showered her way, all the while wondering, ‘I didn’t do much, did I? What happens when they realise I’m a fraud?’

Sounds familiar? If you can relate, chances are, you may have Imposter Syndrome. But before you panic and think the worst, let’s examine what exactly this means. 

Feeling like an imposter?

Imposter Syndrome is used to describe an individual who doubts their accomplishments, skills or talents. They credit every achievement to luck, fate or coincidence. They are constantly afraid that someone will figure out that they aren’t actually good at what they do. Despite people around them praising their competence and achievements, they feel like frauds.  

It’s not something to worry about though. Imposter Syndrome is fairly common; almost 70% of adults go through it at least once in their lifetime. Even celebrities like Lady Gaga, Emma Watson and Michelle Obama have admitted to feeling like imposters. Academy Award winning actor Tom Hanks revealed in an interview that he related to his character in ‘A Hologram For The King’. He said, “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’”

The infamous civil rights activist, author, poet and Nobel laureate Maya Angelou also admitted to feeling like a fraud, “I have written 11 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’.”

Getting to the bottom of it

Imposter Syndrome is not a medically diagnosable illness, which is why it is a relatively unknown term, but it does often show up when a person has other mental health issues like anxiety or depression. Renowned psychiatrist Dr Kersi Chavda says although he wouldn’t diagnose it, “A lot of people come up to us and say they feel inadequate, they feel that they are frauds… But it’s very rare that they come up with all the classical symptoms, it is not in the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM) or  ‘International Classification of Diseases’ (ICD), so it’s certainly not something people come in for regularly. Very often you find it incidentally when you take their history, even when they are very high achievers they keep talking about how they’ve gotten there by mistake, or they think they don’t deserve it, or they think that people will find out they don’t know as much as they seem to know.”

The imposter in us

Hollywood actress Natalie Portman graduated from Harvard and in her commencement speech at Harvard in 2015, she said, “Today, I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999. I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth, I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.” 

According to Dr Valerie Young, an expert on Imposter Syndrome and Co-Founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute, this syndrome shows up in five different ways. Let’s look at some examples…  

The Perfectionist: Hari is hosting his first-ever showing at an art gallery. As he discusses his artwork with clients, he can’t help but see imperfections in every painting. All night long, Harry receives compliments, however, he thinks people are simply being polite. In retrospect, he felt like displaying his art was a premature step and he should have waited till every detail was perfect. 

The Expert: Swati has been asked to join the debate team at her school. Being both knowledgeable and having the ability to counter arguments well, the team captain knows that Swati would be the perfect addition. However, Swati feels like the debate team isn’t a good fit for her because there is so much she doesn’t know, and there isn’t enough time to learn it all. 

The Natural Genius: Sid is currently at culinary school and doing exceptionally well. Every dish he makes is commended by his peers and teachers. He invited his friends over for breakfast and decided to make croissants at home. After a long 24 hours, his croissants did not have the flaky, buttery consistency that he would have liked them to have. Sid did not want to serve them and believed that because he didn’t get something perfect the first time, he might not be as good a cook as people often make him out to be. 

The Soloist: Shilpa was the best PR agent at her firm. Unfortunately, she got laid off during the lockdown. During this time, she got in touch with a family friend who offered her a job at his business. She accepted the job out of necessity, however, she felt like she didn’t deserve it. She was of the opinion that the only reason she got the job was that her friend felt bad for her. 

The Superperson: Parth has always wanted to become a doctor like his parents. As soon as he finished school, he created a 10-year plan. Once he joined the hospital where his parents worked, he put in the extra hours, and paid attention to every minute detail to prove his worth. Obtaining the highest level of achievement was the only way he felt he was worthy of what he had. 

Cause and effect

Did you identify with any of these examples? They are all linked to ideas of failure and success. As well as intelligence and achievements. However, no definitive cause has been found for Imposter Syndrome. Dr Kersi avers, “Nobody really knows as there’s a whole bunch of hypotheses, but the most prevalent hypothesis is that in the growing-up stage, you’ve always been told that you’re an ass and that you’re not good enough and then you have to prove it, but then there’s the little kid in you that always says: Am I good enough? Am I an ass? Do I not deserve it?” He adds that there is still research being done to get to the root cause.

So, what now? The first step is realizing that you feel this way. Dr Valerie Young mentions in her book that, “When you see yourself as a work-in-progress, you’re automatically less likely to experience feelings of inadequacy.”

When asked about solutions, Dr Kersi says, “One of the things is to seek help. It’s very rare that it exists on its own, it’s probably a part of a bigger disorder, and the bigger disorder may be depression or anxiety or OCD or some other things like substance abuse; and those things have to be ruled out, and if they have a comorbid (when two or more conditions occur at the same time) primary disorder, that has to be dealt with first. And very often you find that these signs and symptoms of not being good enough die down.”

Here are some practical tips before you approach therapy:

  1. Try to understand what you are feeling and where it stems from. 
  2. Talk to people whom you can trust.
  3. Be objective about your capabilities and achievements.
  4. Validate your work no matter how small the accomplishment is.
  5. Failure is inevitable, learn from your mistakes and don’t sit with regret.
  6. Set realistic goals. Make sure they can be broken down into smaller parts.
  7. Stop comparing yourself to others.

Ask for help:

Ever so often, we let the standards of the world determine what it is to be good enough. Forgetting that life is not meant to be perfect and that each one of us has a path of our own to blaze. In the words of Anne Sweeney, “Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.” Imposter Syndrome is rarely a stand-alone problem and it is okay to ask for help. 

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