Imposter Syndrome – or the Imposter Phenomenon – is a feeling of intellectual self-doubt where people fear exposure as a “fraud”. In the face of (often overwhelming) objective proof of competence or excellence, individuals with imposter syndrome still don’t feel deserving of praise or accolades.
Although first described in high achieving women, subsequent research has noted Imposter Syndrome cropping up in both sexes and across many professions and cultures. Current estimates of the prevalence of imposter phenomenon are extremely high. One research review estimated that 70% (!) of people will experience a form of imposter syndrome at some point in life.
Imposter Syndrome refers both to the feelings of doubt that a position, role, or responsibility is ‘deserved’, as well as a darker thought – that crusading peers or other circumstances will reveal one as a fraud.
Theorized to stem from a failure to internalize successes as well as the inability to recognize weaknesses in others, this doubt often leads to various ill effects. Chief among those effects: general distress, anxiety, and even depression. These negative feelings are often related to this fear of “being found out” or “unmasked“.
The Imposter Phenomenon: Is It Society Wide?
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
– William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
Imposter Syndrome is universal, and isn’t only a phenomenon for high-achievers. It’s particularly prevalent during changes in responsibility – the first year of a new job, graduation, childbirth, or major life changes. When preparation becomes opportunity, imposter syndrome is lurking right behind the corner. Studies have noted that imposter syndrome is more prevalent with youth, and tends to decrease with experience – as results pile up and overwhelm lingering doubts.
The most obvious culturally wide phenomenon – at least in North America – is the ridiculous meme around ‘adulting‘. As the Millennial Generation transitions from college and home into nuclear families and the workforce, a (sometimes) lighthearted cultural joke about not being ready to ‘adult’ has taken root. The Millennial Generation is well prepared for adulthood. The ‘adulting’ humor covers up for feelings of inadequacy in taking the plunge.
But they are ready… and make no mistake, Millennials will be dragged into adulthood. More than likely, they’ll (we’ll, in fact) do just fine… laments about life experience and physical labor aside. The Dunning-Kruger Effect ties nicely into this discussion of imposter syndrome – paradoxically, being less prepared would make this transition easier!
My Own Experiences With Imposter Syndrome
“[M]odest doubt is call’d
The beacon of the wise”
– William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
This subject hits close to home for me, and I suspect many of you readers as well. I’ve experienced Imposter Syndrome often – during career moves and new projects at work, but even here on the blog and on my side engineering projects.
Even with DQYDJ’s objective success – hundreds of thousands of monthly readers and thousands of subscribers – I still feel doubt my 952nd post will receive views. And as for those side projects… I continuously open myself up to the same old doubts. I try to pick projects that are just outside of my current ability. That means I’m courting Imposter Syndrome every time I pick up the basics needed for a new-to-me technology.
My symptoms are probably close to the classic presentation. I’ve experienced the high feelings of egotism and the low feelings of fraud. I’ve experienced plenty of anxiety doing new things I’m eminently qualified to do. I have even experienced the ex post facto rationalizations that my achievements were luck, persuasion, charisma, or sleight of hand.
I didn’t even really recognize the universality of the phenomenon until I saw other engineers and technical folks talking about it. Patrick McKenzie, who I had the pleasure of meeting this year, has tweeted and written on it quite a bit. Gayle Laakmann McDowell has an excellent post on Quora that resonated with me. Brennan Dunn has a nice video as well.
However, my best strategy is to ignore the voice and keep plugging away. Every article I write, day that I work, or project I complete really does quiet the feelings some.
N=1, but my experience mirrors the studies. The years and the achievements do start to outweigh the fear of unmasking. Hopefully that anecdata helps your own struggles!
Could a Little Imposter Syndrome Be a Good Thing?
“The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
– Bertrand Russell
Psychology recognizes that not all stress is created equal. There is a concept of distress versus eustress – some stress is motivating or helps you in the long run. For a physical example, compare dropping a heavy weight on an untrained individual (distress!) versus the pain after a quality workout (eustress!).
And so it goes, even for Imposter Syndrome!
If you feel like a fraud, perhaps that means you will work a little bit harder. Maybe you push a little bit more, maybe you study a few more chapters. The fear of exposure is a convenient motivator – a little eustress just might help you in your career or other undertakings.
In fact, self-deprecation might be a social strategy we play without even knowing it. The concept of countersignaling explicitly exploits this – individuals who are above reproach in some trait might play ‘humble’ or ‘dumb’ or ‘cheap’. Careful listeners will pick up on those cues – quiet confidence beats braggadocio in many settings.
Whatever the cause, imposter syndrome isn’t going away – and for high achievers (which you almost certainly are, dear reader) it’s likely even more prevalent. Embrace the voice and let it motivate you, but don’t let it get you down. You do belong and you do deserve this – and yes, everyone else is experiencing the same doubts as you.
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? Do you have any tricks to deal with it or wisdom to share?