Imposter Syndrome: Why You Feel Like A Fraud & How To Fight It

You may have come across the term ‘imposter syndrome’ at one stage or another. Perhaps a friend exaggerated their lack of motivation to work so they said they have the trait. Or perhaps you encountered it in a more serious context and questioned its validity in the psychological realm.

While the name itself indicates its definition, it holds a dramatic framing of a phenomenon experienced by as many as 82 percent of people, according to a 2019 study.

The word imposter implies deceit and manipulation, or feeling like you’re a fraud in your own life, career, relationships, or given identity. Syndrome, on the other hand, implies illness.

So you may be thinking, or have thought at some stage, how on earth would I be suffering from mental illness, in that I feel like I am a fake in my own life?

Such feelings lead to the ultimate ascertainment that “I don’t belong” or “I’m not good enough.” People experiencing imposter syndrome believe that they don’t deserve the recognition and reward for their efforts, often in a vocational setting. One might rather attribute their success to luck or timing.

Imposter syndrome and self-doubt may be preventing you from acquiring new skills or inhibiting your career development. For instance, you might be looking to advance your career in healthcare through an affordable online MSN FNP program, but as you struggle to attribute your success to your own merits, this may affect your feelings of self-worth; leading you to question your ability to undertake further study.

Unintentionally halting your career, relationship, or participation in other activities, just to name a few, creates a deep cause for concern and should be addressed on an individual psychological basis. Consider mental health interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy to help tackle these psychological barriers. This can be arranged by speaking with a licensed therapist.

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What Exactly is Imposter Syndrome?

While imposter syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, mental healthcare professionals recognize it as a very real and specific form of self-doubt. Imposter-related beliefs are often accompanied by feelings of depression and anxiety.

Common imposter-led beliefs include self-imposed expectations of perfectionism, expertise, independence (having to conquer the task or set of tasks solely on your own), and taking on the role of ‘superhuman’. All of these factors involve setting extreme, and often unrealistically high, self-expectations. Failure to meet these expectations equates to a lack of credibility in a given area that may be tied to personal identity.

Still believe that imposter syndrome is an uncommon exaggeration?

Who Can Experience Imposter Syndrome?

Almost everyone has encountered imposter-related thoughts at some stage, however, studies have found that imposter syndrome is more common in academic and professional settings, which often come with a new, or heightened set of responsibilities.

According to a recent report, 62% of knowledge workers worldwide reported experiencing imposter syndrome. The trait seems to be more common among people embarking on a new endeavor, like graduate students, or people looking to change careers.

Research dating back to 1978 largely focused on women as having experienced the imposter phenomenon. This primary focus on one gender is, in part, due to the sexism of the time, especially among the working class. A much more recent 2019 study found no difference in the rates of men and women suffering from imposter syndrome. The study also found that the condition was far more common among minority groups. This is unsurprising given the history of discrimination that has plagued minorities.

Similarly, differentiation from the majority of your peers, including gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and age can naturally fuel an already fraudulent sense of self-worth. This is despite the growing percentage of companies that actively focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion across the US.

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It’s vital to recognize the source of your feelings of self-doubt. If the source is internal, then it may rightly be imposter syndrome at play. However, if you can identify the source as originating externally, then you may be a victim of workplace discrimination, be it implicit or explicit. It is important to acknowledge that inherent bias and systemic structures may form the basis of discrimination, and aid in the formation of your imposter syndrome.

An African-American fourth-year psychology student at John F. Kennedy University, Frederick Hives, admittedly struggled with imposter syndrome. He ascertains that he was taught he would need to ‘work twice as hard to be half as good,’ and that while this instills a goal-oriented approach, it also keeps him feeling as though his efforts will never be enough. We can see that Hives has internalized systemic racism and therefore places higher expectations on himself. Such beliefs are typical of the imposter phenomenon and may also originate from an inherent pressure to achieve, or overachieve, throughout childhood.

Let’s break down the various types of imposter syndrome and how to recognize the symptoms.

Types of Imposter Syndrome:

The Perfectionist

As the name implies, perfectionists demand perfection of themselves and in all that they do, in every aspect of life. Perfectionists often have excessively high standards set for themselves, so even if they’ve proven themselves to be successful, they might ruminate on the aspects that could have been improved. Their unrealistic expectations can result in feelings of guilt and shame.

The Natural Genius

The natural genius is a talented individual for whom it takes little effort to pick up new skills and complete tasks. Conversely, when these people encounter a task that does not come as naturally or as easily, they might feel shame and embarrassment.

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The Expert

The expert is the worker who is so invested in their task that they endeavor to learn everything they can as quickly as possible. When the time comes that they’re questioned on one aspect of the task, they might experience fraudulent feelings if they aren’t always able to answer the question correctly.

The Soloist

Soloists attribute success wholeheartedly to their individual efforts, even if help is routinely available. They consider themselves untrustworthy if they can’t achieve success purely through their own merit. Accepting support when it’s offered or – worse yet – asking for help, means not only failing to achieve the high standards set for yourself, but also admitting to your inadequacies.

The Superhuman/Superhero

Surely you’ve heard the phrase “you’re only human,” often used in the context of not being able to do and feel everything, all at once. The superhuman (or superhero), likes to defy this by pushing their limits to see how many roles and corresponding tasks they can encompass at any given time. They typically push themselves to their respective breaking point by expending as much energy as possible in every role, simultaneously.

While there are ways to relieve your imposter syndrome on your own through exercises like reframing your thoughts, as the phenomenon is an internal struggle, it can be extremely isolating and difficult to change your thinking if you wholeheartedly believe it to be true. It is therefore recommended you talk to someone, whether that is a loved one with whom you can trust or a qualified psychologist. Group therapy, in which peers or coworkers discuss their feelings of doubt and failure, may be particularly therapeutic, as individuals experiencing imposter syndrome often perceive themselves as being the only one with such feelings.

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