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Do You Experience Impostor Syndrome?

diagram of impostor cycle in impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome interests me, in large part because I don’t have it and I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. The doubting one’s abilities part I can definitely understand; it’s the fraudulence aspect that’s harder for me to grasp, so let’s chat about it.

What impostor syndrome is

Let’s start off by looking at what impostor syndrome is. It was first described by psychologist Pauline R. Clance. She identified an impostor cycle with the following steps:

  1. Achievement-related tasks trigger anxiety, self-doubt, and worry.
  2. This is managed in one of two ways—procrastination or over-preparation.
  3. After the task is completed, any positive feedback is discounted, and any success is attributed to luck (if the individual procrastinated) or hard work (if they over-prepared) rather than ability.
  4. The individual perceives themselves as fraudulent and fear this will be exposed, which feeds into more anxiety, self-doubt, and worry.

Impostor syndrome can also involve are fear of failure, fear or guilt around success, and feeling a need to be the best. Impostor syndrome has been linked to depression, anxiety, perfectionism, low self-esteem, and family expectations (source: Wikipedia).

If you’re curious how impostor-y you are, you can fill out the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale.

Labels and social constructs

I may be barking up the wrong tree with this, but in my mind, what separates impostor syndrome from pure self-doubt about ability is an element of identity. Specifically, I’m thinking identity in terms of labels that are attached to socially constructed roles.

Let’s take the question of whether someone who is a blogger is an impostor as a writer. If you publish written content on a blog, you’re engaging in the act of writing. Even if you’re a shitty writer, you’re still doing writing. For the fraudulent element to come into play, I would think the identity of writer would need to come into play. I’m not sure that you can be an impostor at an action you’re doing, but you can be an impostor if you don’t think you’re the genuine article of the construct writer.

A writer is not simply someone who writes, although in a concrete sense, that’s exactly what a writer is. Writer is a construct that has meaning attached to it, and through social learning, we’ve developed ideas about what a writer is and what it means to be a writer. To call oneself a writer isn’t just about producing written content; applying that label is also about taking on the identity of a writer. The greater the discrepancy between one’s view of the self and the identity they perceive as being consistent with the relevant label (like writer), the more likely it seems that impostor syndrome would result.

Actions vs. labels

I wonder if shifting the focus from identity labels to performance of action could help to disrupt the impostor element. Performing actions is objectively happening or not happening, whereas evaluating the fit of an identity label is very subjective.

I don’t think of myself as an author. I am an author in a concrete sense, in that I have written and published four books. However, my learned concept of what it means to be an author involves agents, traditional publishing, writers festivals, book signings, yada yada yada. I do not do, nor do I actually want to do, any of those things. But I don’t feel like an impostor, because I don’t feel like I’m trying to be an author.

I’m not an impostor because I’m not pretending to be an author; I’m someone who engages in the action of writing books. Whether or not my books are any good or not doesn’t change that; writing books is still a thing that I do. Occasionally, I decide that everything I ever have written or ever will write is lousy, but even then, there isn’t a sense of fraudulence, because I’m not trying to be an author; I’m writing books, and it is objectively true that I perform that action.

Attributional style

Our attributional style is the way we tend to explain things that in relation to ourselves. Attributions may be internal or external (characteristics of ourselves or the situation), stable or unstable (long-term/permanent or temporary), and global or specific (in all/most instances or only in specific instances).

With impostor syndrome, it seems like succeeding at a task would be associated with to more external rather than internal attribution (like luck or hard work rather than ability) that’s also unstable (this was a one-off success).

Self-handicapping involves behaving in certain ways that make succeeding at a task less likely so that you make an external attribution if you do end up failing. Going the procrastination route seems like it would go along with this quite nicely.

My own ego-defending attributional style involves tending to attribute my successes to internal factors and look for external factors to account for failures. That’s not always a good thing, but perhaps it’s part of why impostor syndrome isn’t an issue for me.

In closing

So, those are my thoughts on impostor syndrome. They’re just my thoughts, so take them with a grain of salt. And on a side note, my brain thinks impostor should be spelled with an -er rather than -or, but apparently impostor is the preferred spelling. On another side note, I would stress the second syllable of the word concrete when using it in the sense of non-abstract, but I’d stress the first syllable when talking about the concrete that’s related to cement.

Anyway, getting back to the topic at hand, now it’s your turn. Is impostor syndrome something that you struggle with? Does the distinction between performing an action and assuming an identity label seem at all relevant?

41 thoughts on “Do You Experience Impostor Syndrome?”

  1. I don’t struggle with impostor syndrome. But, I do deal with procrastination and waiting until the last minute a lot of times. I think I just accept that this is me at this point!

      1. Excellent point. Procrastination does increase stress for me, but I also can’t envision a life doing anything different. Maybe that’s because of my illness, which makes sense to me. Oh well. I do the best I can!

  2. This is an interesting concept, thank you. I had impostor syndrome when I didn’t know I’m autistic and I managed to succeed at social event or otherwise make people like me. I then always wondered what is going to happen if people ‘find out who I really am’. That was caused by me performing behaviour that was not truly mine. So for me that is a reason for impostor syndrome, but somehow I never seen it discussed anywhere from this perspective.

    It could be either the individual chooses career that is not based on their natural strengths, so they ‘pretend’ when they perform the work or maybe even the fact that they were working class and now they are professionals, so again they behave differently that what they know as normal from childhood. But as I said, I never seen it discussed from this perspective.

  3. I am not sure but I think I have experienced Imposter Syndrome associated with jobs/work I have done in the past. The anxiety and over-preparation I can relate to. I think my experience with Imposter Syndrome is less so when talking about non-paid-work oriented activities. But even so it (Imposter Syndrome) may still play a part.

  4. I struggle with this a lot. I’m not sure about the identity aspect, but it may be true.

    I felt an impostor at Oxford, but I was a real Oxford undergraduate, so I couldn’t literally be an impostor even if I was a terrible student (which I wasn’t, at least not until I got depressed/burnt out). But I still felt I didn’t belong. It could be I had a mental image of how clever and productive an Oxford undergraduate should be. However, I knew a lot of my peers were doing a lot less work than me (or saying they were) and still doing well. Arguably, this should have made me feel less of an impostor (I was doing more work), but it made me feel more of one (they had a better work : results ratio). I did also occasionally wonder if I only got there to make up a quota of state school students accepted.

    I do struggle a lot with the idea of being a good frum (religious) Jew, which is a much more nebulous identity — some is religious (believe X, do Y, don’t do Z), but a lot feels social, about etiquette and social behaviour, and I’m not good at dealing with the social side. To be honest, I’m not sure how much of the religious requirements I meet either, as a lot of it is not clearly defined, or it is defined on paper, but in practice, people clearly define things differently.

    1. Do you think undiagnosed autism was part of the sense of not belonging at Oxford?

      I wonder where the line lies between a sense of not fitting in socially and impostor syndrome, or if there even is a clear line.

  5. Luckily, this isn’t an issue for me now. But I always felt uneasy as a wife or girlfriend, and it’s somewhat related to the idea that I was a fraud in the sense that I never really loved or cared about a man as much as I thought “you were supposed to.” I contrast this with being a mom, and that feeling never arose. I love my kids so much and would do anything for them. With men, I never felt that way…

    1. I find it interesting how we get taught what we’re supposed to feel in certain contexts, when it seems like in reality there’s likely to be a lot of variation from person to person.

  6. I agree with the person above talking about feeling like an imposter during college. This has been almost thirty years ago for me now. But I also experienced a lot of self-doubt during college years even though I was on track to graduate with honors. What helped me a lot was finally getting in with a peer group junior year. Having close friends was the best recipe I could find for being so full of self-doubt.

  7. Thanks for writing about this–such much to explore. I am a writer, and I feel like I have always had imposter syndrome. As in, there are real writers over there, and then there is me over here. Or, maybe I just suck compared to the good (real) writers. I have always used procrastination as a way to avoid starting–to what end, I am not 100% sure. To not fail b/c I suck? To not have to engage in the hard work (maybe I don’t like writing?)…and the feel frustrated that what I produced sucked (in my mind)/confirm my suspicions that, I am not a real writer. And if I suck, and I am not a writer anymore, then what am I? It is definitely tied to a deeper set of self-esteem and identity (and even existential) issues/neuroses (for me, anyway).

  8. Although I don’t recall having to cope with impostor syndrome, I can imagine some scenarios where, if I chose to entertain certain possibilities, I’d get it if I ended up with it:

    1. I don’t want to disappoint the people around me and I feel like life is too chaotic for this streak of skill to continue.

    2. If I grew up being told I was never good enough, I can’t bring myself to believe I can be so good when I see the success.

    3. I emphasise the moments where it went wrong because you can technically claim there’s always more to improve on. In other words, I can’t stop comparing myself to others.

  9. Yes, I have struggled with this in my professional life, although oddly enough in waves – some months of feeling good and some months of WTF-am-I-doing? It’s OK at the moment.

    The bit on attributional style is really interesting. It might be key, as I find I am able to not disregard/discount positive feedback, Step 3, but I might forget the feedback after a while. Anyway, it feels more relevant than the actions vs labels.

  10. I have a lot to say about Imposter Syndrome, less because I think I have it, and more because I have some potentially unpopular opinions about the concept. Still traveling with unreliable WiFi and still typing on my phone, which is annoying. Stay tuned.

  11. Is impostor syndrome something that you struggle with? Does the distinction between performing an action and assuming an identity label seem at all relevant?

    I’d never heard the term before today, and a definite no on it being any kind of factor for me. Yes, I think if one performs shady acts all the time, but does one altruistic kind thing, they should just own that they’re probably pretty sleazy and not try to soften things by pointing out the one good act and calling themselves afterward a label like “giving.” It’s sort of hypocritical to me. And labels in general (IMO) just aren’t useful, they’re judgmental and profile oriented. Only thing that fits in a pigeon hole (label) is a pigeon. And I could have the wrong end of the stick entirely.

  12. The first three of four steps, yeah that’s me! The fourth I only felt sometimes, when I was masking my autism and pretending to enjoy something or do something that I really wasn’t enjoying or capable of.
    I set myself up to fail, though less these days as I’m learning to expose my triggers and to change them into positives. I either prepare more than three people combined or I will do a rush job just before… Both feel hard as I always will feel it was not good enough. Then if I do succeed, I always brush it off when I get compliments. I find it hard to accept them without disputing them. I always credit someone else who had supported me or given me an idea that I worked out.
    I don’t feel fake, just when I’m masking my behavior due to the autism. Especially in groups of people, I feel like I should be likeable and acceptable and I almost always feel they won’t do either if I present myself without masking. If this makes any sense…

    Good topid, very interesting and food for thought. 😊

  13. It’s interesting that a few of my friends talk about impostor syndrome and feeling like an impostor at work.
    In my little world it’s seems to be competent (imo) women with children who speak about feeling like an impostor. From the outside they seem good at their jobs, capable caring humans but they don’t recognise that in themselves.
    I often feel incompetent and did the screening test. I got 68 which is frequently has impostor feelings. For me, I know I have low self esteem but I have also been treated incredibly poorly by a former boss who spent a long time implying I was an incompetent and incapable and in general not a nice person.
    I know this was not true as two of his subordinates were in shock when they found about what was going on. But the damage has been done and added to the other damage from earlier in my life.
    It’ll be interesting to redo the screening in a few months now I’ve managed to secure a new job away from the old place.

  14. Interesting read. I think writing definitely feels likes something I’m not great at, however I really enjoy it. I know my limits and what I am capable of doing, but I still don’t feel like a writer! I guess it has been four years now though, and regardless of the quality aspect, its a great hobby. I feel better after reading this now. Great read and a lot of food for thought.

  15. Oh yes, I struggle with it in several aspects of life for sure 😂🙈 I’ve been a teacher since 2007 and a mum since 2010 – I still expect someone to enter my classroom or knock on my door and call me out 😅

    I think sometimes it’s hard to own the labels or roles that we actually have. I don’t see myself as a writer – but I write. I don’t see myself as an expert in certain things – yet others do 🤔 The question is, whose opinion matters the most when you try to battle the feeling of being an impostor 🤷🏻‍♀️

  16. This is real and was HUGE in my last job. I was in Direct Sales and that constant comparison of what I was/was not doing and my results versus theirs. One line I would constantly tell my team was to “keep their blinders on. We are all independent business owners & our journeys all look different.”
    I am glad you are bringing this up. I’ve seen it destroy people and awareness is definitely the first step to being in control of it. Our minds are dangerous!

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