Have you ever felt that your success is not because of you? Even after writing best sellers and winning a number of prestigious awards, world famous poet Maya Angelou could not shake off the nagging thoughts that she did not really earn those accomplishments. Albert Einstein had similar thoughts and feelings towards his achievements to the point of even referring to himself as an “Involuntary swindler”. 

The feeling of not belonging, the fear that your friends and colleagues are going to discover that you are a fraud, and downplaying your achievements is a common sight for all of us. In fact, an estimated 70% of people experience such feelings, which are referred to as the imposter syndrome, imposter experience, and imposter phenomenon. Imposter syndrome is the idea that you have only succeeded due to luck and not because of your talent or qualification. Imposter syndrome should not be mistaken for humbleness, it is not a disease or an abnormality and it is not necessarily tied to depression or anxiety. It is for this reason that from now onwards I will be referring to these feelings as a phenomenon instead of a syndrome. 

This phenomenon was first discovered by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Owing to the fact that most of their initial study subjects were women, they theorized that women were uniquely affected by the imposter phenomenon. However, research has shown that both men and women experience imposter phenomenon.

Valarie Young who is an expert in imposter phenomenon, who also is the author of a book on the subject, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, has also found patterns in people who experience impostor feelings and the include:

•“Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.

•“Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or trainings to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.

•When the “natural genius” has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.

•“Soloists” feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.

•“Supermen” or “superwomen” push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.

Meet Munandalu Monze; B A Psychology, Rusangu University.

One would wonder why we experience imposter phenomenon. Let me honest, there is no single reason to such an occurrence. Some experts attribute it to personality traits such as neuroticism while others focus on family or behavioral causes. Sometimes childhood memories, such as feeling that your grades were never enough for your parents or that your siblings outshone you in certain areas. Many of us hubber the idea that for us to be loved or lovable we need to achieve. This brings us to factors outside of a person such as the environment or institutional discrimination as external causes of imposter phenomenon.

Many of you are now wondering if you have this phenomenon. Well, lets consider some telltale signs of an imposter.

  1. If I can do it, anyone can; People with Impostor Syndrome think they’re nothing special. Whatever they’ve achieved, others can too.
  2. They lucked out; Those who believe themselves to be impostors often attribute their accomplishments to luck.
  3. I am a fake and I am going to be found out; People with Impostor Syndrome believe they don’t deserve success.
  4. I had a lot of help; Impostors aren’t able to internalize their wins and find themselves deeply uncomfortable with praise and tend to attribute their success to others.
  5. Failure is not an option; There can be a huge amount of internal pressure on impostors to avoid failure so they won’t be exposed as a fake.
  6. “I kind of think”; Impostors use a lot of minimizing language because they don’t feel fully confident.

The list above is not exhaustive yet if you find some of the telltale signs applying to you, consider seeking further help and clarity from a professional psychologist or therapist. 

Having a sense of self-doubt can help a person assess their achievements and ability, but too much self-doubt can adversely impact a person’s self-image and can affect a number of other areas in ones life. The next time we interact through this platform, we will consider how imposter phenomenon affects our lives and what we can do to treat it. Happy Wednesday y’all.


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