Impostor syndrome: where perfectionism meets self-doubt

    Introduced by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, the impostor phenomenon, also known as impostor syndrome or fraud syndrome, occurs among high-performing people who, despite the success, have constant self-doubt and fear of being exposed as impostors, often attributing their achievements to luck rather than abilities.

    About 70% of people experience these feelings at some point in their lives, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science (Jaruwan Sakulku, 2011). Alex Naroș, a psychologist, tells me that  “with a culture of consumption and exposure to social media, that really should not be a surprise.” 

    The how

    From a psychological point of view, Alex says that the imposter syndrome is perceived as being an outcome of the need for perfectionism. Striving to be perceived as perfect by society and not receiving any positive recognition back can lead to feelings of self-doubt and inauthenticity. “The urge to fight the inner despair that they might be exposed for who they are or that they are not good enough can lead to a combination of negative feelings and self-deprecating thoughts that indicate impostor syndrome.”

    Ana, a student in her final year, begins telling me about her experience with this syndrome by describing her self-doubt feelings. At first, she started thinking that she did not deserve to be in her professional position. That her peers are certainly better prepared for the work than she is. “Then when I try to think about the decisions that brought me to this point instead of acknowledging my efforts and sleepless nights, my ambition and determination, I start to argue that maybe I was lucky and it was just a series of random events that brought me to this point.”

    Most people have experienced self-doubt at some point in their lives. Some level of uncertainty can be actually beneficial in certain situations. However, Alex tells me, when it comes to impostor syndrome, under stress, they experience a higher level of low self-esteem and self-doubt. Affirmations such as: “I avoid speaking up in meetings because I don’t want to sound ignorant” or “I’m worried my colleagues are going to realize I’m not as smart as I pretend to be”, as well as “I feel like things are always happening to me rather than because of me” are clear affidavits of the impostor syndrome.

    Raisa, on the other hand, tells me she experiences this fraud syndrome in relationships rather than in professional settings.  “Especially with people close to me. I do not accept and do not trust compliments. Whenever someone compliments me, I tend to change the subject. I don’t feel comfortable.”

    Photo by Eleanor Jane from Pexels

    THE why

    On how and why this syndrome takes roots, Alex highlights perfectionism and low-self esteem to be factors. But also, “for instance, impostor syndrome is not perceived as an official anxiety disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Rather, it is recognized as a repercussion of neuroticism, assuming to be a reaction to the tendency of possessing anxious and negative emotions. Taking the term neuroticism, one can define it as a tendency toward negativity and emotional discontents, such as anxiety and guilt. Therefore, the individuals who score higher on the neurotic spectrum may be more susceptible to impostor syndrome.”

    In an article written for The School of Life, the notion of this syndrome having its roots in childhood is tossed about. Children’s habit of believing that their parents are really very different from them can be a factor as well. The article talks about how in childhood a basic feature of the human condition appears, namely the fact that we know each other from the inside, and the others only from the outside. Many times we are left with the impression that we are the only ones that go through stages of doubt about our intelligence. All we know about others is what little we see or they tell us.

    Raisa couldn’t put her finger on it and say “aha, this is where it all started .” She can only assume that it has its beginnings in her childhood. “I noticed the tendency towards perfection and the constant fear of failure. That “I’m sure I didn’t do something right …”, “I’m not good enough for …”, “I don’t deserve to …”. 

    Raisa tells me she accuses herself and punishes herself severely whenever something doesn’t work out the way she wanted, “and I almost never congratulate myself for success. I sometimes feel attacked when someone criticises me, even if it is constructive or well-intentioned.”

    For Ana, she started to experience this syndrome in her first year of college, when she realized that some of her peers were better prepared than her, or at least it seemed so. She kept thinking that she probably had to learn more to get to their level but after some time she saw that it was in fact an unfounded fear. “I still remember hearing the names of prestigious high schools from Cluj or Bucharest, where my colleagues came from, or how they told me that they had been preparing for years for the admission. These things made me think that it was luck that got me into College even if that wasn’t the case.”

    Another time Ana really felt like an impostor was when she got an internship in her last year of college. After a few moments of happiness and pride that she succeeded, the feelings of worry about how other people could do her job better surfaced. “I always reach the same point where I minimize my efforts and repeat the same simple sentence: ‘I was lucky.’ It’s strange that I do not tell myself that I’m not lucky in unpleasant or failing situations, however, when it comes to merits, it is harder for me to attribute the results to myself.” 

    The self-doubt

    The Imposter syndrome also known as “intellectual self-doubt” is the constant feeling of deficiency and inefficiency that high-achieving individuals experience throughout their life even when there is a clear indication of achievement. The persistent anxiety of not being good enough is followed by self-doubt and the fear of being discovered and perceived as a hoax.

    “What I noticed in my college years and experience in the field where I now work is that there is a lot of information about absolutely anything,” Ana tells me. So often only after you start studying a field do you realize how much more you have to learn or that you will never be able to know everything. “It’s that fear that no matter how much effort you put in, you won’t know enough.”

    For Raisa, the imposter’s syndrome is an act of self-sabotage at the highest level. “I demand superpowers from me. Sometimes I forget that I am human, that I have limits. I ask for the impossible and then I punish myself for not realizing it.”

    the perfectionism

    Impostor syndrome manifests in various people for different reasons. Alex tells me that many recent studies have shown that impostor syndrome affects mainly high achievers regardless of gender or ethnicity. Then again, people with the impostor syndrome are considered to have higher levels of intelligence, yet their inability to believe in their own capabilities and skills can have a negative effect on their career progression.

    “I think a balance would be ideal. No extreme is okay, from my point of view,” Raisa argues. “But, I think that when the stakes are high, the line between feeling worthy of praise and starting to ask too much from yourself can end up in a situation like burnout.”

    Ana tells me that even though the feeling can be accepted and understood, she considers that it remains present all the time. “At high levels of success you will meet people who have already been there for several years or people who come after you and it will take them less time than you to succeed. You will always be surrounded by people who are better than you and this must be accepted and used wisely.”

    Alex tells me that the more a person experiences success in their professional life, the more the symptoms of the imposter syndrome will become more uncontrollable without the proper and professional help. 

    It is important to think about the effects of this syndrome and try to remediate them as quickly as we can. A well-deserved success is often not celebrated because those who suffer from this syndrome expect at any time that someone will see the truth about them, namely that they are impostors and not worthy of any praise.