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How to Beat the Imposter Syndrome Feeling

Illustration by Atipus
How to Beat the Imposter Syndrome Feeling
Published January 13, 2017 by Christian Jarrett

Every other creative professional you know has succeeded largely because of their talents and dedication. You, on the other hand, have got where you are thanks to a mix of luck and the extra effort that was needed to compensate for your lack of true giftedness.

Does this harsh assessment match your own worldview? If so, it sounds as if you are suffering from a crisis of self-doubt that psychologists call the Imposter Phenomenon. Quite likely you live in professional fear. Fear that one of these days, you are going to be exposed. That the mirage of serendipitous and barely-made-it achievements that is your career will one day be lifted, revealing to your peers and mentors the shameful truth – you flunked it.

The imposter phenomenon was first described in the 1970s by clinical psychologists working at a women’s college, after they noticed that a large proportion of the students felt nervous of their academic success and were worried of having their true capabilities exposed. Since then it’s become apparent that men and women in all walks of life experience imposter feelings: in fact, one recent estimate (pdf) suggests that around 70 percent of us will go through a period of these self-doubts at least once in our lives.

It seems plausible that the syndrome might particularly affect those of us working in creative industries. In our world there is a pervasive myth that there is a minority of super achievers who are born with a magical gift, while the rest of us mortals struggle by with our ordinary talents. For a creative who’s enjoyed a degree of success, it’s understandable that he or she might especially worry that this was founded on luck or effort rather than true creative talent. 

Unfortunately, new research has begun to show just how harmful the Imposter Phenomenon can be to careers. Researchers at the University of Salzburg recently surveyed over 200 professionals and found that those experiencing the syndrome tended to get paid less, were less likely to have won promotions, and were usually less satisfied in their work and less committed.

Thankfully, psychology research has also revealed a lot about the mindset and behaviors of the typical Imposter Syndrome sufferer and based on these insights we suggest the following simple strategies to help reduce your Imposter feelings and protect your career.

1. Learn to be a healthy perfectionist

A recent study by Belgian psychologists of over 200 staff in three different industries, including finance and human resources, found that feelings of Imposter Syndrome went hand in hand with high scores on a measure of “maladaptive perfectionism” (These individuals agreed with questionnaire items like “I should be upset when I make a mistake.”) and with low scores on adaptive perfectionism. (They disagreed with items like “I set higher goals for myself than most people.”)

People who exhibit unhealthy perfectionism are fearful of failure, fearful of criticism, hate making mistakes, stew over past errors, and worry excessively about disappointing others. You can counter this by trying to develop a healthy perfectionist approach, which is about striving to do as well as possible, for yourself, not for outside approval; and not worrying excessively about mistakes or set-backs.

2. Avoid defensive pessimism and self-handicapping

Sufferers of Imposterism are also especially prone to shame and anxiety – when things go wrong. They think it reveals something essential about their lack of ability and talent. Motivated to avoid these uncomfortable feelings, the person who sees themselves as a fake will frequently adopt either or both of two psychological habits when confronted by a new challenge: defensive pessimism, which is about fearing the worst and trying to avoid it happening, for example through working excessively hard.

The other is self-handicapping, which is when you deliberately imperil your own chances, for example by procrastinating and only working on a project last-minute, thus giving yourself a ready-made excuse for when things go wrong.

These two approaches sound like a contradiction, but actually each feeds into a similar spiral of harmful thinking that can turn fleeting feelings of Imposterism into a chronic, debilitating state of mind. If and when, despite all this negative thinking, success comes, the defensively pessimistic Imposter, rather than celebrating, interprets his/her achievement as due to unsustainable levels of effort – and assumes that this grind was much more than anyone else needed to invest. The procrastinating Imposter, meanwhile, sees his success as surely due to luck. (Because after all, he just winged it.)

If this way of working sounds familiar, perhaps you are trapping yourself in an Imposter mindset. Part of the solution is to revisit your motives. Try to rediscover, if you can, the joy of creation for its own sake. Don’t see the outcome of your next project as some kind of barometer of your worth. Believe in yourself and break the Imposter spiral by putting in the work and effort that you feel this particular project deserves and requires based on its merit and difficulty level.

3. Listen to other people’s honest stories

According to the early research on Imposterism by the psychologist Pauline Clance, people prone to the syndrome hang a lot of their feelings of self-worth on being exceptional. Yet, in creative careers, if we enjoy some success, our peer group changes. We find ourselves surrounded by more high-achieving people. This makes it increasingly difficult to feel special, and moreover, it’s easy to assume that everyone else got here through effortless talent, as compared with our own mix of luck and exhausting effort. And yet this is an illusion. In reality, behind the most impressive professional resumes there will be a litany of set-backs, direction changes, and moments of doubt.  As Oliver Burkeman wrote here at 99U: “the truth, deep down, is that we all feel as though we’re just winging it.” One powerful antidote to Imposter feelings is to take the time to talk to trusted peers and mentors about their careers. Listen to their stories and experiences and you’ll likely discover that nothing came easy.

4. We can help each other

Seeing that feelings of Imposterism are fueled by anxiety, low self-esteem and self-doubt, we can all help each other counter these feelings by fostering a supportive environment. It’s worth doing this from an organizational perspective because workers who feel like frauds are less likely to go the extra mile for the company  any such ventures represent another chance of being found out.

How to implement such a culture? For a start, star performers can be encouraged to contribute by being open and honest about the trials and tribulations behind their own successes. And we can all strive to be collegial and to give each other constructive feedback that is aimed at processes and techniques rather than on personal criticisms. The recent Belgian research shows that a supportive working environment (as measured by agreement with items like “Someone of a higher rank frequently devotes extra time and consideration to me”) helped to reduce the link between workers’ Imposter feelings and their lack of job satisfaction and commitment to the organization.

5. Adopt counter measures

Feelings of Imposter Syndrome have long-lasting, harmful effects for our careers. Other related new research, involving hundreds of undergrads from several European countries, suggests this is because the Imposter feelings undermine our professional adaptability, including our concern for the future of our career. For instance, people with Imposter feelings are less likely to keep track of job openings and promotion opportunities, presumably because they are more concerned about keeping hold of their current position, and fearful of new challenges that will expose them as frauds.

While it’s important to try to tackle your Imposter feelings head-on following the steps above, a parallel, practical approach is to recognize the ways these feelings are likely to hinder your career progression, and then to take deliberate counter measures, such as going for promotions and looking out for exciting job opportunities. The truth is, the more successful you are, the more likely it is that you will end up feeling like a fraud – it’s just such a common experience. Soak up the self-doubt and then take the leap anyway. That’s what everyone else is doing.

More about Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.

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