“You’re only as good as your last gig, your last game or your last piece of work.”
This phrase rings true for many people, as success can sometimes come at a price. When I wrote my article about toxic relationships, I did not expect it to get the attention it did. Many people reached out to me to say that it helped them a lot, and that is all I could have ever asked for.
When the article gained ‘success’ if you like, I felt a sense of happiness but at the same time, pressure. I felt as though I was lucky that the article garnered such attention and that the bar was raised quite high for my next piece of work. I felt like I would be judged if I did not produce another great piece of writing, and I seriously doubted my ability to do so.
Little did I know that I was in fact going through something that is labelled as ‘imposter syndrome’. To find out more about what this is, I spoke to Mike Wilkins who is a counsellor with the Irish Online Counselling and Psychotherapy Service.
So what exactly is imposter syndrome?
The term was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, and they described it as something that occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalise or accept their success. It can affect someone no matter their social status, background, skill level or degree of expertise.
As Mike and I discussed, imposter syndrome is a phycological pattern in which someone thinks they are a ‘fraud’, and that they will constantly be ‘caught out’. They think they do not deserve their achievements and they constantly doubt their skills, talent and accomplishments. Some may put it down to simply ‘being lucky’ that they are successful or that they ‘tricked’ others into believing they are more competent than they are.
Imposter syndrome can produce feelings of motivation, spurring the person on to over-prepare or to work harder so that people don’t find out they are a fraud. Their beliefs of themselves don’t change, despite a lot of evidence to support why they should be successful or why they deserve to be where they are today. The person piles on the self-pressure and holds themselves accountable to very high standards. This can eventually take a toll on their emotional well-being and their performance.
It’s a conflict between your own self-perception and the way others perceive you
Even if you get praise for your work or your talent, you put it down to timing, or good luck. You don’t believe you earned your success, and you think others will realise the same thing. If anyone recognises your work in a positive way, you put it down to sympathy or them feeling ‘bad’ for you.
And if you make a mistake? Oh boy, here we go. You take on ALL the blame, and this solidifies your beliefs that you lack talent or intelligence.
Imposter syndrome can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and guilt. You can become overwhelmed by your constant efforts to be perfect, and burnout is inevitable.
Where does it come from?
While there are no clear signs as to why or where imposter syndrome comes from, Mike reckons it could be from a few places.
It could be from your childhood: “That could be phycological from your background or from your childhood. Were you encouraged to do things as a child? Were you made to feel good enough to do certain things?”
Or, were you pressured by your parents? Were you compared to your siblings? Were you criticised for making mistakes?
Academic success could also play a part. Did you find secondary school easy, but struggled in university? This could stir feelings of doubt and that you ‘don’t belong’.
Imposter syndrome could also occur due to your personality traits like perfectionistic tendencies. Mike also explained that it can occur in people who have low self-confidence, or low self-esteem.
Taking on new responsibilities can also bring on imposter syndrome. It’s not uncommon to begin a new job, or degree, and feel like you are unworthy of the career or academic opportunity you have earned.
While Mike said it can affect anyone, he did say it primarily affects women: “I can have a guess as to why this is the case, especially in the workplace, as traditionally women would have been seen as being primarily at home or looking after a family. Now obviously that isn’t the case as much, which is good”.
He continued: “However, there are now women in high level jobs who feel that they shouldn’t be doing it, or they’re not good enough, or that they will be found out in a job, even though their qualifications are sufficient in other people’s eyes”.
Are there different types?
Yes there are. There are five to be exact. These include the perfectionist (the name speaks for itself, you strive for perfection in everything you do, and feel really bad if you fail to meet your standards), the natural genius (everything comes easy to you naturally, so when you fail, you find it very difficult to accept), the soloist (you should be able to achieve success on your own, and when you can’t, you feel as though you are the ultimate failure), the expert (you must have the answers to everything, always, so when you don’t or when you come across knowledge you didn’t already know, you feel as though you failed or you’re a fraud), the superhero (you feel you should succeed in every role you have in life so you push yourself to the limit, feeling like a fraud when you can’t reach on everything).
Overcoming imposter syndrome is hard, but not impossible!
Recognising and acknowledging that you are going through it is definitely the first step. The main thing is not to worry, as it is possible to wave goodbye to those feelings of self doubt, and the anxiety that you will be outed as a fraud.
As Mike explained to me, it’s good to talk. Whether it’s with your teacher, your boss, your editor or your family, speak up and ask them if they think you are good at what you do, if you deserve to be there, and if your feelings are valid. More often than not, they will disagree with your beliefs of yourself. It’s very important however, as Mike said, to discuss your feelings with someone you trust.
It’s also important to recognise that you deserve to be where you are. Mike said he doesn’t believe in luck, but he believes in “fate” and that “everything happens for a reason”. You got to where you are today because you work hard, you are qualified and you are intelligent. You deserve it.
You need to realise that no one is perfect. Take off the unnecessary pressure and chill out. I know this is easier said than done, but when you step back and see that everyone makes mistakes, then you won’t feel as bad if you do ‘mess up’ in future. Ask for help, not every task can be done alone, and those people can offer support and guidance.
Change your way of thinking and try your best to be more positive. You could try and talk to someone that will help, like a therapist. Challenge the doubts about yourself, and try back up your thoughts with evidence.
Many thanks to Mike for speaking with me about this topic, and if you would like to speak more about imposter syndrome with him, search here.