Bob Sanders’ boss popped his head in and said “Got a minute?” To some this is unthreatening. To Bob it meant that probably something went very wrong with the last project, and he has been exposed as the fraud he always seems to be enacting. With dread, he went to hear the verdict.
“The ABC project went through with flying colors, Bob. Good job.”
“I had a great team of workers on this; without them it would not have sailed.”
Co-workers and supervisors see Bob as humble and hard working. They do not see the fear and insecurity which drives him.
Bob suffers from what is often called the imposter syndrome. More often recognized in women, this is a loose term describing someone who can’t believe that any success she or he has is because of his or her own capability, but rather a result of luck, others’ efforts, or a “con job” that the successful person has pulled off. This isn’t a fear of success; it is a total lack of faith in oneself.
This psychological tic is most often demonstrated in women, and has become a call to arms for women’s liberation, since it probably stems from a still-ingrained nurturing by society that women are “vessels” of good fortune, not the creators of the same. Women still externalize any success as coming from without – friends’ help, basic good nature of the child, support structures, good training by the university, just about any cause except their own intelligence.
Men are not exempt from this syndrome, although society does encourage males more to trust that they in fact did earn accolades. In other words, men are taught to internalize their success as having been a result of their own competence more often than are women.
Nonetheless, both genders have gotten caught in the trap of self-doubt instead of self-confidence. These victims see themselves as frauds – they can’t believe that they actually did cause a good outcome but rather that they were “winging it” and got away with it. They feel they are imposters of persons who actuate success. They are surprised each time their actions result in the right end.
In many ways this is a crippling attitude. Such a person never feels secure in his or her endeavors, and feels each step in life is yet another opportunity to fail. This is a person who will avoid challenges whenever possible, preferring the safe road well-travelled. Unless pushed by others who have more faith in the person, this person will not advance in work or life.
The causes are probably rooted in childhood, when achievements are not credited to the individual but rather the circumstances. A good grade on a test? That’s because your father made you review all that information the night before and drilled you. The nicest boy invited you out? That’s because Mom dressed you up just right. Cute remarks by a toddler? A result of accidental odd logic.
These treatments need to be reversed at the onset – you got a good grade on the test because you have a good memory and understand the material; you are a very sweet person, so it’s no wonder that boy asked you out; you have a sharp mind and see things differently than ordinary toddlers. These are examples of ways to internalize the success rather than denigrating the individual. Parents need to direct a child’s viewpoint back into the child, to see what is special about the child which caused a good outcome. Sadly, this is done more for children with mental or physical impairments than for ordinary children.
Culture plays a strong part as well. In many cultures, there is an attempt to keep children humble, to encourage them to keep striving harder. This undermines the inner strength to trust oneself and venture forward.
Symptoms of this syndrome are noticeable in people usually viewed as successes – actresses, writers, psychologists, business people and even scientists. In one way it keeps them striving for a “genuine” success, but in another way it keeps them from getting pleasure from the successes they did in fact already earn. They feel that they don’t really know what they are doing, and practice a lot of coping mechanisms to avoid being “found out”, including blustery pronouncements in meetings, avoidance of situations where they have to justify themselves (since they don’t feel they could), and statements of humility, giving credit to others. These people are afraid to admit their perceived incompetence, so they will not seek out help, ask questions, nor take on threatening challenges.
When something goes right, it’s because he was in the right place at the right time – when it should be because he was the right person for the job. If success is achieved, the person simply raises the bar for the next challenge, since the person feels he has simply dodged the bullet the first time. This person sees more of his mistakes and shortcomings than his strengths. This person always sees himself as a lesser person than his colleagues, who would have done an even better job, since others not only would have the external help but the internal strengths as well.
If a person recognizes himself as suffering from the imposter syndrome, he can overcome the situation even in adulthood. The first step is to believe supporting accolades from friends, family and peers. Another step would be to mentor another person; this not only keeps another from falling victim to the same attitude, it reinforces in the mentor that he in fact has something of value to offer; it cuts back on the tunnel vision. An objective analysis of successes and failures can help a great deal (although this should not be done in a vacuum). By recognizing exactly what actions caused a failure (Did someone else sabotage your efforts? Did you mistakenly trust the wrong source?) the person can avoid a recurrence while establishing the correct blame. By taking a hard look at success, the person can start to recognize when he actually did earn the outcome, and internalize the trait as a strength.
While the imposter syndrome is not considered an actual psychological handicap, it needs to be recognized as a handicapping attitude, along with fear of success or overconfidence. These are attitudes we carry with us that affect they way we earn a living, raise a family, or get along with the rest of society.
Further reading on the subject can be found at Why do so many successful women feel they are frauds? , which has some interesting examples, and Don’t let imposter syndrome sabotage your career.