What is imposter syndrome?
Have you ever found yourself wondering how you got to your current position in work or how you ended up with such a great family? Have you ever thought that if people knew the “real” you, they wouldn’t like you? Have you ever found yourself worrying about being “found out” even though you’re not being deceitful?
If so, you might have a common mental health issue called imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is when a person doubts their abilities, feels like a fraud, and believes their accomplishments are due to luck rather than their own skill, says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist.
Although it’s not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the gold standard for diagnosable psychiatric conditions, experts do recognise it as a deep-seated insecurity that can have a big impact not only on a person’s career but also their personal life and relationships.
They may fear they are unworthy of good things and may worry constantly about being “found out” or unmasked and then losing it all, says A.J. Marsden, PhD, an assistant professor of human services and psychology.
All of this fear can lead to long-term conditions, like depression and anxiety.
The anxiety that comes with imposter syndrome can cause a person to overcompensate or develop obsessive-compulsive behaviours.
Chronic anxiety takes a real toll on physical health as well.
There’s a chance you’re thinking, “Hey, that sounds like me.” Imposter syndrome happens to the best of us.
“It is not uncommon to occasionally experience moments of imposter syndrome,” says Marsden. “In fact, about 70 percent of people experience it at some point in their lives.”
Sometimes these feelings are triggered by an overly critical boss or loved one, but imposter syndrome can also happen on its own in people who are already unsure of themselves.
Your own worst enemy
At its core, imposter syndrome is a form of self-sabotage, says Christine B. L. Adams, MD, psychiatrist and author of Living on Automatic.
It can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: believing you don’t deserve what you have can make you worry excessively about losing it, which in turn can make it harder to function and to achieve your goals.
For instance, people with this syndrome may reject a promising job promotion or turn down a date with a potential love because they think they won’t be good enough.
It’s a sneaky syndrome and can start out with subtle self-doubts that then spiral into obsessive thoughts and deeply painful feelings.
It can be hard to spot this condition in yourself, which is why it’s so important to learn about it. That way, you can take steps to check it before you sabotage your own happiness, says Hafeez.
“People need to know about imposter syndrome to be aware of the common signs and be able to develop strategies to manage their feelings and minimise its impact,” she says.
Who is most at risk
Anyone can develop imposter syndrome; however, people with a strong desire to achieve are at the greatest risk, says Hafeez.
Add the pressure of a society that highly values achievements, often equating them with a person’s worth, and you have the perfect recipe for imposter syndrome.
A big factor in whether you are susceptible to this kind of pressure is how you grew up, says Dr Adams.
“Children who were pushed to accomplish but weren’t praised and were taught that accepting praise was wrong often carry those feelings into adulthood, says Dr Adams.
People who belong to groups who experience increased societal pressure, workplace microaggressions, or have ingrained self-doubt are also at a higher risk. This may include people in the LGBTQ community, women, and people of colour.
“Factors such as stereotypes, discrimination and oppression amplify the imposter syndrome phenomenon in these individuals,” says Hafeez.
Anyone going through a big change, like a divorce or career move, is also at risk, as their self-esteem may already feel unstable from those events, Marsden says.