Why young, smart people suffer from the Imposter Syndrome

According to Dr. Valerie Young, many people, particularly students, who are smart and have many accomplishments to their name, often feel as though they are nowhere near as intelligent or capable as their colleagues or do not deserve their current position. Young identifies this feeling as “imposter syndrome” and says that it is a fairly common problem that can impede the success and negatively affect the lives of those who suffer from it.

Young explains that imposter syndrome is distinct from a simple lack of self-esteem, but usually occurs in conjunction with achievement. She describes the phenomenon as a situation where “despite external evidence to the contrary, very bright, capable people do not experience an inner sense of competence or success, believing instead that they have ‘fooled’ others into thinking that they are more intelligent and competent than they really are.” This mindset tends to affect women more than it does men, but it is not exclusive to any particular gender or role in life. It happens to students, professors, businessmen and women, people in high positions in academia, and many other situations where people feel as though they are experiencing unearned or undeserved success and admiration.

Since those who suffer from imposter syndrome tend to think themselves unworthy of the success they experience, they have many strategies for explaining away that success and why it should not “count” towards things they have actually accomplished. Many “imposters” claim that opportunities they get to experience, such as a dream job or a good school, were a result of luck or good timing rather than their own merit and worth. Others believe that the task they perform or have accomplished is, in actuality, incredibly simple, and they take the mentality that “if I can do it, anyone can,” even when “it” is, in reality, an incredibly difficult feat. Some imposters dismiss their accomplishments by pointing out that they had help with the task, while others explain away the baffling success by assuming that someone else (such as the person who hired them or was grading their assignment) made a mistake. Another common idea imposters cling to is the belief that the people in authority who have recognized their achievements are not actually looking at the imposter’s merits, but that the people simply like them.

An imposter’s greatest fear is being found out or exposed as the fraud they consider themselves to be. Thus, they tend to make use of at least one coping strategy to protect themselves from this great fear. Some use hard work to make up for their “ineptness,” convincing themselves that they are working harder than their peers to maintain the same level of competence. Others refuse to speak in class, avoid leadership positions, shy away from pursuing better jobs, and employ various other methods of holding themselves back to ensure that they stay “under the radar” and remain undetected by those who could notice their “fraud.” Many utilize charm and humor to deflect attention away from the mistakes and shortcomings they perceive in their actions. Plenty of imposters also choose to procrastinate essential tasks so that if they fail, they can rightfully claim that the finished product was not their best work. Others prefer not to finish important jobs, or engage in other forms of self-sabotage, since it is much harder to criticize an unfinished work than a completed one.

Upon recognizing some of the many ways imposter syndrome manifests itself in people, Young began to focus on the various sources of this mentality. The first source she mentioned was the fact that sufferers from this syndrome tended to be raised by humans, which refers to the fact that parents are not perfect and do not always know how much attention they should give for good accomplishments versus the appropriate level of admonishment for failures. Young uses the example of grades in school to illustrate these possibilities. Some children can come home with, say, four “A”s and one “B” and the parents will ask why the child got the “B.” Other kids come home with straight “A”s without much reaction, as good grades have become routine and expected. Children who have a sibling labeled “the smart one” might also grow up feeling like they are always trying to reach the level of that “smart” sibling.

Another source for the sense of being an imposter is working in a creative field where the criteria for judging one’s work are largely or entirely subjective. These feelings can also stem from being a first-generation professional in one’s family; if one is the first in a family to go to college or enter the professional or business workplace, one can feel very isolated both from one’s peers and family. Other situations that can make one feel like an outsider, such as working, studying, or immigrating to a foreign country, or being the first or one of a few in a particular field, job, or job level, can cause rampant symptoms of imposter syndrome. As Dr. Young said, “a sense of belonging fosters a sense of confidence,” and thus a sense of alienation can have the exact opposite effect. Additionally, people who are students or new hires or put in some other position where their knowledge is constantly being tested may feel like frauds. Finally, any organized culture that fuels self-doubt (such as academia) tends to be a perfect breeding place for the imposter syndrome.

Given how hard they work to maintain their “illusions” and how often they tend to brush off the praise they do not believe they deserve, Dr. Young believes that those who have imposter syndrome have a very strange definition of success and very odd reactions to it. Success seems to bring sufferers relief rather than joy in their accomplishment. It also brings more stress, as success tends to push people further into the spotlight and thus subjects them to further scrutiny, which imposters believe increases their chances of being exposed. They also tend to feel great pressure at the prospect of having to repeat their successes, as many believe they will not be so “lucky” in the same way again. Based on these reactions, Young believes that for many “imposters,” it is not the fear that they cannot do something which holds them back, but the fear or at least the uncertainty that they do not actually want to do the thing and thus deal with all of the problems that accompany success.

In addition to their off-beat reactions to success, imposters often have differing beliefs on what qualifies as competence. The general categories they tend to fall into are: the perfectionist (everything has to be perfect), the expert (one must know everything there is to know about a subject to be competent with it), the soloist (someone who is truly competent should be able to handle his or her tasks alone), the natural genius (competence is being good at something without having to work at it or struggle to learn it), and the superhuman (competence is being able to do everything related to the subject at hand). In contrast, imposters tend to equate mistakes with failure and internalize shame when they make mistakes or fail. They tend to take any failures or mistakes very personally, rather than seeing them as objective steps in the learning process. Their failures can even influence (and usually diminish) what they believe “counts” as success.

To try and alter an imposter mentality, Young advises that “small changes add up.” She advises imposters to break the silence and normalize feelings, as well as learn to separate feelings from fact. She warns that imposters should attempt to alter their thoughts and behaviors first, rather than wait until they “feel” confident to try and change. She encourages them to reframe challenges and failures and see them more as the opportunities to grow and learn, rather than insults and reflections on one’s incompetence. She also says that imposters who believe they have fooled everyone into believing that they are more competent than they are need to realize what they are really saying. Those who believe they have pulled the wool over others’ eyes are essentially saying that “other people are so stupid, they don’t know I’m incompetent.” She encourages imposters to be open about how they feel and to work with others to change their behavior and their mentality to live a more successful and fulfilling life.

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