‘I don’t believe in luck so you must be doing something right’ was the response I got when detailing the ins and outs of recent successes to a friend and putting it all down to luck. It hadn’t occurred to me that the existence of luck was open to debate, but it most certainly had occurred to me, on countless occasions, that hard work, initiative, intelligence, kindness or a good attitude had nothing to do with my opportunities and triumphs, and it was instead this arbitrary and extrinsic influence called ‘luck’ that had afforded me all that was good in my life. It had swooped in and taken credit for job offers, promotions, exam results, relationships, even my house and the suburb in which it stands. In reality, of course, I achieved these things. The job offers came after years at university, the promotions from dedication, the exam results from graft, the relationships from kindness and a willingness to nurture, and the house from research and sheer relentlessness. The point is, allowing capricious influences to take ownership of our accomplishments does much less to help than it does to hinder. In fact, owning our achievements could be a highly beneficial tool for success and development in an increasingly fast-paced and competitive world.
The vast majority of people will identify with these self-deprecating thought patterns, but many may be interested to learn of its innate connection to the human experience. Ironically, experiencing feelings of doubt for the legitimacy of one’s accomplishments, or an internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite external evidence of one’s competence, is extremely common within our society and is widely known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’. You can be speaking to anyone from the barista at your local coffee shop to your manager at work to Nathalie Portman, (you know, the Oscar-winning Harvard-graduate who also models for Dior) and chances are, they don’t feel deserving of their achievements, either. Portman described the self-doubt she experienced as a Harvard student in a poignant commencement speech several years ago. “I felt like there had been some mistake,” she said, “that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.” The irony in all of this is that while we are experiencing symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, we tend to compare ourselves to other people, often believing them to be more deserving, more competent or more worthy of success than we are. But statistics show that those people - no matter how smart, powerful, or beautiful - are most likely experiencing Imposter Syndrome too. It is even possible, if not probable, that two people within the same circle can be silently comparing themselves to one another, both settling on the notion that they are the inadequate or even fraudulent one. It is, of course, an entirely irrational thought process, but even an awareness of its irrationality often isn’t enough to curb the feeling.
How Imposter Syndrome Can Impact Our Trajectory
Many of us will experience Imposter Syndrome exclusively or more acutely at times of increased recognition or a transition to minority status, say, following a promotion or entering a new workplace. For others, the affliction is less transient. In either case, Imposter Syndrome can have highly adverse effects on our success and development, and on our happiness, with feelings such as inadequacy and self-doubt at the forefront of the complex. Feeling as though we are undeserving of acclamation despite evidence of achievements can be extremely detrimental to our emotional and mental wellbeing, and when allowed to perpetuate can damage the very competence that sparked the positive recognition in the first place, therefore hindering our success. Essentially, the more we sustain irrationally self-deprecating thought patterns, the more at-risk we are of fitting the narrative that they set out for us.
The fraudulent feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome mean that sufferers often go through daily life with a fear of being ‘found out’, believing that they have only got to where they are by luck or mistake, rather than merit. Their natural response may then be to withdraw and disengage from conversation regardless of what they can contribute. While this may seem like a strong method for limiting the risk of being exposed, what it is really doing is preventing possibly beneficial working relationships and sabotaging opportunities for learning, development and future success.
Those with Imposter Syndrome also tend to have an inability to accept or enjoy success, downplaying achievements and deflecting compliments with flippant statements like ‘it’s no big deal’ or ‘anyone could have done it’, once again attributing their accomplishment to luck. While this may come across as modest or bashful, it can be extremely stifling. The more we can learn to enjoy our earned successes and feel deserving of them, the more likely we are to keep striving to reach our ever-expanding potential.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
So now that the ubiquitous nature of Imposter Syndrome is unveiled, what can we do to mitigate the effects so that we can all get back to reaching our true potential?
As with most psychological issues, talking to others can provide substantial relief. Most people will be able to relate to feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome, and opening up the conversation may provide strength, perspective and a more rational outlook. Talking to a respected mentor or role model only to learn of their own grapples with negative self-perception can be reaffirming, motivating, and at very least helps to normalise the problem. As a fundamentally irrational complex, Imposter Syndrome has a much better chance of being alleviated if those experiencing it are prompted to logically articulate their thoughts. This can also occur through inward conversation, by forcing oneself to think rationally about a situation as though from the perspective of an outsider, posing matter-of-fact questions, such as, ‘why did you get this job offer?’, or ‘why did you win this award?’ Creating dissonance between fact and negative self-perception will most likely reveal legitimate events that can be easily attributed to achievements, such as, ‘my qualifications and relevant experience have earned me this job’, or ‘I achieved the highest results out of all those who entered.’
Learning to rewrite your mental programs and reevaluate your relationship with failure isn’t necessarily an easy remedy but could be a highly effective one. We are conditioned to think of failure as exclusively negative or even conclusive, but recognising failure as a learning opportunity rather than a true and decisive representation of our competence will not only alleviate the pressure to succeed but also the fear of being ‘found out’.
While Imposter Syndrome may indeed pose a threat to success, performance, learning, and development, there are some competitive advantages attached to it, too. People who are susceptible to feelings of Imposter Syndrome are typically the same people who are most aware of what they don’t know. They are typically more empathetic, more approachable. They are humbled rather than conceited by accolade, and they are the least likely to become complacent within their role. Ultimately, the key is to find a constructive balance between empirically challenging negative self-perception, bolstering a desire to improve, and excluding luck from the narrative.