It is an old Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about two weavers who promise an emperor a new set of clothes that would be invisible to those who are just not worthy of their rank. When the emperor parades around in his ‘new clothes’, no one dares to point out that he is in fact not wearing any, as the fear of being incompetent and called a fraud overpowers their common sense.
Most people assume that confidence and ease come with experience and accomplishment, but research shows that being highly accomplished is no guarantee of feeling comfortable and convinced of your own ability. A 2015 study by Vantage Hill Partners which surveyed 116 companies found that one of the top fears of CEOs is being discovered to be incompetent. High achievers such as Emma Watson, Sheryl Sandberg, Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou and even Einstein have felt they are held in unwarranted esteem and professed doubt regarding their own abilities. Executives and professors also experience the irrational fear that with a small mistake they will reveal how unfit they are for their jobs.
Olivia Cabane, author of the book ‘The Charisma Myth’ (2013) surveyed incoming students at Stanford Business School year after year to report a surprising recurrence: over two-thirds of students felt they were granted admission only because of some mistake made by the admission committee. Another study revealed almost 75% of surveyed students at Harvard Business School too felt like they were admitted due to some failure of the admission process. How can students from the most elite of schools, having cleared the hardest of hurdles with hard work and talent to gain admission, doubt they deserve to be there?
A lot of people are gripped by the fear that they have no right or capability to do the work they have been called to do- this widespread epidemic is the Impostor Syndrome.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
The term ‘Impostor Syndrome’ was coined In 1978 by two social psychologists at Georgia State University to define the feelings of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”
The term refers to the feelings of inadequacy preventing individuals from taking ownership of their accomplishments, despite ample evidence of their success or competence. Those suffering from it, experience chronic self doubt and feel like impostors in their role; fearing discovery and being called out, and attributing accomplishments to external factors such as luck, and other people’s contribution or sympathy. This very real and specific form of self doubt is accompanied by anxiety, and in more severe cases, depression.
Initially, the syndrome was assumed to be unique to women, but a variety of research has revealed that it is quite widespread- an estimated 70% of people from all walks of life, both men and women experience the impostor syndrome at some point in their careers. There are a variety of causes for this syndrome, such as societal pressure to achieve and growing up with parents that provide feedback with mixed extremes- high praise and over-criticism.
The impostor phenomenon is especially common amongst those embarking on a new phase or endeavor, so it is no surprise that graduate students are quite susceptible.
Graduate students are at an in-between stage of professional development, and feel inadequately prepared to function in capacities they are called upon to handle. Many young students keep waiting for innate ‘adult’ confidence to come with time- only to find it elusive. Therefore, learning about and fighting against impostor syndrome is key to professional success.
Impostor Syndrome – Not For Real Impostors
Most people who believe they are ‘impostors’ are actually high achievers, but their self-image is inconsistent with reality. Impostor victims also work harder than most to overcompensate for their feelings of inadequacy. Paradoxically, true ‘impostors’ – people with low skills, abilities and overall competence- are unlikely to be aware of their own lack of ability due to a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Indeed, they may suffer from an ‘illusory superiority”. As W.B Yeats put it, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
A typical sufferer of Impostor Syndrome is goal and effort-oriented, and committed to doing their very best. In fact, they are likely to be so committed that research has linked impostor syndrome to perfectionism. This commitment to perfectionism ensures that individuals apply unrealistically high standards to themselves, and promptly lose perspective by not applying this standard to others. High achievers also tend to focus more on what they have failed to do, rather than what they have done.
The Negative Cycle of Impostor Syndrome
The so-called ‘impostors’ rarely ask for help, and their commitment to perfectionism typically takes one of two forms. Upon receiving a project, the individual may resort to procrastination and put off working on it for days- fearing that they will not be able to complete it to their own high standards, and wanting to put eventual failure down to mismanagement of time rather than inability to fulfil their own high expectations.
The other response is generally frenzied over-preparation; spending too much time on a task and bending over backwards to complete it.
After these stressful contortions to finish a job perfectly, the impostor phenomenon becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. If the result is success, the individual begins to relate it to self-torture, discounting their own real contribution and this results in even lower self-efficacy. If the success brings promotions and accolades, it triggers another round of impostor feelings! If the result is poor performance, then the negative feedback and outcome serve to confirm the individual’s fears regarding their own capability and competence- and this again in turn impairs work quality. The impostor phenomenon becomes a vicious cycle and strengthens false beliefs.
These self-created fears can sabotage professional success in insidious ways. Those suffering from impostor syndrome may hold back from goals and highest aspirations, and forget feelings are not fact. If the feelings of inadequacy are not given a wide berth, they can foster a reality of mediocrity. The importance of “leaning in” to new challenges is well-known, and it is definitely a daily fight against deep fears and the ever-present critic within.
Actionable Strategies to Banish Impostor Syndrome
At any point where self doubt becomes overwhelming, it may be helpful to take this test to identify the gap between fact and feelings. Rather than waiting for innate confidence to make an appearance, the following strategies can be employed to make a head-start on improving self esteem and efficacy.
- Focus on value, not perfection: Start by attempting to re-define success. Rather than lowering the bar, focus on setting personal expectations of outcomes to a reasonable level. Not every task requires perfection; some just need to be done well enough to provide value. Requesting trusted mentors and peers to define and describe expectations from you regarding a specific task can provide a more objective framework for assessment, and help break out of an imagined set of standards that are set up for failure. Develop and implement rewards for providing value and getting things right. Learn to celebrate small victories rather than unnecessary and elusive perfection.
- Validate skills and expertise: This is perhaps the key to immediate relief and freedom from impostor thoughts. Working or mentoring younger students or juniors can provide an instant measure of the experience and expertise accumulated. Avoid minimizing achievements by using softening words such as “just” and “only” in verbal and written communication. You can even ask someone to review your resume, or use vmock.com, a SMART career platform to analyze your resume and get instant feedback on how you fare in key competencies such as analytics, communication, teamwork and leadership skills and gain an objective perspective.
- Differentiate between time management skills and technical abilities: A lack of time does not equate to incompetence, and over-preparing imposes an extra cost on those who are already suffering. Allocate adequate time for tasks. Rather than spending three days on a second draft, seek feedback regarding a first draft; perhaps it is polished enough to require only an additional day`s work. Especially if something is accomplished easily, we tend to undermine its value- but it may be of high quality, and a product of years of hard work and expertise.
- Re-frame thought processes: Develop an awareness and analysis of your own thinking. Remember, fear and excitement are the same physical reaction as far as the human body is concerned, and the mind can be used to provide a positive interpretation if you frame fear as an opportunity. Remind yourself that it is normal to progress with the flow, and let your adrenalin work for you rather than against you. As well-known life coach Tony Robbins says, “You control the story, and the story is the life you live.”
- Take stock of outcomes: As advised by Rudyard Kipling, learn to treat success and failure the same- both vital to experience. Remember what you do well, and identify areas for potential improvement. If an area is an issue, allow yourself to start with the basics and gradually upskill rather than write yourself off or become insecure at the start. Failure is not the domain of the incompetent, but an important part of the narrative of success.
- Gain perspective and context: Remember that everyone experiences moments and occasions of low confidence and self doubt, and you are far from alone. The way out is to reframe the feeling; “I may feel useless, but that does not mean I am.” Comparisons are often called “the death of joy”, and not without reason. When we are focused on our own hard work and context, it is hard to tune into other’s struggles alongside and believe that everyone may not have it easy as it looks. Take steps to help avoid comparisons, such as limiting social media use where only success and high points are highlighted by everyone.
- Grow into ease and confidence: Rather than focus on the thoughts that make you feel fraudulent, remember that appearing competent in any situation is a valuable skill in any profession. Allow yourself to visualize success and practice being successful without any intentional harm or deceit, and incorporate body language tactics, such as power posing, that will help you feel as credible and capable as you are perceived to be.
Awareness and remedial action early in life can make for a highly productive and successful professional career, where the only impostor to discover and absolve of duties is the ever-present inner critic- fear. Get rid of the self doubt for good, and share information to remind your friends that they are probably more than good enough for their jobs, too.