Impostor syndrome is not a recognised psychiatric disorder in its own right, but is acknowledged by psychologists and psychiatrists as a legitimate issue for many people – sometimes (but not always) contributing to a mental health condition such as anxiety.
When someone says they ‘feel like a fraud’, or their attitude suggests they feel that way, they essentially feel like an impostor in the role they inhabit, whether that’s in work, in relationships, recreationally, or at home.
Here are some examples of impostor syndrome in everyday life:
- You’ve just earned a promotion, but you wonder why you were chosen over other candidates, and whether you’re truly up to the job. You’re afraid of letting your boss down, and you wonder when you will be demoted.
- There’s a local baking competition that your friends tell you to enter. You’re known for making great cakes, but what if your success has all been down to good luck so far? You don’t really deserve to win against genuinely talented bakers. If you do win, you’ll have to give the award back before someone finds you out.
- Several people pay you a compliment on your outfit at a high-profile event. You can’t believe they are being sincere – they’re just being polite, surely. You don’t feel attractive or special compared to other attendees, and you question why you were even invited to be in the same room. Maybe the invite was sent by mistake?
Though no-one is immune from impostor syndrome, Scientific American has reported it is more likely to affect women and minorities. People marked as high-achievers are also at risk; the American Psychological Association links it with perfectionist traits. The term ‘impostor syndrome’ was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, when studying high-achieving women who consistently put their success down to luck instead of their own talent.
Impostor syndrome might also be fuelled by childhood experiences: teachers being overly critical, or parents consistently helping you to win games or pass assignments, could undermine your sense of personal achievement.
Tips to Combat Impostor Syndrome
- Write down the evidence for and against you falling short of expectations. Are you dwelling on worst-case scenarios, or using past failures to assume your future goals won’t be reached?
- Keep a list of your major achievements and how you made them happen – you’ll see it’s not just down to luck or someone else’s help. You really can rely on yourself.
- Ask friends and family what they think. Make a note of their comments to read back during low moments or ask to record their comments as a soundbite on your phone if you’d prefer. Listen back to feel like you’re having a pep talk with them.
- Remember that people of all levels make mistakes and start out ignorant. Their progress develops by taking risks, trying new things out, and learning from everything along the way. Nobody’s perfect.
- Go into meetings and appraisals with details of your achievements and learning curves. Try and quantify them where possible, demonstrating factual evidence of the value you provide to your company.
- Challenge hints of other people’s impostor syndrome. If a friend says they don’t deserve their new boyfriend, or a colleague tries not to take credit for the major project they created, remind them why they are good enough.
- Mindfulness and meditation are useful ways to shift your thought patterns and tackle stress when you’re feeling self-critical. Take five minutes out of your day to try them.
Mental Health and Impostor Syndrome
Whilst we can all experience impostor syndrome at one time or another, it can become chronic for some people, and can come hand in hand with mental health issues. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is an excellent option for persistent impostor syndrome that sits at the heart of anxiety, depression or OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). All of these mental health conditions can involve patients feeling unworthy, incompetent and unproductive, despite any evidence to the contrary.
Negative automatic thoughts can build up, making the patient question their own abilities and achievements; with anxiety and OCD, these thoughts can be persistent and extreme, but sometimes implausible to anyone without a mental health condition. Cognitive distortions can occur, and the patient’s beliefs (such as ‘My science exam must have been marked wrong, as I can’t have done that well’) become removed from the facts at hand (‘I scored 90% in my science exam’). Because of this, sufferers often bottle up their worries and compulsions, leaving them unchallenged but also heightened over time.
With OCD, the obsessive thoughts may become further removed from reality (‘Someone must have bribed the examiner to give me a good mark’, ‘Maybe I cheated on the exam and blanked it out because I’m so ashamed’). For patients with depression, impostor syndrome can increase feelings of self-loathing and lethargy, and it may potentially fuel suicidal ideation in someone already vulnerable or in crisis.
Impostor syndrome is an understandable and fleeting experience for most of us, but when it’s truly engrained – or part of a larger mental health pattern – talking therapy can be invaluable to rid you of the self-doubt.
Written by guest contributor Vikram Das for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).