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Imposter syndrome: what it is and how to deal with it


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After a lot of unsuccessful interviews for summer internships, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would receive yet another rejection email soon after my latest interview. So, when I got the email through saying that I got the job, I was blindsided.

Many people say that they’re shocked or surprised when things go their way in life, but I genuinely didn’t believe that I got the internship, even with the evidence literally emboldened, in black and white, a mere few inches from my face. I thought: "This can’t be right. They must’ve sent this email to the wrong candidate. There’s no way I actually did well in that interview. Besides, the position was super competitive – surely someone else is better qualified for the role than me? They’re the ones that deserve it."

Image Credit: Clker-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay.

My inability to accept that I was capable of succeeding at something is a trait that I’ve had most of my adult life, and it has a name: imposter syndrome. Jivan Dempsey, a life coach, describes imposter syndrome as "a psychological fear of both failure and success". Imposter syndrome is rooted in self-doubt, but whilst this may pass for some people, others continue to question their own success and, in extreme cases, even consider themselves to be a ‘fraud’. Although imposter syndrome affects people in varying degrees, research does suggest that 70% of us will experience it at some point in their life.

If so many people have experienced imposter syndrome, why is it barely talked about?

Imposter syndrome is intimately linked with other people’s perceptions of us. If somebody is preoccupied with the world’s perception of them, then that surely, in some cases, extends to a fear of seeming weak and incapable if we talk openly about our vulnerabilities. Imposter syndrome is like wearing a mask that, more than anything, we are absolutely terrified of slipping. Ultimately, though, there is no mask. We just feel disassociated with the person that is being presented to the world compared to the seemingly inadequate person inside.

With the high expectations that students face when it comes to high grades, socialising and obtaining that perfect CV, the chances are that either you know someone or you yourself will have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in your life.

Dempsey has identified some of the most common indicators of imposter syndrome:

An inability to accept praise

Although some people reject praise and compliments in a show of humbleness and modesty, others reject it because they genuinely believe that they don’t deserve it. They might attribute getting that first not due to their own tireless nights in the library, but entirely to the work of a lecturer, or a friend who helped them proof-read their assignment. 

For Dempsey, this is a form of self-sabotage. He suggests that people deflect compliments and praise because they "feel anxious that success brings more responsibility and advancement" which they feel they "didn’t deserve in the first place." Although this attempt at limiting one’s self is an act of self-preservation, it is also misguided because it stops you from reaching the potential that you know you’re capable of.

You’re a perfectionist

A common theme in these symptoms is being your own worst enemy. Many people that suffer from imposter syndrome set themselves unattainable and often impossible standards. I have experienced this myself - I’d work a lot harder than was healthy, and rather than being proud of what I achieved, I was bitter about what I didn’t achieve.

I remember, for example, on GCSE results day, I didn’t focus on my overall good performance, I instead cried my eyes out that I didn’t get A*s in every single subject. I was setting myself up for disappointment, which meant that a day that was meant to be a celebration turned into a day of misery for me. Looking back, I don’t know why I put so much pressure on myself and wouldn’t allow myself to be happy. Retrospectively, I've realised that it was perhaps a form of self-sabotage. 

A fear of failure

This brings me on to my next sign of imposter syndrome: a crippling fear of failure. The more successful you get, the more pressure you put on yourself, and subsequently, you become more and more anxious about the possibility of failure. So, to avoid failing, you put more pressure on yourself. Dempsey’s asserts that the fear of failure becomes "a poisonous vicious circle".

A lack of confidence

Unsurprisingly, many people that suffer from imposter syndrome don’t have a lot of confidence. In my experience, it's easy to believe that you don't have the talent or brains to warrant confidence and, to make things worse, success seems to come so easy to other people.

I remember at school being so jealous of others that achieved the same grades as me - not just because they were ‘competition’, but also because they seemed so happy. I didn’t think it was fair how people could achieve the same as me without the internal struggle that I went through. It made me feel like something was wrong with me. However, that was a bold and incorrect assumption for me to make: everyone has their demons and assumptions get you nowhere.

Thinking you’re a fraud

This aforementioned idea of believing you’re a fraud might seem far-fetched at first, but it is all rooted in a much more believable idea. People with imposter syndrome constantly believe that they aren’t enough and they don’t deserve their success, and they constantly worry that others will start seeing them in the (extremely negative) way they see themselves.

How to overcome imposter syndrome

If you’ve read through some of these symptoms and can identify with them, there are lots of different steps you can take to help yourself.

The first and most important way to help yourself is to open up and be honest about how you feel to someone you trust – maybe a parent, personal tutor, your university’s support services, or friends. They’ll be able to remind you that your achievements are your own and help to make you distinguish between your perception and reality. With imposter syndrome being so common, it’s more than likely that those around you will relate to you and share their own experiences and coping mechanisms.

There are also several steps you can take and strategies you can learn that will not necessarily eliminate your imposter syndrome, but help you manage it. Examples are cognitive behaviour therapy, meditation, practising mindfulness and recording your achievement’s as a physical reminder. All of these involve ‘grounding’ in one way or another, which is a really useful technique as it helps you move away from your mind and toxic thoughts and make you more present in the real world. 

Finally, you should acknowledge your achievements and celebrate your successes, big and small - even if that success isn’t exactly what you hoped for. Being imperfect doesn’t invalidate your achievements – you’ll be a lot happier if you learn to celebrate your successes without that looming idea that you could have done better. Nobody is perfect and everyone has flaws, so by being realistic about your achievements, you’ll be happier and give yourself the credit you really deserve.

Information courtesy of Jivan Dempsey and Glossy PR. 

Lead Image Credit: Clker-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay.

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