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Why you feel like an imposter

By Harriet James
Monday, February 1st, 2021
Imposter. Photo/Courtesy
In summary

Do you tend to believe you are incompetent and inadequate despite evident success? Don’t worry. Many great celebrities, high achieving and highly acclaimed, sometimes in their lives feel the same; a condition known as imposter syndrome. 

Harriet James @harriet86jim

Seven months ago, Merab Anyango, a sales and marketing manager was promoted to the position of the overall manager, a post she had worked hard for and coveted for the past three years that she had been working in the company.

Though everyone in the company knew that she deserved the position and that she is able to deliver, Merab admits that at times, she struggles believing that she deserves the post. 

“When I am at work, I literally wait for someone to approach me and tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing.

It doesn’t matter how many times they tell me that I am good at my job, I have self-doubt and can’t believe that I am capable of doing a great job,” she says. 

Merab sometimes feels that there is someone else who can do a better job than her.

She finds it hard to accept compliments because she feels like she has missed something or that she should have done the job better. “I always find praise fake and forced,” she adds.  

What she is suffering from is what psychologists call Impostor Syndrome (IS), which by definition is a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.

‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.

While impostor syndrome is not recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), this doesn’t mean that it is uncommon. 

Statistics indicate that nearly 70 per cent of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon in their lives.

Great celebrities such as Oprah, Lupita Nyongo and Barack Obama have confessed to at one time battled with it.

The term was coined by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s where it mostly applied to high achieving women.

However, presently modern scholars and researchers have now made it a gender neutral phenomenon.

“The person feels like a phony and there are moments where they feel as frauds and don’t belong where they are regardless of their achievement, capabilities or even capacities.

It can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise,” notes Richard J Magoma, a human resource strategist. 

Richard adds that this fear causes some people to allocate or distribute their accomplishments and excellence to other external forces and powers, such as luck.

How it manifests

CEO and managing consultant, Executive Edge Consulting, Esther Nderitu-Mwangi, says impostor syndrome can appear in different ways.

The first one is natural genius who always believes that when one is competent, they must have the ability to accomplish any task with ease and speed as opposed to effort.

“If they take long to master something, they feel shame. So, they set exceedingly high internal bars and judge themselves based on how they get things done right the first time,” she notes.

  The second manifestation is the superman/woman who believes that they are not the real deal among their colleagues and will keep pushing themselves harder to measure up.

They will stay late in the office than the rest , feel stressed up when they are asked to take leave or off days and probably give up on things they used to love and enjoy doing. 

The third manifestation is perfection. They usually set excessively high goals for themselves.

“When they fail to reach them, major self-doubt manifests itself and worries of measuring up develop.

They, therefore, tend to be control-freaks or micromanagers often preferring to do things themselves,” notes Esther. 

There is also the soloist who would rather suffer trying than ask for assistance lest they are deemed unworthy. They will feel the need to accomplish things on their own. 

Lastly, is the expert who constantly reminds others of how many certifications they have been awarded and how much they know to prove their competence. 

“They are in constant fear of being exposed as inexperienced and incompetent.

They will always look for opportunities that tick every educational requirement sought.

In other words, they will never stop getting the next best certification to prove their worth,” she notes.

Finding healing

Richard notes that being doubtful of one’s excellence or success can attract grave psychological problems such as low confidence, questionable self-esteem, anxiety and depression.

“When our achievements are attributed to being at the right place at the right time, fooling others and good timing, it robs us the chance to feel good and celebrate,” he says. 

Richards adds that there is danger when one berates themselves over small mistakes or when they externalise their successes, or when they downplay their accomplishments. 

He advises people to engage the services of a professional psychologist or counsellor so that they can learn to wholeheartedly appreciate, celebrate and internalise their performance.

“Psychologists advice that we assess our talents, make small steps towards internalisation, that we shouldn’t halt our goals, that we should stop comparing ourselves to others, we acknowledge the existence of the syndrome and that we be of service to others as roadmaps healing and wellness,” he says 

For the perfectionists, Esther advises them to accept their mistakes and failures and also learn to appreciate their achievements as it assists in cultivating self-confidence. 

“Take initial steps into something. Most often, they are huge procrastinators waiting for the perfect moment, perfect plan and end up losing on opportunities.

No one is perfect and it is known that with help you can learn and become better and reduce stress around your life,” she says.