There aren’t many people – successful or otherwise – who aren’t plagued by the overwhelming feeling they’re really not as good as others suspect they might be. Known to us all as ‘impostor syndrome’, at its core, it’s a feeling that amounts to having a deluge of self-doubt in one’s own ability, even if tangible successes could easily prove otherwise.
“Those struggling with imposter syndrome also tend to attribute success to luck rather than merit and hard work, and also generally tend to minimise success,” explains Joseph Cilona, a New York-based psychologist.
Take the globally lauded Maya Angelou as an example. “I have written 11 books,” she once said, “but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find [me] out now.’” If this award-winning writer feels a fraud, where does that leave the rest of us?
Actually, it leaves us in one of five categories, according to Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. As Valerie sees it, those of us who feel as though we’re muddling through and are about to be uncovered as dumb dunces dressed in over-achiever’s clothing fit into five distinct categories of ‘impostors’: the expert, the superhero, the perfectionist, the individualist or the genius. Based on the work of psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, and Suzanne Imes, PhD, Valerie theorises that negative self-talk and feelings of inadequacy can signal five deeper types of impostor syndrome.
This ‘impostor’ feels distinctly as though they’re underqualified when it comes to knowledge. They’re constantly seeking out places to learn new skills, talking themselves out of applying for new roles because they feel they’re not experienced enough or even when in a place of experience, still feel as though there’s something more to learn. While taking on new knowledge is never a bad thing, this type of ‘impostor’ uses their perceived lack of knowledge as a procrastination tool. Not a great way to look at things, is it?
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Superhero ‘impostors’ feel undeserving, and do everything in their power to topple that theory.
“Making my deal with HBO as a 23-year-old woman, I felt that I had so much to prove,” Lena Dunham explains. “I felt like I had to be the person who answered emails the fastest, stayed up the latest, worked the hardest.”
There’s a tendency to seek validation for your achievements by working overly, unnecessarily hard when really, you should be trying to listen more closely to your own internal endorsements of talent.
Consistently feeling as though they could’ve done better is the mantra for this ‘impostor’. Setting excessively high standards is quite the catch 22 – if they’re not achieved, it confirms their fears of not being good enough, if they are, there’s always a sense they didn’t set the bar high enough. It’s important to remember there’s a lot of value in making mistakes, especially as they’re the major catalyst for deep learning.
These ‘impostors’ are seriously independent and feel as though any task that’s had a helping hand isn’t really achieved at all. Valerie urges that recognising the difference between thinking that you’re incompetent and actually being incompetent is pretty clear if you’re willing to look for it. Asking for help is not a sign of failure, in fact, it’s more the opposite – that you’re willing to learn and take constructive feedback that will help you progress in future.
This ‘impostor’ embraces the idea that if something must be worked hard at, it’s something they think they’re not good at. You might have a stellar track record in your previous job but have a few things to learn at your new one and a sense of shame about that follows you around like a permanently full inbox. Don’t forget that you can’t be great at everything – you’re only human. And speaking of human, your colleagues are human too, and it’s a fact they’re not great at everything either – always take comfort in that fact.