“I’m not good enough.”
“I don’t belong here.”
“This house of cards is going to fall down and everyone will see that I’ve been faking it all along.”
These are the kinds of thoughts that race through the mind of someone experiencing so-called imposter syndrome. It’s a compelling belief that, regardless of the success you’ve had in your career or at school, you’re somehow a fake and you’re sure to be discovered, unmasked, and publicly shamed.
“It can cause a lot of anxiety,” says psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Gail Saltz. “And over the long term, that level of anxiety can lead to depression.”
There’s no official diagnosis of imposter syndrome. You won’t find it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the official compendium of psychiatric disorders. There are no reliable statistics on the number of people who are worried that they’ve faked their way into a good school or up the career ladder.
But Saltz says she sees it in practice. “It was especially something we talked about in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when many women were achieving in the workforce in a way that hadn’t happened before. The notion that women could rise to positions of power or become highly accomplished was a new idea, so there was a lot of personal internal conflict around whether or not they ‘deserved’ their success.”
The feeling of being fraudulent is by no means limited to women. Men and women both seem predisposed to this lack of confidence because of their class background, or because they lacked supportive parenting (but there are just as many stories about people who succeeded no matter what their parents said). Members of minorities or people from immigrant families might also feel as if something other than their hard work should be credited for their success. The lack of role models in similar positions could contribute to the problem. When no one else on the board of directors or the graduate seminar looks like you, “You might think, ‘It wasn’t my brains, my smarts, that got me here,’” says Saltz.
Traits of Imposter Theory
According to a 2011 review of research on “imposterism,” common traits of someone who has imposter syndrome include:
- feeling highly anxious about an achievement-related task
- going overboard on a specific task because you’re afraid of failing
- needing to be the very best, and dismissing your own talents when you aren’t
- setting nearly impossible goals and feeling disappointed when you fail to realize them
- rejecting praise, and arguing why the praise isn’t deserved
- feeling guilty because of your success
Imposter syndrome isn’t something you “have” for life. It can come and go based on many circumstances. You might feel especially fraudulent in a new job, for example, but build confidence over time. Younger people could mature through the feelings as they advance through school, or gain skills and experience.
That said, some people may feel plagued by feelings of inadequacy throughout their lives.
The problem has a particularly cruel twist: If you believe you’re not good enough, you might downplay your best qualities. “People who feel inadequate or like they don’t deserve their success are really hard workers, but they put in a lot of extra effort, double checking themselves,” says Saltz. That failure to show confidence in your own skill set could mean you’re passed over for promotions or miss out on other opportunities to advance in your work, situations which could reinforce your belief that you’re not good enough.
You could also exhaust yourself through unnecessary busy work and miss out on applying energy when and where it counts.
Another double bind is in how difficult it is to talk about your feelings of being undeserving. But if you are feeling like an imposter, sharing those feelings in a safe environment can be the first and most important step in changing your thinking.
What Can You Do About It?
“The best ‘treatment,’ so to speak, has to do with becoming aware of your feelings as distinctly different from reality,” Saltz suggests. You can do this in talk therapy, or by sharing your concerns with a trusted mentor or professor. Talking to peers in situations similar to yours also can give you a reality check.
You can break through your negative beliefs by writing down a simple list of your accomplishments, as well. Some people who think they’ve been fooling their colleagues into believing they’re worthy have surprised themselves by going back and reading their own resumes.
Perhaps even more reaffirming could be checking yourself out on LinkedIn. While it’s not cheat-proof, this global career-social network requires verification of many claims in order to help weed out people who really are trying to fool the rest of us.