Imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome can cause feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and the belief that you're not good enough. Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum
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Imposter syndrome can make it difficult to celebrate achievements

Have you ever experienced feelings of self-doubt, severe inadequacy, or the belief that you are not as competent as others around you?

As you become more successful? Do you worry that you haven’t truly earned what you have and you will be exposed as being undeserving? If you have, then chances are you have experienced symptoms of imposter syndrome. 

While imposter syndrome is not currently recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the author of the manual, the American Psychological Association, concedes that it should still be acknowledged

In particular, psychologists and other healthcare professionals should “acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression.”

According to the Harvard Business Review, imposter syndrome (which was only identified in 1978) is defined “as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” Symptoms include feelings of chronic self-doubt, intellectual fraudulence, and overachieving. However, many scientists disagree about what causes it. 

Those affected feel their accomplishments are only the result of luck, instead of talent, hard work, and persistence. These feelings do not diminish as one achieves more success in their field, but rather increase. 

This syndrome is often the result of an inability to accept one’s own success, which explains why many individuals are affected regardless of their accomplishments. The phenomenon is often used in academic settings, but it can affect people of all fields, skill levels, and education backgrounds.

Second-year University of Ottawa health sciences student, Maya Adesanya, says she was clinically diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and often struggles with imposter syndrome. One theory states imposter syndrome often accompanies social anxiety disorder.

“I try to do my best in school and at work, but I never feel like I’m good enough or that I’ve really earned anything,” she said. As an aspiring medical student, Adesanya cites the competitiveness of the field as adding to her feelings of inadequacy. 

Despite having an impressive 9.2 CGPA and resume, she believes “peer perception makes medical school seem really difficult.”

“When I get good grades, I feel like I don’t deserve them because there are so many other smarter students, and when I don’t I feel stupid for not doing better,” she said.

A first-year history student, Laila Mineev also struggles with imposter syndrome — though it differs vastly from Adesanya’s. Mineev explains that despite achieving high grades in her first semester, she was unable to enjoy her accomplishments because she felt that her classes were too easy for this to be considered a feat.

“Lots of my friends are in programs like engineering or health sciences. Their classes are way harder than mine, so I feel like I have no excuse to do poorly in a class, even though I still work very hard.” 

Mineev’s sentiments are often felt by students who choose not to pursue further education and careers in fields that many societies view as ‘superior,’ including doctors, lawyers, and engineers. 

Out of all the people who experience imposter syndrome, it is also important to note that women are more likely to justify their success as the product of luck or chance. In fact, a report from Hewlett Packard found that when applying for jobs, the majority of male applicants applied knowing they only met 60 per cent of the job requirements, while most women only did so when they met 100 per cent of the requirements. 

Women’s leadership expert, Tara Mohr, explains this difference as the result of women being differently socialized in school settings and taught to follow rules to achieve success. This causes them to continue to follow rules in the workplace, even when it proves disadvantageous to them, as their male-counterparts can play by a different set. 

Another theory explores the impact parental influences can have on children. In a TIME  article from 2018, psychologist Audrey Ervin explains that many parents unknowingly place too much importance on grades and competition

By comparing sibling achievements and imposing labels such as ‘the smart one’ or ‘the athletic one,’ many children internalize the idea that their worth is dependent on their achievements.

This can lead to them placing overly high expectations on themselves, feeling that struggling to learn something equates with inadequacy or stupidity. In turn, this can result in a struggle to ask for help when it is required, and feeling the need to be considered “successful” by others in all aspects of life. 

While it may seem like these symptoms would lead to a highly successful individual with an impressive resume, the reality of imposter syndrome leads to the opposite. Those affected rarely enjoy their success and constantly feel stressed about achievements because they don’t take on projects based on what they want, but based on how they feel others will perceive them. Erving appropriately labels this as “a self-perpetuating cycle.”

So what can you do to combat imposter syndrome? First, it is important to understand and acknowledge that imposter feelings are extremely common. The International Journal of Behavioral Science estimates that 70 per cent of people have experienced one or more symptoms of imposter syndrome during their lives.

It is also important to separate your feelings from what you know to be true. Many instances can make anyone feel stupid or displaced — but that doesn’t mean you are. 

For example, if you’ve ever confidently said the wrong answer in class and felt immediate embarrassment upon realizing your mistake, don’t fret. This one error doesn’t mean you won’t do well in the class or can’t understand the material —  you only made a mistake. 

In some cases, there are also situations where it is natural to feel like an outsider. According to Imposter syndrome expert, Valerie Young, “a sense of belonging fosters confidence.” 

However, in these instances, your differences are not indicative of your ineptness and it is important to remind yourself that you are not an imposter.

Finally, Young says it is important for those who feel like imposters to remind themselves it is impossible to know everything before you start a new project. 

Adaptability is just as important as being well prepared. Try to reward yourself not only after you finish a task, but as you work towards completing it to break the cycle of dismissing success.