Mind & Body

What is it and can it be a good thing?

Do you ever feel like a fraud or unworthy of your achievements or personal relationships? Three psychologists discuss the nature and origins of imposter syndrome, how to combat it and whether it can actually be a good thing.

I have a confession to make. I shouldn’t be writing this article. I shouldn’t be writing anything, in fact. Being paid to write is a gig reserved for the smartest and most creative people there are, and I’m pretty average on all accounts. If people knew, really knew how mediocre I was, I’d surely lose all my work. Because you see… *whispers* I’m a fraud.

Sound familiar? Take this little monologue, replace the specifics, and you’ll find there’s a load of people telling themselves something similar every day.

This is what it feels like to struggle with imposter syndrome.

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Always second-guessing

As a creative and a generally anxious person, imposter syndrome is something I have dealt with for as long as I can remember. When I got my first job as a writer, I was consumed by the idea that I didn’t belong. I’d convince myself that hushed conversations between managers were about how terrible my work was, and I always second-guessed praise. It was a pretty sucky experience.

While I’ve made a lot of progress since then, I still remain a perfectionist to a fault, and nasty self-talk does sometimes creep in (that little jerk). It’s something, I assume, I’ll be working on for a while to come.

Recently, however, I was asked an interesting question on this topic. “Can your imposter syndrome be a positive thing?”

Initially, I raised an eyebrow at the concept, but after some reflection, I saw the value in this approach to the term. Is there a level at which your experience of imposter syndrome pushes you to prove you belong at the table, but doesn’t make you question whether you deserve to be there?

I thought I’d find out.

Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno; clinical psychologist and founder of Pola Psychology, Nasalifya Namwinga and Mary Hoang, author of Darkness is Golden, and founder and head psychologist of The Indigo Project, offered some insight.

The fear of being outed as a fraud

To start, I wanted to understand what imposter syndrome is and who it tends to impact. One word appeared in each of the descriptions given by these industry experts. That word is: fraud.

“Imposter syndrome is a condition where you may be plagued with thoughts that cause you to doubt your skills and level of aptitude,” Hoang explained. This kind of thinking, she shared, can drive you to “distrust or minimise your accomplishments and constantly fear that you’re going to be outed as a phoney or a fraud”.

Your opinions of yourself in this setting “can fly directly in the face of hard evidence,” she continued.

Inexclusive of gender

In fact, some of the most accomplished people on the planet have dealt with this nasty complex. According to Sokarno, “David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Tom Hanks, Tina Fey, [and] Maya Angelou,” all experienced imposter syndrome at some point.

“It has been estimated that nearly 70 per cent of people will experience signs and symptoms of impostor related feelings at least once in their life,” Hoang added.

And although this condition does tend to be associated with women, Namwinga stressed that “it is by no means exclusive to one gender or another”.

What research does point to, is that this destructive tendency often turns up in professional and academic settings. Interestingly, Hoang highlighted that imposter syndrome also presents itself “in new, unfamiliar environments or even in platonic or romantic relationships”.

Origins of imposter syndrome

Where does it come from, you ask?

Well, there are a few possibilities. Sokarno shared that, “Some experts theorise that imposter related feelings can stem from personality traits, behavioural causes, or memories”. She explained that something like a harsh report card, or comparisons “to a high achieving sibling” could have this kind of result.

All of that sounds pretty damn bad. But is there a setting in which imposter syndrome could be seen as a good thing?

Sort of.

“A powerful motivator”

The truth here is that there can be positive outcomes for those who use the drive to do better as a source of motivation. But at its core, imposter syndrome is based on a thinking pattern that tells you you’re not good enough. That is not a healthy place to work from.

“If you are charged to act in spite of your imposter syndrome, or even to prove it wrong, then it might serve as a powerful motivator,” Hoang explained.

“As opposed to resting on your laurels, you could be inspired to keep learning, challenging yourself and improving. But these behaviours are generally more useful – and more fulfilling – when they come from a place of confidence or curiosity, versus a place of fear and anxiety…”

“…Fear-driven cognitions are more likely to lead to procrastination, freeze and overwhelm and burnout,” she said.

Namwinga added that there is a temptation to “glamourise” imposter syndrome when we “view it as a tool that helps us achieve things”. “There is no level of achievement that will solve the problem,” she stressed.

“It is quite often a debilitating condition and [it] sours the achievements that you worked so hard to accomplish.”

Remember to be kind to yourself

So, the next time your mind begins to tell you cruel untruths about your ability or worth, stop and give yourself a confidence boost. “Remind yourself of everything you’ve achieved,” Sokarno said. Try to move forward from a place of kindness.

After all, if criticism and compassion are both driving forces, why shouldn’t we do ourselves the service of selecting the road that’s filled with encouragement and self-love?

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