Hello, my name is Jessica, and I have imposter syndrome. There! I’ve admitted it.
No, it’s not contagious.
Yes, it is a real thing.
It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot this year and I started writing a blog post about it several weeks ago. I kept adding to it to the point where it became far too long to read in one go but, if I was to cut it down to become a shorter blog post, I knew I wouldn’t do justice to the subject and it would defeat the point.
The whole point of sharing this is to help followers of my blog to recognise it in themselves if they’re experiencing it, to feel comfort that they’re not alone, and to hopefully find some coping strategies. And for anyone not experiencing it, it may help you recognise it in others and help them cope.
So, over the course of this week, I’m releasing a series of five posts:
- Monday – The theory behind it – what it is and how it manifests itself
- Tuesday – Where it comes from and how mine started
- Wednesday – How it affects me as an author
- Thursday – Coping strategies
- Friday – Recognising it in others and helping them
What is imposter syndrome?
According to Gail Corkindale in Harvard Business Review (2008) imposter syndrome is defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.”
Or, in a shorter quote (and layman’s terms) from Arlin Cuncic, Very Well Mind (2020), it “refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be.”
At this point, I’ll emphasise the word ‘self-doubt’ from Corkindale’s quote which is not to be confused with an individual having low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. This is not the same thing. Quite often those with imposter syndrome do have high self-esteem and good/high levels of confidence. It’s usually high achieving successful individuals who experience this phenomenon, hence the point of inadequacy “despite evident success”.
I’ll also point out here that social anxiety and imposter syndrome can overlap but, according to Cuncic, they are not the same thing either. Someone with social anxiety disorder can feel a lack of belonging in a social setting, sometimes driven by lack of confidence and/or low self-esteem. They may choose to avoid putting themselves into such a scenario because they don’t feel confident there but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have imposter syndrome. Someone with imposter syndrome can feel very confident normally and typically won’t have anxieties in a social setting except when they find themselves in a situation where they feel they are inadequate. Examples would include an actor at an awards ceremony, a CEO at a business convention, an author speaking on an expert panel and so on. In these scenarios, the ‘imposter’ would perceive everyone around them to be high-achieving and could become anxious about being exposed as a fraud because they don’t see themselves as being of the same calibre.
What does imposter syndrome look like?
There are several ways in which imposter syndrome can manifest itself but here are the three most common ways which do interlink:
Fear of failure:
I mentioned earlier that imposter syndrome is about self-doubt and believing you’re not as competent as others think you are. Here, the ‘imposter’ is desperate not to fail because, if they do, then they will definitely be ‘found out’. They therefore push and push for continued or bigger successes in order to avoid said failure. Unfortunately, they can struggle to enjoy success when it comes along because the fear is ever-present that they’ll be found out and the success will disappear.
I must get that promotion otherwise I’ve failed
I need to get that part in the film or it will prove I’m not good enough
I need to get higher in the charts/stay there for longer or it will be proof that I can’t write/sing
Feeling like a fake:
Here, the ‘imposter’ feels like a fraud. Their self-doubt about their own abilities makes them question how their success happened.
How did I get to be a senior manager?
How did I win an Oscar?
How did I get a Top 100 bestseller?
How did I manage to sell out an arena tour?
They’re waiting for someone to find out that it’s all a big mistake and they’ll be outed and put back where they ‘belong’.
Here, the ‘imposter’ may attribute success to luck/fluke rather than their ability and/or they play down their successes.
I was in the right place at the right time
It was easy to achieve
It wasn’t anything special
The film/book/song happened to hit a trend
I only reached that position because there weren’t many films/books/songs released that week
Are there any famous sufferers?
David Bowie admitted in an interview that he often “felt so utterly inadequate” which he “hid behind obsessive writing and performing”.
Mary Angelou admitted that she often felt 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’.”
There have been many cases of actors admitting to these feelings, Natalie Portman said, “I felt like there had been some mistake,” about her movie success. Comedian/actor/author Tina Fey has admitted to it and Emma Watson said that, when she receives recognition for her acting, “I feel incredibly uncomfortable, I tend to turn in on myself. I feel like an imposter.” Even Hollywood royalty, Tom Hanks, talked about how he could relate to the self-doubt of the character he played in the 2016 film A Hologram for the King: “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are you going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’”
Many CEOs including the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, have admitted to feeling the same way. In an interview with the New York Times, Schultz said, “Very few people … get into the seat [of CEO] and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama has also spoken about the subject.
When researching this, I came across a lovely story from author Neil Gaiman meeting fellow-sufferer Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. It’s a fairly short anecdote but it’s a bit long for me to quote so you can find it here.
I hope this helps position what imposter syndrome is and how common it can be. Tomorrow I’ll talk about where the experts believe it comes from and where mine started.
You can read the full article from Corkindale here
You can read Cuncic’s article here