The Impostor Club — the syndrome, the cycle and the trophy generation

It took me a very long time to post my first blog online. Not because I didn’t have any ideas written down but because I had nagging doubts about whether what I had to say would be good enough to be published and whether I had the credibility to write something and call it a ‘blog’. Afraid of what people might think — I was sure they’d read it and raise their eyebrows with the thought “who does she think she is??”. All the while carefully ignoring the encouragement and confirmation from friends and family around. The fear of being discovered as a total sham made me not write publicly for a very long time. And it didn’t limit itself to writing.

Fears can make you feel alone. But knowledge is power and this made me dive into this phenomenon called Impostor Syndrome which makes even the most successful doubt, fear and reach below their full potential.

You are in good company

The term Impostor Syndrome was first coined in 1978 and describes people who have the inability to internalize their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. The feeling not being able to meet expectations and previous successes, paralyzes them. And this is more common than you might think: 70% of people experience Impostor Syndrome. It has been found under men as well as women and is not attributed to specific kinds of professions (although I’m sure some jobs can really feed into the problem). Even the most successful people have suffered from it: from Meryl Streep, to Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein, to name a few.

People suffering from the syndrome attribute their success to external factors. Deep down they feel like complete frauds — their accomplishments the result of serendipitous luck, despite overwhelming evidence saying otherwise. Besides creating a perpetuating cycle of self-doubt, they think their colleagues and managers overestimate them, afraid of not meeting their expectations.

And here’s the catch: unlike other forms of anxiety that undermine confidence, the syndrome’s treacherous nature means that external success only makes the effects worse. The result? Rather than working harder to prove their abilities, sufferers actually bury themselves in their tasks and avoid extra responsibility. They get trapped in an “imposter cycle” — feeling phony, but too afraid of being unmasked to do anything about it. This translates into declining opportunities outside their role and might result in a stagnant career.

Female millennials, watch out

It might not come as a surprise that your childhood can definitely play a big role in the sprouting of Impostor Syndrome. If you’re the first of your family to attend a prestigious university, for instance, the image your parents gave you as being a prodigy, might not align with your comparison to your peers at school. Or the opposite: when your parents sparsely compliment you, think everything you do could be better and give a lot of attention to your sibling, you might grow up with the feeling of not being good enough.

An interesting phenomenon with millennials is, as members of the trophy generation (kids that were lavishly praised and received trophies when they excelled or when they didn’t to avoid damaging their self-esteem), that their parents raised them sending mixed messages — alternating between over-praise and criticism. This increases the risk of fraudulent feelings which feeds right into the chances of creating Impostor Syndrome.

Research also found that millennials still have a lot of stigmas to fight when it comes to their reputation of being entitled, lazy and not fit to manage their older employees. Leaving them with a whole lot of “I got something to prove”.

And how about the prejudice that women are more likely to suffer from Impostor Syndrome than men? Even though the stats contradict each other, there are some logical explanations as to why women might be more receptive to the syndrome:

  • From a young age, women are being raised with the idea that they should be likeable in contrast to men who are being taught to compete. From this desire of women to be liked, comes the idea that their success factors from luck, while men think their talent is the key factor to their success.
  • Genetic differences in the brain and hormones between men and women play a part as well. Estrogen stimulates the caring and empathic desires while testosterone stimulates vigor and competition. Also, women produce 52% less serotonin which is the hormone that diminishes feelings of fear. The female brain works differently and is more active: women have a well developed ability for empathy, a strong intuition, can work well together and are careful. Side effect is that women are more sensitive to fear, depression, sleeplessness, pain and worry. Women are more likely to internalize failure, mistakes or criticism, whereas men are more apt to externalise these things. Hello, impostor!

Glad we established that but what to do about it?

I can’t say I ace them all but these are some of my work-in-progress tactics to make me feel less like a sham:

  1. Collect hard evidence. Make a list of all your successes. You can’t deny the facts, can you?
  2. Invalidate that nagging voice. Recognise your inner critic and start a discussion — be the realist opposite this critic. It might help to give each inner script a ‘name’ so you can recognise who is popping up: “the judge” or “the perfectionist”, for instance. They are mechanisms of your subconscious and often show up when you are taking on more responsibility, challenges and risks.
  3. Wear your successes like a Birkin bag: with pride. Own them by claiming your accomplishments and accept compliments.
  4. Take a mentor (in my opinion more than one) — these people will be your backup when your own internal support system fails or needs a boost.
  5. Dare to be imperfect. We tend to freeze the frame when we feel nervous, make a mistake or are trying to achieve something, and then condemn ourselves for not being up to the job. Complete waste of time.
  6. Stop comparing yourself! 62% percent of people say social media makes them feel inadequate about their own life or achievements. I’d say: thoroughly clean your feed and get rid of all the people that make you feel worse after seeing their posts instead of inspired.

And remember, people who don’t feel like impostors aren’t any more capable than those who do, they have just taught themselves to think differently. (Bonus tip: train your BS radar. You’ll encounter a lot of overconfident people that might feed into you feeling like a con artist, for no reason.)