My friend once told me a story about how he went on a writers’ cruise, and the guest speaker, a highly successful author who had written a series of bestselling books, had looked into the crowd of aspiring writers and told them: “Sometimes, I still can’t believe the success I’ve had. I’m just waiting for everyone here to realize I’m a fraud.”
And no, he wasn’t making some grand confession about how he’d plagiarized his books or stolen the ideas from some hidden muse. He was talking about imposter syndrome, plain and simple.
Imposter syndrome, a term coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, describes the behavioral pattern and thought process where an individual can’t internalize his or her successes; that is, individuals who suffer from imposter syndrome often attribute their achievements to luck or a series of serendipitous mistakes, not their skill or ability. They don’t believe that they are qualified to hold the positions they’re in and feel that, at any moment, someone might expose them as a fake.
The truth is, everyone encounters self-doubt from time to time, but imposter syndrome can be crippling and often keeps individuals with this mindset from reaching their highest potential. It can do this in a few ways. One is that, because you’re afraid of being “exposed,” you may be scared to grow in your field and go after greater opportunities. If you fear that your work may be critiqued, you may not put yourself in situations that require your work to be scrutinized.
This mindset also often hinders individuals from trying new things or pursuing related interests that will expand their skill set. If you already feel unqualified or like you don’t belong, the learning process of developing a new skill may make you feel validated in your self-doubt. Not knowing all of the answers can prove detrimental to the perception of your abilities.
Lastly, operating behind this behavioral pattern can mean that you tend to keep your work to yourself, ultimately inhibiting your ability to share meaningful work with others. Because you’re afraid of being “found out” or someone criticizing your work, you may be hesitant to contribute to your community in a meaningful way, which can then lead to more feelings of not belonging.
Imposter syndrome can be your worst enemy when it comes to achieving your goals. The first step is identifying the problem. Once you can do that, it’s important to talk about these issues. It never hurts to speak with a professional, either.
Take solace in knowing that many people have doubts about their abilities every now and again; if you can work towards addressing this cycle of self-doubt and recognize the false nature of these thoughts, you may feel more empowered to overcome these feelings and reach your highest potential.