Dossier: Strong mind

Imposter syndrome: am I an imposter?

People suffering from imposter syndrome are convinced that their success has been a stroke of luck and completely by chance. They live in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud – sometimes with far-reaching consequences. Read on to find out how to recognise this phenomenon and what you can do about it.

Text: Michelle de Oliveira; photo: iStock

Success after success, your supervisors and peers are full of praise, excellent customer feedback – you are clearly going places. And yet you feel like you are not capable of doing your job and everyone will soon realise that you were bluffing the whole time. You feel like people completely overestimate your abilities; it was merely luck and good timing.

Everyone suffers from self-doubt from time to time. However if there is a clear discrepancy between the objective success and your own perception of your competence, specialists refer to this as imposter syndrome. This term can, however, cause confusion. “It is actually a personality trait rather than an illness,” says Sonja Rohrmann, Professor of Differential Psychology and Psychological Diagnostics at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main and author of a book on this topic.

The term impostor phenomenon was coined in the 1970s by the pyschologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. This gnawing self-doubt is actually quite common: “It’s thought that around half of all successful individuals are affected by it,” says Rohrmann. Both men and women are affected in equal measure, and in particular people who do not objectively have a reason to be so full of self doubt. The problem is, this lack of self-esteem don’t stop even if you are successful. 

The strategies of those affected

Those affected often develop one of two strategies: They either lose themselves in perfectionism and their work, working excessively to avoid failure, or they begin to postpone jobs till the last minute – in order to give themselves the opportunity to use the excuse of not having had enough time if they fail. In the end, both strategies result in the same conclusion: “I managed it this time, but next time I will fall flat on my face.”

And there is no growing confidence that it will work next time and that success really does have something to do with your own talent. It’s a perpetual vicious circle. And a workaholic is at risk of over exerting themselves and losing sleep and quite often neglecting their relationship, family and friends. 

Causes of impostor syndrome

There are many different triggers for impostor syndrome, including specific personality traits. Someone with low self-esteem or striving for perfection is much more likely to feel like a fraud.

Family dynamics and your upbringing can also play an important role: Someone who receives particular praise for a good performance may begin to think that they are only loved due to their success and not because of who they are. Or a sibling is attributed the role of the ‘intelligent one’, whereas the subsequent ‘imposter’ is known as the ‘attractive one’, the ‘sensitive one’ or the ‘sociable one’.

“People suffering from imposter syndrome often view their capabilities as atypical compared to the rest of their family”, says Sonja Rohrmann. “For example, if nobody in the family has studied at university, and they decide to, they may find themselves doubting their own abilities.”

Thoughts such as: “I don’t deserve my success, I’ll fall at the next hurdle, everyone else is better than me and I can’t accept the praise of others”, could quite likely indicate imposter syndrome.

How to approach imposter syndrome

And then? “The most effective form of therapy is to recognise that you have a problem,” says Sonja Rohrmann. “For many of those affected this recognition is enough to encourage them to help themselves.”

It may help to put your successes and progress on paper. This means they will stick in your mind and can be evaluated more objectively. What’s more, you should still strive to tackle challenges head on and to speak to your friends and family, as well as your work colleagues about it. In doing so you can establish a realistic self-image. And, even more good news: The symptoms of impostor syndrome often tend to diminish with age and continuing success.

Anyone whose everyday life is severely affected and suffers greatly from the fear of failure and inferiority which could lead to depression or burnout, should consider consulting a psychologist. Over time, they can help to instil a feeling of self-worth independent of the evaluation of other and proportionate to objective success.