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Impostor Syndrome – Is it holding you back?

Have you ever felt like you weren’t up to a task? Or worse – have you ever been afraid you were going to be found out? We’re going to guess that you have had those worries, simply because impostor syndrome is so common. According to at least one major study, it affects 70% of people, and hits just about every occupation and demographic.

High-profile sufferers include actors Tom Hanks and Jodie Foster (the latter worried about her Oscars being taken back). Facebook’s Sheryl Samberg, author Neil Gaiman and the mighty Albert Einstein are also known sufferers.

We will admit that some of the higher profile cases might be false modesty, but there’s no denying the prevalence of impostor syndrome. A study quoted in Slate.com found the phenomenon in numerous professions and demographics: “including but not limited to teachers, accountants, physicians, physician assistants, nurses, engineering students, dental students, medical students, nursing students, pharmacy students, undergraduate entrepreneurs, high school students, people new to the Internet, African Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Canadians, disturbed adolescents, ‘normal’ adolescents, preadolescents, adult children of high achievers, people with eating disorders, people without eating disorders, people who have recently experienced failure, people who have recently experienced success … and so on.”

The use of “and so on” is quite telling. It suggests that no occupation, background, ethnicity or level of achievement is safe from it.
Some of our students have expressed doubt at their abilities. These same students have then gone on to complete the course and forge a successful new career. Indeed, impostor syndrome is so common that some are debating whether to even call it a syndrome – “phenomenon” is one phrase that’s gaining traction now, and one prominent psychologist prefers to call it “the impostor experience” because it’s so ubiquitous.

Here are some things to remember if you’re one of the many, many people living with from impostor syndrome…

You don’t have access to other people’s thoughts

This is important. One of the causes of impostorism is having access to our own thoughts, but not anybody else’s. So we get to see others carrying out their work, sharing their opinions and going through life, without knowing their inner doubts, anxieties and insecurities.

On the other hand, we have full access to our own thoughts. We know our knowledge gaps, second-guesses we’ve made and mistakes that haven’t been found out yet. No wonder most of us are doubting ourselves. We see only the glossy storefront windows of others. While we have access to our own shopfronts, shop floor, grubby warehouses, messy attics and basements filled with emotional baggage.

Impostor Syndrome has its advantages

On the opposite end of impostorism is the “Dunning-Kruger effect”. This refers to a study carried out by David Dunning and Justin Kruger that found that incompetent people don’t know that they’re incompetent. People who performed the worst in Dunning and Kruger’s tests were also the worst at assessing their own abilities.

So if you worry about your ability, it means that you might be a conscientious worker, that you’re aware of what needs to be done to improve and that you know enough about a subject to want to learn more.
Modesty and discipline are endearing traits. It’s definitely preferable to underestimate one’s abilities than to overestimate them!

The best approach is to feel the fear and do it anyway

If you feel like a fraud, even after starting or completing a tough task, then why not do it anyway? There’s a good chance that it will help address impostorism (even if it doesn’t cure it fully), and you’ll be reaping the benefits of your new course or career.

Most people who suffer from impostorism learn to live with it and deal with it. And many of them, who are flying high in careers, still admit to living with it. Embrace it, accept it, and don’t let it stop you.

Your anxieties might be real, but your shortcomings probably are not! Have a read of our seven ways to overcome impostor syndrome here