Do you ever find yourself saying:

“My success all comes down to luck.”
“I can’t believe nobody’s realised how stupid I actually am.”
“I’m a fraud.”

If you often have such thoughts, chances are that you’re dealing with the Imposter Phenomenon (IP), and you’re not alone. In fact, studies show that up to 70% of the population experience it, including some of the greatest minds of their respective fields.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wakes up some days and still questions whether she’s a fraud; whether she’s worthy of her position, while writer Neil Gaiman experienced vivid fantasies in the early years of his career in which a man in a business suit would come to his door on ‘official business’ and force him to get a proper job.

Gaiman’s heart would sink, but he would always accept the order because of the guilt he felt at achieving success.

But why do so many people suffer under the weight of these feelings?

Generally, there are two factors which are attributed to the development of the phenomenon in an individual.

The first is upbringing. It’s not unusual for a family to classify their children, especially if they have multiple, in a misguided attempt to inspire them.

As defined by therapists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their study entitled The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Interventionthere are two variations of how the phenomenon can arise out of this situation. The first occurs when the individual’s sibling is deemed ‘the intelligent one’ by other members of the family.

“Each of the (subjects), on the other hand, has been told directly or indirectly that she is the “sensitive” or socially adept one in the family. The implication from immediate and/or extended family members is that she can never prove that she is as bright as her siblings regardless of what she actually accomplishes intellectually.”

Even as the individual finds success, the familial pantheon is always clouding their ability to realise it.

The other variation sees the individual considered ‘the intelligent one’. As these people face challenges that they are not used to, and find themselves working harder than normal to overcome these situations, they begin to doubt their family’s claims that they are intelligent, and ultimately begin to doubt themselves.

The second factor is cultural expectation. When Clance and Imes first identified the phenomenon in 1985, they classified it as a gender-exclusive condition that affected women. In fact, figures are equal for both men and women, but social standards made it less likely for men to be open about their feelings.

Women, on the other hand, felt like they were expected to devalue their own abilities. It’s also the reason they are unlikely to ask for pay rises, or challenge the status quo in a company that is not offering equal opportunity for all of its employees.

So, here’s the question: are you an imposter?

True imposters do not question their authenticity or success. They can’t. Their brash ignorance is the only thing that keeps them afloat.

If that doesn’t convince you that you’re worthy of success, Clance had developed an IP test that you can take. The test also plays an important part in helping deduce whether an individual is dealing with IP, or is suffering with more severe issues such as depression, anxiety, and overwork.

When all is said and done, unless it is impacting profoundly on your health, perhaps the best solution is simply to ask what you’d prefer to be: under-confident, and always striving for better, or a cocky buffoon who can’t see their own limitations.

Do you feel like an imposter? Want to share your experience? If so, leave a comment below.

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