Have you ever felt like you don’t deserve your achievements or status? That all your accomplishments are probably the result of luck and at any moment you’ll be outed as a phony? If you have, you aren’t alone. Studies suggest that around 70% of people feel the same way and that feeling has a name. It’s called impostor syndrome (although psychologists call it impostor phenomenon).
The term was first coined by the clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s. Back then it was thought that the phenomenon uniquely affected women. Recent research, however, has shown that it isn’t so selective. People from all walks of life—men, women, artists, executives—have reported feelings of inadequacy/incompetence despite evidence to the contrary.
An authority on the subject, Dr. Valerie Young, wrote a book on impostor syndrome. In it, she mentioned five specific sub-types of impostor syndrome that can plague people, and in this article, I’ll go into all of them and provide you with ways to overcome them.
It isn’t surprising that impostor syndrome and perfectionism are linked. Perfectionists set goals with unreasonably high standards. When reality inevitably doesn’t measure up, they berate themselves. Even if they do hit the mark, they discount their achievement or blame it on luck.
Here are a few questions to help you decide if this describes you:
- Whenever you undertake a project, do you feel like it needs to be flawless?
- Do people accuse you of being a micromanager?
- When others give you praise for your achievements, do you have trouble believing you deserve it?
People suffering from this type have trouble gaining satisfaction whenever achieving success of any sort because they feel as though they know they could have done better.
And maybe that’s true! Perhaps they could have. But to be human is to err.
Expecting flawlessness is unproductive and unhealthy, not only for you but for others, too. Perfectionists are often described as micromanagers. In reality, their criticism in others is just a defense mechanism. The more that you can’t accept in yourself, the more you’re likely to judge those traits in others.
There’s no “best” way to resolve this, but one key habit you could integrate into your life is that of self-kindness. When you’re able to acknowledge and make peace with your flaws, you’ll also begin to do so with those around you.
It’ll take time—it won’t be easy—but it will be worth it. If you want to feel better, to be better, then start owning your successes and your flaws. Otherwise, you’ll burn yourself out and hate yourself for it.
People with this type see themselves as inadequate while placing their colleagues on a pedestal. As a result of their self-diagnosed insufficiency, they push themselves hard and work even harder, all so they can merely “catch up” to the others and prove their worth.
Not sure if it describes you? Here are some questions to help:
- At work, do you stay later than everyone else despite finishing the day’s tasks?
- Do you tell yourself that you simply don’t have enough time for your passions?
- Despite being qualified for your role, are you convinced you haven’t earned your title?
People who identify with the superwomen/man type believe they need the validation that comes from the act of working, rather than from completing the tasks themselves. While it’s useful to have such a disciplined work ethic, remember to have a balanced lifestyle.
For some, this can be quite difficult. You might not know how to relax after living with this type for years. To start, carve time out of your schedule and dedicate it to non-work related activities.
It doesn’t matter if it’s watching Netflix with friends or sitting beneath a pine tree at the park. If you have any lost hobbies or passions, pick them up again and make them a weekly, if not daily priority. It’s all about learning to be content, or even happy, with the part of you that isn’t working.
The Natural Genius
This phenomenon is like the perfectionist type but with one key distinction: the ‘natural genius’ doesn’t just base their worth on the amount of effort they put into a task. It also matters how quickly they can do it and how easy it feels. If they don’t get something right on the first try, then something must be wrong with them.
Here are some questions to help discern if you have this type:
- As a child, were you consistently regarded as the ‘smart one’ of the family or peer group?
- Do you avoid challenges for fear of looking like a fool?
- Are you used to ‘winning’ without much effort?
It’s okay not to be a master at everything you do. You’re a work in progress just like everyone else—and that’s not a bad thing. Instead of unfairly criticizing yourself for not immediately excelling at new tasks, commit to making bite-sized improvements. Rather than avoiding every skill, you aren’t familiar with, try taking them on with reasonable expectations.
For instance, if you’re interested in learning the piano, don’t compare yourself to Mozart! Or to your teacher! And especially not that cool pianist you follow on YouTube. None of them are really like you so, no matter what, the comparison won’t be accurate. There actually is someone who’s pretty similar to you, and that’s you. So the rule is: compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
This is one that I struggle with personally. People who identify with this type sincerely believe that the mere act of asking for help works against them. It tends to manifest as a fear of hearing someone say, “If you’re qualified for this position, why would you need help?”
Not sure if this is you? Here’s are some things to ask yourself:
- Do you often avoid help even if you need it?
- Does the idea of being completely ‘self-made’ sound like a reasonable goal?
- Does it bother you when people offer their help?
Don’t get me wrong—being independent is a good thing. It displays conscientiousness and self-sufficiency among other things. But life is too much for any one person to bear on their own. It’s why humans are social creatures—we’re not all that capable by ourselves.
You don’t have to know all the answers and you don’t need to pretend as though you do—in fact, I’d say you shouldn’t.
Because you’ll be missing out on a lot. Most of the time, people want to help you. They do. And when you delegate responsibility someone, what you’re communicating to them is, “I trust you. I can rely on you. Our relationship is valuable.” And when you do that, you set the foundation for a strong bond with that person, a bond that, if nurtured, could play a major role in your future. But to plant those seeds, you’ve got to relinquish some control.
People with this brand of impostor syndrome feel like they never know enough. The expert validates their competence based not on what they know, but on how much. Even if they’re an expert in a field, they’re plagued by the fear of not knowing enough and that, eventually, they’ll be exposed.
Here are some questions to help determine if you struggle with this type:
- Do you feel like you don’t know enough about your role, even if you have a lot of experience in it?
- Does it bother you when people call you an expert?
- Do you refuse to apply to job postings unless you check every educational requirement?
While you should never assume that you know everything, don’t forget to cut yourself some slack. You probably know a good deal of information and having a formidable stack of certifications is never a bad thing to have, but there is such a thing preparing so much to the point where it becomes counter-productive; it’s like tying your shoelaces over and over again to make sure the fit is perfect—at some point, you just need to go outside and take them for a spin.
Most things in life are learned through trying, failing, and trying again. And I get it! Failing hurts! Fair enough. But you’re tougher than you look, and you wouldn’t be where you are now if you weren’t.
One way to stave off your feelings of inadequacy is to become a mentor to someone who is new to your industry. They’ll appreciate the attention, and it’ll help validate the idea that you do in fact know enough to deserve your position.
If you want to understand these types more but don’t think you can do it alone, I recommend contacting a professional psychologist.
Why Do People Experience Impostor Syndrome?
It’s hard to say. There’s no one thing we can point our finger at to blame. Some studies show that personality traits like neuroticism and conscientiousness have something to do with it. A common theory involves people having parents who never acknowledged their achievements during childhood, a situation that can easily lead to a mindset that says, “In order to be loved, I have to achieve more.” Thinking like this is particularly dangerous because, if you have impostor syndrome, your negative thoughts fall into each other like a feedback loop of insecurity.
Sometimes, however, your impostor syndrome is justified. Like when you get a promotion or a new job in an unfamiliar field, you aren’t going to feel like you have years of experience in your role because, well, you don’t!
So you end up feeling like an impostor. And you become afraid to make a mistake or let your guard down lest you be discovered a fool. What many don’t understand is that it’s okay to be a fool when you’re doing something new. Inevitable, even. Many are afraid to appear less than ideal, so they work unreasonably hard to hide the fact that they aren’t as great as they could be (as if that were some big secret). While that way of thinking may produce short term results, it isn’t conducive to long term success.
So how about this: give yourself a break here and there. Let your inner critic propel you forward, but remember to celebrate your victories, too.
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