mental health

Feel like a fraud? That could be imposter syndrome – here’s how to cope

Steph Arnaldo
Feel like a fraud? That could be imposter syndrome – here’s how to cope
Is it just self-doubt or something bigger? Here's how to spot imposter syndrome in yourself, as well as what to do about it.

Maybe you feel like you didn’t deserve that pat on the back from your boss, or are convinced that you’ve landed your current job only out of sheer luck. Perhaps you’ve even doubted your recent promotion (“they had no one else to hire”), or are simply averse to recognition in general. “One day, they’re all going to find out I’m a fake and a fraud,” you tell yourself.

Sound familiar? Then you may likely be experiencing a case of imposter syndrome. Taken from the word “imposter,” this syndrome happens when a person feels like they are pretending to be someone else.

Basically, you’re faking it until you make it – behind your long list of accomplishments is the constant fear that someone will expose and #cancel you for your lack of skills, talent, and expertise, revealing to the world that you actually don’t know what you’re doing, and that you’ve been fooling everyone all along.

Imposter syndrome: Definition, origins

Contrary to popular belief, imposter syndrome is not a mental disorder, but an experience most people have “when faced with a task or challenge they feel they might not be able to cope with or efficiently complete,” psychologist and relationship counselor Lissy Ann Puno told Rappler. It’s not a permanent state, she says, but something that usually comes in “cycles,” and varies per person.

“Imposter syndrome is a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized, fear of being exposed as a fraud,” she said. With #cancelculture and the “mob mentality” very rampant on social media nowadays, this is a valid fear to have. Who knows what the Twitterverse might be able to dig up about you?

Even just feeling like a fraud despite your successes can be a symptom of imposter syndrome, psychologist Riyan Portuguez said.

“You think you only got to where you are because of luck, and that any moment someone will expose you for being inadequate or incompetent,” Jacyln Chua, speaker for mental health organization MindNation, told Rappler.

When, where, and how did this concept originate? Lissy Ann said that psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the concept in 1978, and originally called it “imposter phenomenon.” The pair’s study focused on high-achieving women, after spending years counseling highly-accomplished professors, administrators, and students who were extremely concerned with being exposed as a fraud.

What imposter syndrome is not

Imposter syndrome has been around for a long time, Jacyln believes, but this was often mistaken or masked as “self-deprecation or excessive humility.” Do you always crack jokes at your own expense, or frequently downplay your achievements (“oh, it was nothing”)?

“The difference between humility and imposter syndrome is that being humble does not mean having a poor opinion of yourself; instead, you accept yourself and many good qualities, as well as your limitations,” Jaclyn said.

On the contrary, imposter syndrome sufferers will beat themselves up for committing even the smallest mistakes. They will constantly ruminate about what they did wrong and how they could have done better, leaving no detail unpunished.

Self-doubt is not to be confused with imposter syndrome either – the former is a normal feeling to have occasionally, especially when faced with a new challenge or unfamiliar task that may make us question our capacity to accomplish it. Self-doubt becomes imposter syndrome when the fear of being exposed as a fraud is included (“Even if I overcome this, tsamba lang ‘to (it’s just a stroke of luck)– people will know eventually.”) Sometimes, even self-loathing is thrown into the mix.

“They believe that they don’t deserve all of that they have achieved, even with evidence that they deserve it. They attribute their success to luck rather than to their hard work,” Lissy Ann said.

Who are more susceptible?

Imposter syndrome is more common among, but not limited to, highly-successful and accomplished women, Lissy Ann said, according to Clance and Imes’ study. However, while imposter syndrome usually appears in high achievers, it can affect anyone, no matter their socio-economic status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise, Jacyln said.

“Famous figures who have gone on record saying that they have imposter syndrome include Tom Hanks, Sheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams, and Maya Angelou,” she said.

“Everyone can be affected by this, especially those who find themselves at a disadvantage or a minority,” Lissy Ann said.

The syndrome is also common in individuals who have low self-esteem and a fear of failure, both of which may stem from harsh messages in childhood, bullying trauma, overbearing parents with unstable temperaments, and unpredictable life situations.

In her work as a relationship therapist, Lissy Ann has frequently seen connections to imposter syndrome from people’s earliest childhood experiences, based on their family dynamics or the parenting style they grew up with. “Family expectations and the value of success and perfection in childhood can stay with an individual throughout their life,” Jacyln said.

Cultural expectations can also come into play. Some cultures put a higher value on one’s education, career, and socio-economic status, which leads to the ingrained pressure to achieve a certain definition of “success” all their lives.

An individual’s personality can also contribute – those with the perfectionism trait are more likely to develop imposter syndrome later on in life.

From doubt to something bigger: When does it become a syndrome?

You may just be a low-key person who shies away from attention and isn’t keen on broadcasting your accomplishments online. That’s perfectly fine – but when you refuse to acknowledge your own achievements, capabilities, and competencies, and instead minimize and invalidate it, that’s when it’s a problem. Basically, you start shortchanging yourself.

“It becomes imposter syndrome when you start devaluing your skills and start shying away from opportunities, projects, salary increases, promotions in the workplace because you don’t think you are worthy,” Lissy Ann said.

Here are a few signs that imposter syndrome is hitting you hard, according to Jacyln:

  • Unrelenting self-doubt
  • Attributing your success to external factors like good luck or good timing
  • Fear of failure or committing mistakes
  • Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
  • Fear of being judged by others

You may also notice imposter syndrome during your day-to-day tasks. According to Lissy Ann, this is what a typical cycle looks like:

“You’re given a task or project and you start to feel anxious and filled with dread about your ability to complete it. Then you procrastinate and turn it down, or over prepare to the point of not feeling like anything is good enough.” If you find yourself in this cycle a few times, the first step is to start being aware of it.

Watch out: What imposter syndrome can lead to

Regularly experiencing imposter syndrome isn’t something you should brush under the rug – if unaddressed, this can negatively affect your self-esteem, well-being, performance, and even relationships. Ignoring the issue usually causes people to miss out on amazing opportunities like career advancements, Jacyln said.

“When a promotion is offered, for example, a humble person will accept it graciously, acknowledge that they will encounter challenges, and ask for help when needed. On the other hand, someone with imposter syndrome will reject the promotion just because they feel they do not deserve it,” Jacyln said.

Lissy Ann said that once someone experiences that “moment of doubt” that we label as “imposter syndrome,” there are usually two responses: the first is to procrastinate, and the second is to over-prepare and aspire for perfectionism.

“The latter can be particularly harmful to someone’s mental health because it can lead to continuous working and potential burnout. Both might not be healthy because both produce stress,” she added.

Imposter syndrome can also hamper your productivity and the ability to relate to others. This, in turn, can reduce your engagement in the workplace, leading to a lack of connection and fulfillment, which may lead you to leave in pursuit of a “better” experience.

“The self-doubt that fuels imposter syndrome is associated with emotional instability, anxiety, and low moods that can affect our overall mental health. If this persists for an indefinite period of time, it can create mental distress that leads to mental illness, like anxiety and depression,” Lissy Ann added.

Can it be overcome? Definitely

If you notice yourself exhibiting the characteristics of imposter syndrome, don’t worry – better late than never! However, it is important to do something about it right away. Lissy Ann recommends the following:

  • Verbalize. Express your feelings to someone you can trust. Since a lot of things have power over us because we repress them, it is best to throw it out there and ease its weight on you.
  • Examine. Reflect and challenge some of the spoken or unspoken messages you might have received about your worth in childhood. How might this be impacting you now? “We can tell ourselves a different story by changing the script. You don’t have to allow it to be your truth.”
  • Assess. Do an assessment of your skills, strengths, and all the things that you are and could be, and then validate that for yourself. “If you are living a dream someone has chosen for you, it’s hard to value yourself.” Establish a dream of your own.
  • Highlight. Make it a point to list down every victory or accomplishment, no matter how small, and affirm yourself regularly. Own your successes! “As soon as you can, tell yourself I am enough, this is enough.”
  • Connect. Realize that you are not alone, and that a lot of people experience this. “Allow others to validate you, and vice versa, and accept all that is good that they say you are.”

Jaclyn’s advice for those struggling with imposter syndrome are as follows:

  • Temper your perfectionism. Learn how to set goals that are challenging, but at the same time, realistic and achievable. 
  • Accept that mistakes are part of life. “No one is perfect; there is always room for growth. Treat mistakes as opportunities for you to become a better version of who you are.”
  • Get comfy with discomfort. Whenever you experience feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy, ask yourself why you are feeling this way. By doing this, you will eventually identify your triggers and find ways to control them.
  • Feelings are not facts! “Just because you feel unqualified does not mean you are unqualified.” Be aware of your automatic negative thoughts and feelings, and challenge them with more realistic statements. Feeling “stupid”? Remind yourself of your educational attainments and credentials.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others. “You are unique in your own way. You move at your own pace. If there is something that you need to compare yourself to, it’s to who you were before.”
  • Use social media moderately. Spending too much time on social media can cause feelings of inferiority and will only worsen your feelings of being a fraud. 
  • Talk to your trusted friends and loved ones. Irrational beliefs tend to fester when they are hidden and not talked about, so express yourself. Loved ones can also give you the confidence boost you need to overcome your self-doubt. 
Prevention is key

Once you know the signs of imposter syndrome, it is now easier to spot them before another episode arrives, as well to be more mindful of your reactions moving forward.

“The next time you are offered a challenge or an opportunity, take a pause before rejecting it or turning it down. Do a self-check if you can do it; or are you just afraid to do it? If you are unsure, talk to trusted friends and family members who can offer an unbiased opinion about your skills/qualifications/capabilities,” Jacyln said.

You can also be honest with the person offering you the opportunity (i.e. your boss) by expressing your perceived limitations and personal apprehensions. “A good boss will offer you encouragement and assure you of their support (‘I’ll help you/guide you if you have problems’), so you are free to take on the challenge and grow,” Jacyln said.

“We always have a choice on how to respond to the syndrome. As adults, we want to set a new narrative, a new story, and new messages in our minds in order for us to feel worthy,” Lissy Ann said.

There are four key ingredients to self-belief, Lissy Ann shared. Learning to adopt these within yourself will “help you bid self-doubt goodbye.”

  • Competent. “I can handle this. I have what it takes to see this through.”
  • Create. “I can learn something new from this. I always have the chance to be someone new.”
  • Care. “I will nurture myself. I will tend to my needs.”
  • Compassionate. “I will be kind to myself because I am worthy, valuable, complete, and whole. Making mistakes doesn’t make me any less of a person.”

Lifting yourself up from the heavy cloud that is imposter syndrome can undoubtedly reap life-changing benefits for your self-esteem and self-worth. If you are able to recognize your strengths and claim your achievements, you will start to “readily take on more challenges or opportunities that will improve your life,” Jaclyn said.

“When you are able to view mistakes or missteps as just setbacks that can be overcome versus ‘oh, I am a failure’ thoughts, you open yourself up to future possibilities and great opportunities that will further enrich your life.” – Rappler.com