P S Y C H O L O G Y
“Imagine walking up an escalator nobody knows is going down — that’s imposter syndrome for you. Feeling stuck in the same place over and over again, your feet only raising to give an illusion of going up.”
The civil rights activist, author, poet, and Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou admitted that at times, she often felt like a fraud. She once shared, “I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now.’ I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
Albert Einstein himself described himself as an “involuntary swindler”. Although the level of success Einstein or Angelou have obtained in their lives is rare, their feelings of self-suspicion are prevalent in many of us. Those affected cannot get rid of the nagging doubt that all that they have done or accomplished are actually worthy of others’ attention.
I, myself, in the process of writing this article, have stopped a countless number of times, taken aback by a rush of thoughts in my head telling me that someone else would have articulated this topic in a much more intricate way than I ever could. And while that is not necessarily false, it hinders my personal process of outputting; as I am constantly doubting the credence of my self-worth. What holds us back from being more confident at our workplaces is the sense that we are fundamentally less competent than those we work with. And therefore, needlessly, Imposter Syndrome affects our ability to outperform, and achieve.
The term “Imposter Phenomenon” was initially coined by Dr Pauline Rose Clance, who in her work as a therapist, recognised a repeated pattern of self-doubt amongst her patients, most of which were women. Many of them admitted to having felt that they didn’t deserve the high scores they achieved, and oftentimes felt unworthy of being admitted to the universities they studied at.
Dr Clance could trace this unique feeling back to when she herself was a grad student, “I would take an important examination and be very afraid that I had failed. I remembered all I did not know rather than what I did.”
Along with colleague Suzanne Imes, Clance further studied Imposterism and developed the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS), which is an unofficial test to see how much one compares themself to other people. Eventually, the phenomenon adopted the appellation “Imposter Syndrome”, although it has a number of terms, such as Charlatan Syndrome, Imposterism, Fraud syndrome, and Imposter Experience.
How does the Imposter Syndrome manifest in oneself?
Although the word “syndrome” augments the gravity of the phenomenon, it remains incredibly universal, especially in women, minority cultures, races, and religions. It is neither an abnormality or disease, nor is it necessarily tied to depression, anxiety or self-esteem. And, although Imposterism is not officially recognised by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), it is no less an encumbrance to sufferer’s ability to perform and show their skills. The birthplace of imposterism is at the moment in time we begin to compare our accomplishments with the accomplishments of others. Without knowing what trouble and toil the outwardly expressive person experiences, we make the false assumption that they do not go through the same procedure of pain, failure and hardship as we do.
In a very simple way to put it, we observe our bloopers’ reel — the amount of time spent writing and rewriting that essay that won 3rd place; the tears we shed over that one verse from that song we couldn’t play correctly on the violin; the number of times we tipped our balance whilst trying to ride a bicycle. Yet what we see in others is only the result of their diligence, or as a metaphor to the former, the “highlights reel”. Sufferers, who are highly skilled, often believe that others, underneath their level of competence, are just as skilled. This spirals into the belief that they don’t deserve the accolades or opportunities they come across, and are less likely to share new ideas, inventions, and discoveries with their peers.
Students, especially products of Gifted Kid Burnout, are most often the victims of this phenomenon of fraudulence as they continuously face challenges and tests which exist to serve as the metric measurement of competence. Theirs are childhoods where, upon starting the first stages of institutional learning, they have been considered by one or more of their parents as profoundly exceptional. They are grandly declared to be talented, intelligent, and uncommonly gifted. The ordinary sorrows and stumblings of an average person are not to be found, or expressed in emotion by the golden child. This grandiose form of adulation that the child receives exerts an outward image of self-confidence and security. However, to place such high expectations on someone who still struggles with seventh-grade math, is to create a hidden yet vicious bubble of insecurity.
Children of the Gifted/Golden Child Syndrome tend to always be overworking, outperforming, and over-achieving — all of which is a result of the anxiety and insecurity they have no outlet for. Most of them suffer from Imposter Syndrome and feel like they must overwork themselves to meet the expectations their parents have declared they have. They tend to take on more projects and assignments than they can handle, which leads to burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress and it occurs when one is unable to meet constant demands in work, school or social life. Gifted children are often a victim to this, and combined with imposterism, it can become a deadly encumbrance to their mental health and healthy living.
One of the most surefire ways to mitigate the negative feelings that come from any mental disturbance is to talk about it. And, the same goes for Imposter Syndrome. The mere acknowledgement of the fact that people other than yourself suffer from the same feelings of ‘not belonging’ reduces the effect it has on our mental health. Discussing our feelings with peers who may or may not experience the same feelings is the first step to combat the syndrome. The next step is to take a giant leap of faith in ourselves and establish a sense of belonging. A very popular mechanism of tackling imposter syndrome is to tell yourself: if you are aware enough to doubt the quality of our work, you might as well be good enough anyway.
Failure doesn’t make us frauds. When we berate our accomplishments, it means we are attributing our skills and successes to luck. Looking back and reflecting on the hours of mental or physical investment we have put into our work, can help mitigate the illusion of idle success along with positive discussions with understanding peers. With open conversations about how these experiences are, perhaps, we can feel freer, to be frank about our feelings and find confidence in ourselves, the work we do, and our accomplishments.
Koushin is a certified bruh girl with the emotional capacity of a brick. Rattle on about schools of philosophy or film theory to her at [email protected]