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Not an Imposter ‘Syndrome’

As long as I can remember, I have been the victim of a dubious superstition. I had this belief that if I thought about success, I would jinx it and never succeed. Instead, I constantly needed to think about failure. And this anticipation of failure would increase my chances of success. Now, the more successes I witnessed, the more I started believing in this process. But the darker side of this was that I would be in deep anxiety, and the stress would overwhelm me to such a point where I would no longer be able to concentrate on work which led to missing many opportunities.  Yet it felt like some invisible forces made me forget all these bad experiences and repeat the whole thing. It took me nearly 20 years to identify and label what I was experiencing.  I was the victim of the imposter phenomenon.

This imposter phenomenon, more commonly known as the ‘imposter syndrome’ in recent times, is the brainchild of two women- Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They collaborated to write an academic journal titled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” which was published in 1978. The inspiration for the article came from their own experiences. Clance’s journey to self-doubt began when she was a teenager. After every test, she would think she had surely failed. But every time, to her dismay, she did well and became the first in her family to go to college. Not only did she manage to get into a college, but she also earned her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Kentucky. Still, she always had this itch within her that she had somehow tricked everyone into believing all her achievements were well-deserved. But to her, they were only a product of deception. And no matter how much she accomplished, the feeling never fed away. It was not until Clance met Imes that she realised her feelings of fraudulence were not exclusive. They started interviewing females who were doing moderately well in their respective fields. After conducting interviews for five years, they concluded that the women in their sample were prone to “an internal experience of intellectual phonies.” And due to that, they live in perpetual fear that some significant person will call them out for being “intellectual impostors.”

As a person who has lived most of her life feeling like an imposter, I frequently stumbled upon self-help books or YouTube videos that would advise me to ‘fake it, until I make it.’ Or facing my fear repeatedly will eventually make me more confident. But even after years of faking confidence or achieving success, I still feel like an imposter. Every time I need to express my opinion out loud, I feel like my opinions do not hold enough empirical evidence. It is not until someone else in the room says my thought out loud and, instead of getting backlashes, is praised for his or her contribution, I realise my opinion was completely fine. It was not my intellectual incapabilities that held me back, it was my fear of being found out by others that maybe I am not intelligent enough to belong to the conversation. And I learned it the hard way that success does not immune you from the imposter phenomenon. Rather, the imposter feeling leads you to believe your accomplishments are a mere fluke and you are deceiving your way up the ladder. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am not the only person experiencing this. Many eminent personalities, such as Maya Angelou and Neil Gaiman, have publicly shared their stories of dealing with the imposter phenomenon. Some imposter symptoms also include seeking validation from a mentor or a person of importance. And when the said person does validate their hard work, they start believing that it has been secured by charm or some other appeal. Some even hate themselves for needing validation and conclude that the need itself proves their intellectual phonies.

However, the boom of social media has transformed the phenomenon into a ‘syndrome’ and created a cult of imposters. The rise of the term resulted in many misguided self-diagnoses. Clance felt frustrated by this transformation as she proclaimed that their aim was always to normalise the experience instead of pathologising it. Alternatively, an Australian scholar and critic, Rebecca Harkins Cross, who used to identify as an imposter, now blames imposter syndrome for serving the capitalist culture of striving. She said in an interview in the New Yorker, “Capitalism needs us all to feel like imposters because feeling like an imposter ensures we will strive for endless progress: work harder, make more money, try to be better than our former selves and the people around us.” Even though this statement holds some truth, one cannot disregard the imposter feeling many men and women feel daily. Identifying imposter feelings does not necessarily mean discrediting the forces that produce them. Moreover, associating imposter feeling with a specific gender or generation possess the risk of being insensitive towards someone’s genuine feelings just because they do not fit the mold. However, we mustn’t use the term vaguely or as a blanket term for our self-doubt or insecurities. We need to reclaim it to its former interpretation and refrain from calling it a ‘syndrome.’ Tagging it as a ‘syndrome’ suggests it is an illness that needs medicine to be cured. And even though the idea of a magic capsule that will instantly erase all your doubt and make you confident of your self-worth sounds tempting, it is not how real life operates. However, there are some simple changes we can bring into our lives to make the experience bearable.

Cognitive Therapy

Even though cognitive therapy is not directly used to tackle the imposter feeling, it can be customized to reduce the negative feelings we have created towards ourselves. There are three core principles: (1) all your moods are created by your cognitions or thoughts; (2) when you are feeling depressed, your thoughts are dominated by pervasive negativity; (3) your depression is probably not based on accurate perceptions of reality but is often the product of mental slippage.

You can customise these three principles to demystify your imposter feeling as well. For instance, you feel unworthy because you perceive yourself as such, even though the reality is far from it. When you rationally peruse through the facts, you will slowly realise there is no reason to think of yourself as unworthy or doubt your skills. However, when you are overwhelmed by imposter feelings, it is not always possible to rationally assess the fact. In such circumstances, the next step comes in handy.


Be Your Own Cheerleader!

In a time when you need to quickly control the bubbling self-doubt within you, a small trick can do the work. Imagine someone you love repeating your sentiments. How will you console him/her, what words of encouragement will you tell to assure them of their capabilities? Now, apply those same words of encouragement to yourself.


Build A Growth Mindset

The worst nightmare of any person experiencing the imposter phenomenon is someone calling out their flaws. Their incapabilities are now not just a fragment of their imagination but a reality and now everyone knows what they have known all along. This is how a person experiencing the imposter phenomenon views criticism. The one to blame here is their fixed mindset. A person with a fixed mindset believes their intelligence is limited and no matter what, they cannot increase their cognitive skills. This makes them insecure and prone to self-doubt. In comparison, a person with a growth mindset believes he or she has the opportunity to learn and expand their skills. They view criticism as another challenge to overcome, not a full stop. And the good thing is those who have fixed mindsets can transform into and cultivate a growth mindset.


Positive Affirmation

One rather simple trick to cultivating a growth mindset is repeating daily positive affirmations. Wake up in the morning, look yourself in the mirror, and repeat some positive affirmation that you find to be most reassuring. You can also incorporate positive affirmations in your meditation. However, if you still struggle with transforming into a growth mindset, you can read Dr. Carol S. Dweck’s book, “Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfill Your Potential,” for a step-by-step guide.


Author- Nayeema Nusrat Arora

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