Imposter Syndrome: the Fear of Being a Fraud

imposter syndrome

What is it?

Imposter Syndrome is something many of us face, and it can be described as a person’s inability to believe in their own deserved success, experiencing a nagging feeling of self-doubt and incompetence, where they struggle to attribute their performance to their actual competence. It’s often perceived as a fear of being ‘found out,’ for lacking the necessary gravitas for what they are talking about. People with imposter syndrome may also be at an increased risk of experiencing anxiety and depression.

Also known as: imposter phenomenon, perceived fraudulence, fraud syndrome, or imposter experience, a 2019 study attributes the syndrome to “high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalise their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor.” Most prevalent in women and minority groups – high achievers (including students) and creative individuals were more likely to exhibit symptoms of imposter syndrome.

What does it feel like?

Imposter feelings make you constantly question yourself: “Am I good enough? Qualified enough? Do I even know what I’m doing?” This state of mind represents a conflict between your own self-perception and how others perceive you. Being in a perpetual cycle of constantly undermining your own competence can be exhausting – you’re basically in a battle with yourself, questioning your value and capabilities. This fear of being ‘found out’ for being under-qualified, for being imperfect, means that you work even harder to ensure that people don’t uncover the ‘illusion’ of your success. This ultimately fuels a cycle of guilt, of perfectionism, and anxiety to maintain this level of success and attainment that you hold for yourself, which can lead to burnout as you keep pushing to achieve more and more.

In this line of thinking, you will put your successes and recognition down to chance or good timing, rather than your own hard work, intelligence and skill. Having this constant internal battle will of course affect your wellbeing, your confidence, and your mental health.

Key Traits to Note

Some of the personality traits, or habits to note may include:

  • Perfectionism: You hold yourself to the highest standard, always striving for perfect in everything that you do. And let’s face it, this is simply unsustainable, if not unattainable, so you’re setting yourself up for failure from the get-go.
  • Overachiever: You feel the need to succeed in every role that you hold – both personal and professional, exceeding your maximum effort in every role, which can of course lead to a burnout state over time.
  • Always the expert: You refrain from practising your trade without knowing every single detail, in fear of being deemed under-qualified, or fraudulent. You fail to understand that you are actually highly skilled, even gifted in your trade, and yet you fail to see this, instead you continue to attribute your goals to something external, or just put it all down to luck.
  • Sole player: You have to achieve everything by yourself, and you struggle to reach out to anyone for help, for fear of feeling like you have failed at the task yourself.

What to do about it

Constantly trying to out-do yourself is not a sustainable strategy. Perspective and self-reflection may be a better way to approach the imposter mentality.

Here are a few ways to approach it:

  • Notice and acknowledge your feelings: Sharing your thoughts with trusted friends, family or a mentor will help to gain some outside perspective, and show you that a lot of what you are thinking is very much internalised and is not actually based in reality.
  • Make a list: If you’re unable to pinpoint your strengths and skills, then make a list of your qualifications – maybe put them in order of strength so you can focus on where you shine, and where you want to put in some extra work (and why).
  • Stop comparing yourself to others: What makes you good at what you do is your strength, not theirs. Focus on your skills, your qualities, your uniqueness and what you offer in your field and how your personality makes you stand out.
  • Manifest and visualise success: The word ‘manifest’ is thrown around a lot, and there is a reason for it: having the ability to mentally engage and visualise the outcome you want, to aim towards your ideal scenario will bring you closer to attaining that goal in that way. It’s not magic, but there’s definitely something to it. And hey, there’s no harm in trying, right?

The next time you feel overwhelmed or unsure of your capabilities, try one (or more) of these techniques and see if it helps to alleviate the associated symptoms. And in the meantime, work on empowering and rewarding yourself by owning your achievements and having the utmost respect for the work you have done to get you to where you are today, both professionally and personally, because they go hand in hand.

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