You might feel it when you receive a positive mark on an assignment you thought you flunked. Or when you unexpectedly receive an achievement award that you think someone else deserved more.
It’s an experience called imposter syndrome that has perfectly capable people doubting their success – and it’s much more common than you might think.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is when you don’t see your success or achievements in the same way as the people around you. You tend to focus on your flaws; how many times you failed before you succeeded, how long it took you to succeed, or the extra effort you had to apply to get there.
This means you’re more likely to discount your success and achievements as good luck, rather than something you deserve.
These feelings can happen to anyone at any time. Experts don’t quite know why it happens, but feeling like an utter fake is more common than you think.
Understanding imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome expert, Valerie Young has tried to pinpoint exactly why people experience this imposter effect. She’s come up with 5 distinct types of people likely to experience these feelings.
1. You’re a perfectionist
You tend to set high goals for yourself, have difficulty passing on responsibility to others, and feel like an absolute failure if you don’t meet your goals.
2. You’re a superwoman/superman
Superpeople are the ones that push themselves to work harder and harder even once the day’s work is done. They have difficulty relaxing and need to feel like they’re achieving something at all times.
3. You’re a natural genius
You might have been a big fish in a small pond in primary school, only to graduate to the big leagues in high school. Suddenly, when things aren’t as easy as they used to be, you start doubting yourself and your skills.
4. You’re a soloist
This type of person is very content finishing their work on their own, thank you very much. You despise asking for help, believing that asking questions or admitting that you don’t understand a concept is admitting defeat.
5. You’re an expert
The expert is someone who values facts and knowledge above all else. If you don’t know every single digit of pi off by heart, you’ll feel like a fake.
The one thing that is common to all these different types is the ability to see your own struggles, flaws and incompetencies up close… while you’re unlikely to see those of the successful people around you.
Overcoming imposter syndrome
There’s no quick and easy cure-all for imposter syndrome. There are, however, ways to cope with it – which usually involves a lot of practice, and a change in your way of thinking.
One way to combat these feelings is by understanding you’re not alone. People that you’d consider successful might also experience imposter syndrome.
“Each time I’ve changed company, job role, or even the project I’m working on, I feel impostor syndrome,” says Tom Wright. He’s a Site Reliability Engineering Manager at Google.
“Over my career, I have learned that the best thing I could do was make my lack of knowledge explicit. I’m usually the first one to say ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘how does this work?’ or ‘what is most important out of X, Y and Z?’”
“It’s not easy to do this when you’re starting out, but I’ve learned over time that people actually expect you not to have the details, and so it’s important to learn how to clarify the things you don’t understand.”
Jennifer May, a graduate engineer at the Commonwealth Bank is another seemingly unlikely candidate for imposter syndrome.
“Pretty much any time I join a new team or start a new project, I feel like I am unqualified for the position,” she says.
“I’ve learnt to combat this by realising anytime you start something new, you won’t know much about it. I try to think of the challenge as an exciting opportunity to learn something new. I use the evidence of my past achievements to help me trust my capacity to learn. This confidence in my abilities is something that has developed over time.”
Have you experienced imposter syndrome? What has helped you to overcome it, or which strategies will you use to combat it in future? Let us know in the comments!
If you’re struggling with mental health issues, get in touch with Lifeline (call 13 11 14) or Kids Helpline (call 1800 55 1800).
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Author: Eliza Brockwell
Eliza is passionate about creating content that encourages diversity of representation in STEM.