Impostor phenomenon — or not: do you have what everyone thinks they have?
Read on, if the bedroom isn’t the only place where you feel like you’re faking it
Little kids believe they can be anything — face paint transforms a spindly twig of a child into a fearsome lion and all it takes for a brown-bobbed girl to turn into Rapunzel is a yellow ‘hair’ dupatta.
But as we get older, even believing in ourselves can be a struggle. In a society where our self-worth is rooted in the gold stars of kindergarten, the accolades of the workplace and the love of our partners, our self-worth often comes from external validation. Even certified greats like writer Neil Gaiman, comedic superstar Tina Fey and politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have attested to feeling like they’re not deserving of their success. And the strange fear that they will be unmasked as the talentless frauds they really are.
I’ve been a print journalist for eight years, six as the copy editor at a lifestyle magazine. Yet, at my new job as copy chief, I spent many a sleepless night wondering at exactly what moment my editor would realise that I had no idea what the oxford comma was.
What is impostor phenomenon
First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, it’s a psychological pattern that occurs among high-achievers who are unable to internalise and accept their success.
“Research shows that almost 70 per cent of people have experienced this at least once in their lives, especially people who might have traits of perfectionism, anxiety and/or low self-belief, says psychotherapist Anusha Manjani. Clarifying that imposter phenomenon isn’t a clinical disorder, she adds, “People who experience IP can also be conscientious and hold themselves up to high moral standards and hence, might worry if their efforts match the rewards.”
The causes of IP
It tends to show up when you’re making a transition, or taking on a new responsibility — a new job, a promotion, or even moving to a higher grade at school. Manjani says, “Or you find yourself in a competitive environment where your work cannot be measured objectively – i.e a creative space.”
While initially recognised as prevalent among women in high positions, it’s also fairly common among minority groups. Modern research has broken the gender constraints, it’s just that because of social conditioning, men and women respond to it differently. Just like in real life.
The long-term effects
The good news is that according to Manjani, experiencing IP means that you are likely to be self-aware — you might be analysing your achievements more and it might even propel you to work harder to prove yourself — but since the desirable outcomes come from a generally negative and anxiety-provoking space, it’s very important to keep your patterns in check.
Manjani encourages clients in therapy and those experiencing these thoughts to open up about their feelings. Since people are afraid of being found out, these beliefs are often kept close to the chest – but open up and you’d be surprised at how many people you know will identify with this pattern. Recognising the feelings associated with impostor phenomenon as momentary insecurities and not facts — is key and the first step at breaking your patterns.
If you find yourself caught in looping thoughts of anxiety, losing sleep and unable to cope with your day-to-day activities, it may be time to check in with a therapist.
While we can’t turn back time and return to the naiveté of childhood to face the very grown-up problems of adulthood, there’s value in going back to what Gaiman once said, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Our dragons may have morphed into the self-loathing we grapple with, but we remain the only heroes that can slay our own demons. Let us learn from the unabashed confidence of Indian gold medallist Hima Das who routinely slays, (athletic records, societal expectations and stereotypes): “I used to run barefoot in my village some time back. Now, I have a branded shoe with my name on it.”
Dealing with impostor phenomenon
• Make a note of your achievements – how you resolved a certain problem, achieved a task at work —so you have evidence of your skills.
• Talk to your mentors — Turning to trusted co-workers, family or friends who give you unfiltered feedback could be reassuring.
• Recognise when these patterns arise by noting down the triggers like new environments or hostile co-workers.
• Go offline — Social media makes it look like everyone is doing everything better than you — even vacationing. Take some time off – not for social obligations, but to do something that you’re excited to do.
With inputs by Anusha Manjani