Brían Donnelly examines imposter syndrome and what can cause feelings of inadequacy with achievements.
WHEN paying tribute to the late singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, on his Newstalk show, Tom Dunne received a call from a listener, who recounted their story of sneaking backstage after a Cohen gig, only to find themselves standing before the very man. Flummoxed and awe-struck, the fan could summon no more to say to Cohen than “I shouldn’t be here.” Cohen deftly replied: “Should any of us?”
Cohen may not have intended any more than an on-the-spot attempt at layman’s philosophy, but the anecdote is indicative of a repressive mental process which afflicts innumerable dedicated, intelligent, and successful people. Feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, or an uneasy expectation that you will be ‘found out’ are the characteristics of imposter syndrome.
Thoughts of ‘perceived fraudulence’ are more than transient feelings of doubt during periods of heightened stress. Imposter syndrome is the dismissing of one’s own achievements as luck, or fluke, combined with the fear of being exposed before your peers as unable to handle your job, studies, or general responsibilities.
“Imposter syndrome is the dismissing of one’s own achievements as luck, or fluke, combined with the fear of being exposed before your peers”
Recognise the feeling? It is far from uncommon. The term was coined in a 1978 study by two academics at Georgia State University who concluded that, among ‘successful’ people, 40% considered themselves to be frauds, while up to 70% of people experience feelings of inadequacy in relation to their careers at some point.
It is an irrationally entrenched belief that you are not only fundamentally incompetent, but that you are also incapable of developing, professionally and personally, and overcoming your perceived weaknesses.
Those affected tend to avoid long-term planning and goals and don’t adapt as well to new working conditions. Despite having, perhaps, won the praise of others for noble achievements and independent work, those experiencing the imposter syndrome may feel like a passenger in their own life.
Kathryn Holmquist, in an Irish Times article from 1996, put it succinctly: “there is something about the very nature of achievement which makes achievers destined never to reach the top of the mountain.”
For some, the dread of being exposed as a fraud is a double-edged sword, reporting that they achieve more to avoid the accusation that they are in over their head. However, as Ian McClean, a leadership consultant, notes, success can often exacerbate the problem. The more achievements notched up, or the more important the role, the greater the feeling becomes that you may slip up and your ‘success’ will come crashing down around you.
Furthermore, the derogatory effects can weigh heavily on a sufferer. A study reported in the Journal of Personality Assessment in 1991 suggested that ‘imposter syndrome’ in young adults was associated with ‘depressive tendencies, self criticism, social anxiety,’ and ‘achievement pressure.’
Many of us deal with these emotions by ‘fronting it out’, however, this can easily leave sufferers detached from themselves, and convinced of their fraudulence, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. In 2008 then-postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Zachary Lippman, described feeling, while giving a seminar, “as if the sentences coming out of my mouth weren’t mine. And the brain controlling that mouth didn’t seem to be mine either.”
While the condition affects all types of people, it has been suggested that women tend to suffer in greater numbers, and to a further degree than men, often leading many to ignore, decline, or avoid taking on new responsibilities and opportunities.
“In a classic twist, sufferers are said to develop the condition in response to how they were treated by their parents”
Science Magazine has reported that, by 6 years old, girls begin to believe that boys are smarter – seemingly a result of genius being culturally identified as a male characteristic.
The issue permeates all cycles of life, not merely those in professional careers, and it is all too relevant across the student body. The incoming UCDSU team has a single woman, and across all 12 candidates for sabbatical positions, only 3 were women.
Imposter syndrome is detrimental to people’s career progressions, academics, and assimilation in university. Students may avoid modules, society roles, or competitions in which they are interested because they do not feel they are capable. Graduates may not attempt to switch jobs, apply for their ‘dream job,’ or return to attempt a postgraduate degree, fearing affirmation of their perceived inabilities.
In a classic twist, sufferers are said to develop the condition in response to how they were treated by their parents – where parents equate affection with success, and belittle any achievements which are not wholly and exclusively perfect, it is not difficult to determine the root of the continuous pulse of anxiety.
In the Irish Times article quoted above, Dr Ciaran O’Boyle, then-Professor of Psychology at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, stated that people need regular feedback on their work, and personal communication from supervisors in order to tackle these feelings.
Some sufferers have found that simply identifying the feelings as imposter syndrome helps to reassure them. Speaking to family and friends about these thoughts, and recognising the value of past achievements and efforts can be cathartic. It’s important to keep everything in perspective, and understand that your achievements are down to efforts and not just luck.