Imposter Syndrome - the Types & how to navigate

Its not what you are that holds you back, its what you think you are” 

Imposter syndrome sounds like another of those words brandished about as though it were an illness. Just so you know, it’s been around for a while and was first brought to light in 1978 by Georgia State University psychologists, Drs. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes.

But the thing is, it is quite real and is a form of intellectual self-doubt, but it certainly isn’t a disorder or illness.

Please allow me put this in context;

You just got a new job or a promotion into a new role and everyone believes that you deserve and earned it after all the hard work you put into a recent project that was immensely successful. But the first few days you settle into your new workspace, you suddenly start developing self-doubt, anxiety and having an unsettling feeling of being a fraud.

Wondering if you can perform at the level expected on the new role. Doubting your capabilities and thinking that soon someone would find out you weren’t as good as they had initially thought or that you will goof and make a mess of the new opportunity. You feel inadequate and sometimes even have palpitations. It felt like being thrown into the deep end of the pool and needing to learn to swim out.

 Questions, internal conversations and thoughts like “what gives me the right to be here?”; “I don’t deserve to be here”; “ What if I don’t get the results they want?; “Can I pull this off?”; “My intellect and experiences are leagues behind that of my peers. I will get found out”; “The reviewers must not have been paying attention during the interview” and a lot more are spoken and internalized.

A lot of us speak this way to ourselves.

Dear Friend, you’re not alone, most high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success deal with this sort of distress. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

It’s estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of imposter syndrome during their lifetime. So brace up! The truth is, many people experience the symptoms for a limited time, such as in the first few weeks of a new job for instance.

For others, the experience can be lifelong. Every person who suffers this imposter feeling must recognize it first and then follow some of the tips in this post to overcome that feeling and recognize their strengths.

What makes it more difficult to handle is that most people with impostor feelings suffer in silence and rarely talk about it. They barely even know that the distress could be addressed or managed. Part of the experience is that they’re afraid they’re going to be found out.

So what then is this impostor syndrome and why is it worth writing about;

In a broad sense, a person with impostor syndrome has:

  • a sense of being a fraud
  • fear of being discovered
  • difficulty internalizing their success

Having a sense of self-doubt can help a person assess their achievements and ability, but too much self-doubt can adversely impact a person’s self-image.

Imposter Syndrome is actually just a manifestation of your inner critic. It’s not a real disorder. It reflects a belief that you’re an inadequate and incompetent failure despite evidence that indicates you’re skilled and quite successful. If the feelings of inadequacy are allowed to persist can create bigger problems even for very promising individuals.

it’s a hot mess of harmfulness and must be addressed.

 It can take various forms, depending on a person’s background, personality, and circumstances. An expert on the subject, Dr. Valerie Young, has categorized it into subgroups: the Perfectionist, the Superwoman/man, the Natural Genius, the Soloist, and the Expert. Dr. Young builds on decades of research studying fraudulent feelings among high achievers.

Through her personal research, Young uncovered several “competence types”—or internal rules that people who struggle with confidence attempt to follow.

I have found that her categorizations will help many recognize what sort of person they are and I am glad I stumbled on it.

Below is a summary of the competence types Young identifies so you can see if you recognize yourself.

The Perfectionist

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome often go hand-in-hand. Think about it: Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach a goal, they experience major self-doubt and worry about measuring up. Whether they realize it or not, this group can also be control freaks, feeling like if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves.

Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:

 Have you ever been accused of being a micromanager?

  • Do you have great difficulty delegating? Even when you’re able to do so, do you feel frustrated and disappointed in the results?
  • When you miss the (insanely high) mark on something, do you accuse yourself of “not being cut out” for your job and ruminate on it for days?
  • Do you feel like your work must be 100% perfect, 100% of the time?

For this type, success is rarely satisfying because they believe they could’ve done even better. But that’s neither productive nor healthy. Owning and celebrating achievements is essential if you want to avoid burnout, find contentment, and cultivate self-confidence.

Learn to take your mistakes in stride, viewing them as a natural part of the process. In addition, push yourself to act before you’re ready. Force yourself to start the project you’ve been planning for months. Truth is, there will never be the “perfect time” and your work will never be 100% flawless. The sooner you’re able to accept that, the better off you’ll be.

The Superwoman/man

Since people who experience this phenomenon are convinced they’re phonies amongst real-deal colleagues, they often push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up. But this is just a false cover-up for their insecurities, and the work overload may harm not only their own mental health, but also their relationships with others.

Not sure if this applies to you?

  • Do you stay later at the office than the rest of your team, even past the point that you’ve completed that day’s necessary work?
  • Do you get stressed when you’re not working and find downtime completely wasteful?
  • Have you left your hobbies and passions fall by the wayside, sacrificed to work?
  • Do you feel like you haven’t truly earned your title (despite numerous degrees and achievements), so you feel pressed to work harder and longer than those around you to prove your worth?

Imposter workaholics are actually addicted to the validation that comes from working, not to the work itself. Start training yourself to veer away from external validation. No one should have more power to make you feel good about yourself than you—even your boss when they give your project the stamp of approval. On the flip side, learn to take constructive criticism seriously, not personally.

As you become more attuned to internal validation and able to nurture your inner confidence that states you’re competent and skilled, you’ll be able to ease off the gas as you gauge how much work is reasonable.

The Natural Genius

Young says people with this competence type believe they need to be a natural “genius.” As such, they judge their competence based ease and speed as opposed to their efforts. In other words, if they take a long time to master something, they feel shame.

These types of imposters set their internal bar impossibly high, just like perfectionists. But natural genius types don’t just judge themselves based on ridiculous expectations, they also judge themselves based on getting things right on the first try. When they’re not able to do something quickly or fluently, their alarm sounds.

Not sure if this applies to you?

  • Are you used to excelling without much effort?
  • Do you have a track record of getting “straight A’s” or “gold stars” in everything you do?
  • Were you told frequently as a child that you were the “smart one” in your family or peer group?
  • Do you dislike the idea of having a mentor, because you can handle things on your own?
  • When you’re faced with a setback, does your confidence tumble because not performing well provokes a feeling of shame?
  • Do you often avoid challenges because it’s so uncomfortable to try something you’re not great at?

To move past this, try seeing yourself as a work in progress. Accomplishing great things involves lifelong learning and skill-building—for everyone, even the most confident people. Rather than beating yourself up when you don’t reach your impossibly high standards, identify specific, changeable behaviors that you can improve over time.

For example, if you want to have more impact at the office, it’s much more productive to focus on honing your presentation skills than swearing off speaking up in meetings as something you’re “just not good at.”

The Soloist

Sufferers who feel as though asking for help reveals their phoniness are what Young calls Soloists. It’s OK to be independent, but not to the extent that you refuse assistance so that you can prove your worth.

Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you firmly feel that you need to accomplish things on your own?
  • “I don’t need anyone’s help.” Does that sound like you?
  • Do you frame requests in terms of the requirements of the project, rather than your needs as a person?

 The Expert

Experts measure their competence based on “what” and “how much” they know or can do. Believing they will never know enough, they fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable.

  • Do you shy away from applying to job postings unless you meet every single educational requirement?
  • Are you constantly seeking out trainings or certifications because you think you need to improve your skills in order to succeed?
  • Even if you’ve been in your role for some time, can you relate to feeling like you still don’t know “enough?”
  • Do you shudder when someone says you’re an expert?

It’s true that there’s always more to learn. Striving to bulk up your skill set can certainly help you make strides professionally and keep you competitive in the job market. But taken too far, the tendency to endlessly seek out more information can actually be a form of procrastination.

Start practicing just-in-time learning. This means acquiring a skill when you need it–for example, if your responsibilities change–rather than hoarding knowledge for (false) comfort.

Can you identify yourself already?

Realize there’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. If you don’t know how to do something, ask a co-worker. If you can’t figure out how to solve a problem, seek advice from a supportive supervisor, or even a career coach. Mentoring junior colleagues or volunteering can be a great way to discover your inner expert. When you share what you know it not only benefits others, but also helps you heal your fraudulent feelings.

To overcome the Imposter Feelings, try any or all of the following tips;

  1. Break the silence – Shame keeps a lot of people from “fessing up” about their fraudulent feelings. Knowing there’s a name for these feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing. 
  2. Separate feelings from fact– There are times you’ll feel stupid. It happens to everyone from time to time. Realize that just because you may feel stupid, doesn’t mean you are.
  3. Recognize when you should feel fraudulent –  A sense of belonging fosters confidence. If you’re the only or one of a few people in a meeting, classroom, field, or workplace who look or sound like you or are much older or younger, then it’s only natural you’d sometimes feel like you don’t totally fit in. Plus if you’re the first woman, people of color, or person with a disability to achieve something in your world, e.g. first VP, astronaut, judge, supervisor, firefighter, honoree, etc. there’s that added pressure to represent your entire group. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign of your ineptness, recognize that it might be a normal response to being on the receiving end of social stereotypes about competence and intelligence. 
  4. Accentuate the positive – The good news is being a perfectionist means you care deeply about the quality of your work. The key is to continue to strive for excellence when it matters most, but don’t persevere over routine tasks and forgive yourself when the inevitable mistake happens. 
  5. Develop a healthy response to failure and mistake making-  Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Instead of beating yourself up for falling short, do what players on the losing sports team do and glean the learning value from the loss and move on reminding yourself, “I’ll get ’em next time.”
  6. Right the rules –  If you’ve been operating under misguided rules like, “I should always know the answer,” or “Never ask for help” start asserting your rights. Recognize that you have just as much right as the next person to be wrong, have an off-day, or ask for assistance. 
  7. Develop a new script –  Become consciously aware of the conversation going on in your head when you’re in a situation that triggers your Impostor feelings. This is your internal script. Then instead of thinking, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” tell yourself “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.” Instead of looking around the room and thinking, “Oh my God everyone here is brilliant…. and I’m not” go with “Wow, everyone here is brilliant – I’m really going to learn a lot!”
  8. Visualize success –  Do what professional athletes do. Spend time beforehand picturing yourself making a successful presentation or calmly posing your question in class. It sure beats picturing impending disaster and will help with performance-related stress. 
  9. Reward yourself–  Break the cycle of continually seeking and then dismissing validation outside of yourself by learning to pat yourself on the back.
  10. Fake it ‘til you make it– Now and then we all have to fly by the seat of our pants. Instead of considering “winging it” as proof of your ineptness, learn to do what many high achievers do and view it as a skill. The point of the worn-out phrase, fake it til you make it, still stands: Don’t wait until you feel confident to start putting yourself out there. Courage comes from taking risks. Change your behavior first and allow your confidence to build. 

The 5 personality types were culled from https://www.themuse.com/amp/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one

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5 thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome – how to navigate!”

    1. Adedamola Ilori

      Waooo,this is another great piece, particularly in love with this tip ‘develop a new script’ so so encouraging.
      Nice one brother

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