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Impostor Syndrome

Most of us have experienced it — we think we fluked that exam, or only got the job because we exaggerated our ability, or that we’re not worthy of praise received. The mind tells us that we are soon going to be found out and exposed as a fraud. Instead of there being any truth in these worries, these could be signs we are suffering from impostor syndrome.

Sufferers of the phenomenon are in extremely good company. Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize winner recognized as one of the most influential scientists in history, referred to himself as an “involuntary swindler” and suggested his work didn’t deserve the acclaim it received.

The writer and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Maya Angelou once said: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now.”

And three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep — widely regarded as the greatest living actress — has revealed she gets “cold feet” before every new project and thinks: “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

The list goes on, with writer John Steinbeck, actress Jodie Foster, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg all revealing they have suffered from similar insecurities in the past.

In fact, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, it is estimated 70% of people will suffer from impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. But while these highly successful people all achieved greatness despite self-doubt, that nagging voice can prevent many other people from living their fullest life.

So as we look at overcoming impostor syndrome, maybe it’s worth considering that the emotions triggering impostor syndrome could even be an asset … if viewed from a different perspective.


What is impostor syndrome?


The term impostor syndrome — and the impostor phenomenon — was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 research.

In a further paper on the topic, Clance explains, "The psychological experience of believing that one's accomplishments came about not through genuine ability but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people's impressions, has been labeled the impostor phenomenon."

The psychologists' original research focused on the experience of 150 high-achieving women and suggested that females were more affected. In 2006, a separate study at Purdue University, Indiana, also found that women expressed greater impostor fears than men.

But the belief that mainly women are affected has become outdated. In 1993, when following up on her original findings, Clance writes, "Surveys of several populations, however, have found no differences between the sexes in the degree to which they experience impostor feelings."

Further research has since agreed that men can be equally affected, but it can manifest itself in different ways — with women affected in terms of performance, and men more focused on success.

Experts have identified different roots of the issue when investigating what causes impostor syndrome. Some believe it could stem from internalized childhood experiences — and encourage parents to value character ahead of achievement — while others have related it to personality traits like anxiety and neuroticism.

And while we often associate impostor syndrome with work or academic environments, it can affect our personal lives too and lead to unjustified worry that we are not being a good enough parent or friend.

Valerie Young, a leading impostor syndrome expert and author of the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, identified and described the following five different “types of impostors” from her work in the area:

The Perfectionist

The Perfectionist’s primary focus is on “how” something is done — and one minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance is not enough.

The Expert

This is the knowledge version of the perfectionist. The expert expects to know everything; even a minor lack of knowledge is a failure.

The Soloist

Cares about who completes the task, and feels like it needs to be them alone and that needing help is a sign of defeat.

The Natural Genius

For the natural genius, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. Struggling to master a subject or skill or not succeeding on the first try feels like failure.

The Superwoman/Superman

Falling short in any role — as a parent, partner, in the home or at work — all evoke shame because these people feel they should be able to handle it all perfectly and easily.


Overcoming impostor syndrome


When we look at Young’s five types of impostors — and the huge success of the high-profile individuals who have admitted to being affected — the feelings behind it may appear irrational.

So having looked at what impostor syndrome means, the next step is finding practical skills to overcome it.

Firstly, we should remember that the feelings that trigger this response are just feelings that come and go. We need to try to change our relationship with them, so they don’t have a negative impact on our lives.

Tanya Geisler is a certified leadership coach who specializes in helping people overcome the impostor complex.

She says the good news is that real frauds don’t normally feel that way, and that if we are experiencing impostor syndrome, “It’s because you have strong values of mastery, integrity, and excellence. Self-doubt is proof of your humanity, not your inadequacy.”

Geisler also encourages us to accept that we’re all works in progress. She says: “It’s the rooting into what is true about our capabilities, and looking to other people as models of possibility. Every pencil can be a little bit sharper. The truth is, you are already enough.”

Geisler says impostor syndrome thrives when we keep the feelings bottled up and we should not be afraid to ask for help. She explains, “Asking for help just means you are serious about your success. Your people want you to succeed — let them help you.”

And Jessica Collett, a professor of sociology at The University of California, Los Angeles, says an important step is calling our impostor syndrome for what it is. She carried out research on academics, and says, “Research shows that one of the best things we can do is name impostorism, to give students the sense that what they are experiencing is more common than they believe.”


Meditation for impostor syndrome


Being able to identify our thoughts for what they are, becoming at ease with them, and then letting them go without giving them weight or meaning, is a skill we can learn as part of a regular meditation practice.

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Free Meditation for Impostor Syndrome

Try this free meditation to help identify and become at ease with your thoughts.

Five-minute guided meditation

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Self-esteem is how we value ourselves, and while a fragile sense of self fluctuates from moment to moment and is influenced by positive and negative external experiences, a stable sense of self will rarely change.

But forcibly trying to change negative thoughts can see us become obsessed with these emotions, which can be counterproductive. Instead, true self-esteem is being able to let go of old storylines and become comfortable with uncertainty.

Headspace’s Blue Sky Animation compares the mind to a bright blue sky and our thoughts, feelings, and experiences to clouds that appear. Meditation can help us to see these thoughts that can trigger self-doubt with a clearer mind and know that, like clouds, they will pass.

Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe explains, "The underlying essence of the mind, beyond thinking, is one of calm, clarity, and quiet confidence. These negative thoughts by comparison, however difficult or painful they might seem, are like clouds in the sky, merely passing thoughts.

“So, rather than trying to stop them, we just need to learn how to observe them, safe in the knowledge that self-esteem is beyond body, thought, or even feeling. Instead, it is an innate aspect of mind which, much like the blue sky, is always present.”

The Headspace app includes a 30-day course for improving self-esteem by creating a space in your mind to observe negative and self-critical thinking differently.

There are specific meditation techniques that can help us. By using a technique called noting, if we experience those feelings of self-doubt that can be behind impostor syndrome, we learn to just identify them, then let them go.

Meditation for compassion — also known as loving kindness meditation — can also help us to be less hard on ourselves and stop the self-sabotage from getting in the way of living our happiest life and valuing our worth. This technique encourages us to direct good will onto ourselves and then to others, and helps us to let go of the harsh judgment of ourselves that could be a factor in our impostor syndrome.

And the awareness technique focuses on getting more comfortable resting in uncertainty, and living with a sense of freedom, regardless of what thoughts arise.

Meditation can also help us deal with anxious thoughts, which could be present for some sufferers of impostor syndrome, and help to counter the “stress response” that can be triggered by anxiety; instead promoting a “relaxation response” that can be seen in MRI imaging.

A published study conducted at Google and Roche with 238 employees compared eight weeks of Headspace to a wait list control group. The results showed employees after using Headspace had a 31% reduction in anxiety.

Using the Headspace app for just 10 days has been shown to reduce negative emotions by 28%. And a study using Headspace released in January 2020 also found using the app can help you forget your fears.

Join more than 66 million people who have downloaded the app and use the hundreds of guided meditations that can help to give you a different perspective on the emotions that trigger impostor syndrome, and stop us being held back by self-doubt. Because while we should know our natural self-esteem is always present, it’s ok to seek help and want to improve. That does not make us impostors, it makes us human.