Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

May 28, 2021 by

KEY POINTS

  • Some people report deep feelings of uncertainty about whether a mistake, luck, or favoritism accounts for their success.
  • Seventy percent of people, during their lifetime, report feeling some degree of imposter syndrome.
  • Imposter syndrome promotes chronic self-doubt, fear, and shame, making it hard to enjoy any success or sense of fulfillment.

Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes were the first to discuss impostor syndrome, in 1978. Their research described high-achieving female students and professionals who doubted their capabilities and ability to sustain any level of success. These students admitted their concerns and misgivings, specifically that they would be discovered as phonies, particularly during:

  • Exams
  • Having to speak in meetings
  • Being asked in a group to express an articulate, insightful opinion on a specific topic

Clance and Imes conducted 150 interviews. Their cohort was made up of highly successful women (students and professionals). They examined standardized tests and found that despite clear evidence of achievement like degrees, accolades, and academic honors, all suffered from an internal experience of profound fear of being an imposter. An internal fear of phoniness caused them profound insecurity.

No matter their achievements, all reported deep feelings of uncertainty about whether a mistake, luck, or favoritism accounted for their success. They also reported overwhelming fear that everything was on the brink of falling apart.

I recommend that you read Jessamy Hibberd’s book, The Imposter Cure. She examines the foundation of feeling unworthy of success and attributing it to luck. And she writes about women who live in fear that their shortcomings will be exposed, making it impossible to accept their accomplishments.

Who is imposter syndrome likely to affect?

Original research suggested that imposter syndrome was restricted to a limited cohort of high achieving women. But discussions with other mental health professionals caused Clance and Imes to recognize that approximately 70% of people, during their lifetime, have felt a degree of imposter syndrome. This makes it a very relatable experience.

Imposter syndrome profoundly harms an individual. It basically takes them “out of the game,” depriving them of feeling legitimate in seeking support and treatment. It respects no age or socioeconomic or cultural group.

Is imposter syndrome just part of the human condition?

Could these feelings really just be a stage in life as we develop confidence in ourselves based on facing challenges, falling, and bruising our knees? Is figuring out how to get back up and get back in the game actually part of growing up and facing the fact that you are not perfect? If this is the case, even if you have fleeting moments of brilliance, you are not defined by it, nor are you obliged to continue at this level.

The imposter syndrome spectrum

The imposter syndrome spectrum ranges from occasional worry that you’re not up to the task to persistent and unrelenting fear of being found out.

It also promotes chronic self-doubt, fear, and shame, making it hard to enjoy any success or sense of fulfillment. Feelings that you are just passing are incredibly stressful.

Imposter syndrome can also affect people at different stages in their life and can increase or decrease in severity depending on what else is happening.

Maybe it just occurs in one area of your life, and only in specific situations—if you're lucky. Maybe it only happens when you're attempting to learn or perform a new activity—again, if you're lucky.

Maybe you’ve been pushing yourself to be perfect for so long that you can no longer fathom sustaining it.

In the cases that I have encountered in my hoarding practice, it has always occurred in individuals who grew up with a background of significant insecurity. When my clients and I discovered it, we drilled down, focusing on procrastination and their fear of success, fear of failure, or fear of being controlled.

In earlier posts (here and here) I discussed procrastination in more depth. You can also refer to the book Procrastination: Why You Do It, and What to Do About It Now, written by Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen. In a discussion with Burka for my radio show on Voice America, we talked in-depth about how procrastination actually protects you from something that, for you, is even worse and scarier than having the label “procrastinator."

Perfectionism, procrastination, and imposter syndrome are all ways to deny yourself the full entitlement of what you have worked for.


References

Hibberd, Jessamy Hibberd. 2019. The Imposter Cure: How to stop feeling like a fraud and escape the mind-trap of imposter syndrome. Aster Publications.

Jane B. Burka. and Lenora M. Yuen. 2008. Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do about It Now. 25th anniversary ed., Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.


About the Authors

Elaine Birchall, MSW, RSW, is a registered Social Worker and a hoarding behavior and intervention specialist. She is the director of Birchall Consulting, which is dedicated to helping those with hoarding behaviors learn to manage their possessions and vulnerabilities. She founded the Canadian National Hoarding Coalition and hosted the weekly Voice America radio show "Take Back Your Life When Things are Taking Over.” Birchall provides training, consultation, and counseling to people and organizations internationally, and her work has been featured widely in media outlets in the U.S. and Canada. She hosted a six-part series with Canadian regional TV, Channel 22, and hosted an in-depth Voice America show on Hoarding.

Suzanne Cronkwright, a technical writer, editor, and documentation and courseware consultant with over 36 years’ experience, earned her honors bachelor’s degree in psychology and English from Wilfrid Laurier University.