What is imposter syndrome and is it important?

The voices in my head – my gremlins – are brutal. And they have been saying this same thing to me for years; when I was in university, applying for jobs, running large events, speaking in public. They took every opportunity to remind me that I was one mistake away from being found out as a fake – as an imposter.

You can’t do this – you’re making it up as you go along. You don’t belong here, you’re not smart enough, and you’re not good enough. Soon they are going to find out – soon they will know you are a fraud.

My gremlins had a great talent for dismissing my successes, my intelligence and my hard work. They were masters at focusing on my faults and shortcomings. They isolated me, making me feel that I was the only one with these feelings. Reminding me that I was surrounded by smart, confident people and that I didn’t belong.

It was only a couple of years ago, when I came across imposter syndrome, that I finally had a way to talk about these feelings and I realised I wasn’t alone. In fact, everything I had been feeling were classic parts of the imposter phenomenon – a collection of feelings that you are a fraud, that you have fooled everyone around you and that one day (soon) you will be found out.

Imposter syndrome was first talked about in the 1970s by two academics at Georgia State University – Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They worked specifically with high achieving women and found that many of them had “a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise” and they had a “fear that eventually some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors.”

My experiences with imposter syndrome were personal but as I read more about it I started to see it in the people around me. Outwardly successful people would insist to me in private that they weren’t as smart, confident, talented as people thought they were. I heard from friends who dismissed any success they had experienced and focused on small criticisms they had received. These were confessions, reluctantly admitted to, whispered to me in confidence. I worked with incredible change makers who turned down speaking opportunities because they thought they weren’t experts. I heard from entrepreneurs who were paralysed by their fear and self-doubt and students who felt they had tricked their way into a top university. I listened as people talked about how their feelings of not being good enough had won and they had given up their passion.

I realised I had stumbled onto a secret society – a secret society of imposters.

Imposter syndrome is complex: it manifests in lots of different ways, it pops up in numerous places and its causes are just as varied. But it has two simple consequences: it robs you of experiencing joy around success and accomplishment, and it can prevent you from taking great opportunities and make you retreat away from your purpose.

But it was talking to a friend recently that made these consequences real.

Imagine a brilliant young woman, who is smart, compassionate and dedicated to the plight of children half a world away. She spent years working on this cause, bringing together NGOs from around the world to coordinate their efforts. She had worked in the field and spoken up when she saw that services for the children she was working with were lacking. She did this all at her own expense, never being paid for this work and never letting her ego get in the way. She listened to voices of dissent and incorporated them into her work. From everything I had seen of her work and her attitude I was proud to call her a friend. But when we spoke she told me of how she felt she has no right to do the work she did, that she wasn’t qualified and that she saw her academic career as a failure. She had felt that the emotional toll of all this was too much and had decided to take an admin job in a company – one that treated her badly and undervalued her. Even though she didn’t have the same passion for her job, she tried to do well and felt like she was failing every day. She felt trapped and weak for giving up her passion. “I feel exhausted thinking about what I need to do to change my situation. If I can’t even do this job, what can I do?”

Imposter syndrome can stop you from feeling joy in your accomplishments, it can increase your anxiety and it can stop you from reaching your full potential but many people with imposter syndrome keep going despite everything, which is why it is often talked about in ‘high achievers’. The darker side of imposter syndrome is when it wins – when your gremlins get ever louder and you give in.

In her book Dr Valerie Young talks about how imposter syndrome can make you selfish by stopping you from making the difference in the world that you could. I must admit, when I first read this I dismissed it as positive thinking nonsense. But listening to my friend’s story I overwhelmingly felt that the world was losing out and that she did have something extraordinary to contribute. If only she could silence her gremlins it would make her happier and benefit all those around her.

Maryam Pasha Written by:

Maryam’s work specialises in designing unique and innovative experiences and events to communicate ideas to new audiences – especially around social issues like immigration and women’s rights, but also in the fields of technology, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.