Help, I’m an impostor: On the Impostor Phenomenon and the Consequences

“My success is just luck – and soon everyone realises that I can’t really do anything.”

Clear the ring for the Impostor Syndrome. Also involved: fear of failure, extreme self-doubt and the fear of being found out. We take a look at the phenomenon and the background. 

“What am I doing here? I can’t do this at all. At some point they’ll notice that I’m totally incompetent. That my success is just a coincidence….”

It is perfectly normal to question our abilities and achievements from time to time. However, when self-doubt becomes extreme and manifests itself in fear of failure and the irrational fear of being exposed as an impostor – this is what is known as the Impostor Phenomenon.  

Those affected constantly underestimate themselves and their achievements. They attribute their successes not to their own abilities but to external circumstances and luck.
In addition, there is the permanent fear that the fraud that exists in their imagination could be exposed at any time. Hence the name: impostor syndrome.

The phenomenon is by no means a new invention. The first scientific discussions on the subject took place as early as 1978, when Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two clinical psychologists, described extreme self-doubt as a phenomenon in successful women.

Who is affected by the Impostor Phenomenon? 

So impostor syndrome is a women’s issue? Not at all.
In a study of the Martin(MLU) Halle-Wittenberg from 2022, psychologists show that the phenomenon occurs regardless of age, gender and intelligence. 

It is usually associated with (a desire for) professional success and thus mainly affects people who are ambitious – and at the same time usually successful in their job. One’s own education also plays a role: people with a high level of education and qualified degrees more often feel like impostors than others. Furthermore, people whose parents have a low level of education but have themselves pursued an academic career are particularly affected. They are often plagued by a feeling of “I don’t belong here“.

How many people suffer from the impostor syndrome?

It is not known for sure. Studies from the 1980s estimated that among all professionally successful people, around 40% classify themselves as impostors. More recent studies now even assume that around 70% of all people are affected at least once in their lives. However, to varying degrees.  

The extent to which the Impostor Phenomenon is pronounced and affects the (professional) everyday life of individuals is an interplay of numerous components. In addition to one’s own personality and individual characteristics such as low self-esteem, a high degree of perfectionism or a tendency to anxiety, the family and professional environment as well as one’s own socialisation also play a decisive role. And even though the phenomenon is cross-cultural, it occurs relatively more often in performance- and competition-oriented societies.

What are the consequences of the Impostor Phenomenon?

Extreme self-doubt does not always manifest itself in obviously negative or restricted behaviour.

On the contrary, many succeed in transforming the fear of failure into a strong motivation to perform. Coupled with a tendency towards perfectionism, great diligence, the urge to prepare meticulously for everything and the willingness to work especially hard, this often results in outstanding work results.
However, “impostors” see in their success at most the necessity of the extreme effort – but never the confirmation of their skills and competences.
The result: they try even harder – to the point of exhaustion. 

Others, on the other hand, tend to procrastinate, i.e. put off tasks – or completely avoid tasks where there is a risk of failure. As a precaution, they make themselves small in advance in order to consciously anticipate the supposed disappointment. This leads to them not being able to make full use of their performance. Out of fear of failure, they step away from their chances. Job offers are turned down, opportunities for promotion are not taken up, career paths are interrupted. 

The strategies may differ, but the result remains the same: the constant nagging feeling of not being good enough.
Fears of failure. Fears of being found out. People with impostor symptoms are characterised by a permanently increased stress load. With unhealthy consequences for body and psyche.

The impostor phenomenon is not a pathological impairment or personality disorder and is not defined as a mental illness, but rather a type of personality trait that can vary in severity. However, it is associated with depression and burnout.

Tips against Impostor Syndrome

As soon as one’s own health and personal development suffer, measures should be taken to put the inner impostor in his place and to counteract the impostor phenomenon.

The first step is to create awareness: The dysfunctional thoughts and distorted thought patterns must be recognised as such in order to be able to change them afterwards. 

The aim is to build up one’s own self-esteem so that it is as independent as possible from the evaluations of others. A realistic self-image that can classify criticism, deal constructively with one’s own mistakes and celebrate and enjoy deserved successes.

The following strategies can help: 

  • Talk: On the one hand, it helps to talk to people who also suffer from the syndrome – and who you yourself consider competent to put your own thoughts into perspective. On the other hand, it can help enormously – as with most psychological stress – to put one’s own fears into words and share them with another person. If you don’t want to talk, you can also formulate your stressful thoughts in writing – many things appear in a completely different light when they are written down on paper than when they are only spinning around in your head.
  • Keep a success diary: Keeping a written record of small and big successes and progress, compliments and positive feedback of all kinds helps on the one hand to judge oneself through the eyes of others – i.e. more objectively – and thus to see one’s own strengths. On the other hand, it is a useful reference book, especially when preparing for challenging situations. When the negative mental circus gets too loud again, successes tend to be forgotten.
  • Focus on the facts: Is it a fact – or a distorted perception? Is there evidence? When the inner impostor is just throwing around feelings of despair or fear, it is important to focus on the facts. What can I know for sure? What is there evidence for? What do I only interpret negatively? This applies to the behaviour of others as well as to one’s own performance. 
  • Learning to accept compliments: No more softening when you get a compliment. Instead, respond with a simple “Thank you, I’m glad. Many people find this very difficult at first. But it is worth practising. 
  • Ask for feedback: This may not feel good for those affected at first – but it can be very helpful to actively ask for feedback and thus take control.
  • Professional support: Coaching or supervision or – in the case of very high suffering pressure and the connection with burnout or depression – psychotherapy can help very well to build up a realistic picture of oneself and one’s own abilities and to minimise self-doubt. 

Farewell to inward deep piling

Incidentally, the counterpart to the Impostor Syndrome is the Dunning-Kruger Effect: In this phenomenon, people extremely overestimate their own knowledge and skills, i.e. they think they are more competent than they actually are. Here, too, there is a strong discrepancy between one’s own assessment and one’s actual abilities. 

However, anyone who is now worried about going from being a low-level impostor to an actual impostor can rest assured: People who suffer from impostor syndrome cannot be real impostors at all – that is in the nature of the impostor phenomenon. 

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