When the term “imposter syndrome” was first coined in 1978, the psychologists who unearthed the phenomenon thought that it was only prevalent amongst high-achieving women. Since then, more research has made it clear that all genders suffer from the phenomenon and that it is more common than first thought.
We live in the age of social media, where terms we see floating across our screens often end up as a part of our daily lexicon. One of those increasingly popular terms is “imposter syndrome”, a phenomenon first described by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance.
The Journal of Mental Health and Clinical Psychology provides a more modern definition of the condition, describing it as a phenomenon where “high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalise their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter”.
In other words, successful people feel as if they are fraudulent in their success. They attribute their achievements to factors outside of their abilities, like luck. People with imposter syndrome take their every failure as proof that they are not good enough but disregard their achievements as something unrelated to their actions.
However, labelling imposter syndrome a condition may not quite be accurate, as it is not recognised as a psychiatric disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. It is also not listed on the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) classification list, the list to which the South African medical fraternity adhere.
Not yet in the psychologist’s office
It thus makes sense that, for psychologist Robyn Williams, the term is not used when figuring out a patient’s diagnosis. “I would say, though, that what is very common in my patients [are issues like] low self-worth.”
“Many of my patients know that they have achieved a lot of things, and they get the feedback that they are doing well, but they just don’t believe it.”
Williams, born in Cape Town in the Western Cape, holds three psychology degrees which she obtained from the University of Cape Town, the University of South Africa and the University of Zurich in Switzerland, respectively. In her experience, many of her patients have symptoms similar to how imposter syndrome is described, but those symptoms are usually not restricted to the workplace and tend to be indicative of more serious issues.
“When I think about imposter syndrome exactly like the way it is described…I see it mostly with patients who have other social phobias or some anxiety disorder; or even more likely, with patients with personality disorders like avoidant personality disorder, for example.
“They just have this constant feeling of not being good enough and of people judging them for what they are doing, but [they are] still trying to be perfect.”
According to this study, imposter syndrome often co-exists with depression, anxiety, social dysfunction and low self-esteem. Even though Williams has never ascribed any symptoms to imposter syndrome, she says that some of the symptoms of personality disorders sound quite similar to imposter syndrome, but people with personality disorders are obviously at the more unhealthy side of the mental health spectrum.
“I would also say that anxiety, especially if it’s a comorbid situation where there’s a personality disorder as well or some other stuff, [having imposter syndrome] is definitely something that I could imagine. With my patients, I’m seeing that they do not feel good enough and [they fear] that something bad is going to happen or that something is going to be found out.”
In the experience of clinical psychologist Lumka Mabo, who has a master’s degree from the University of Zululand, there is a lot of irrational thinking around people’s feelings of inadequacy. “There are also a lot of underlying, unconscious issues which makes the [feeling of] inadequacy very loud, to the point where you internalise it as who you are.”
Mabo has been practising for more than nine years and finds that, often, feelings of inadequacy can become so embedded in people that they morph into a belief.
“Your rational mind tells you that ‘this is what I want to do, this is what I want to achieve’, and you try to move towards achieving such goals, but then there’s this underlying feeling of ‘I’m not good enough’.”
“Hence, when people tell you, ‘Ah, this is so good. Thank you so much for a job well done’, it doesn’t gratify you. It doesn’t reach to the depths or the core of you because the core of you is engulfed in these negative beliefs of not being good enough.”
Tips on how to cope with imposter syndrome
The American Psychology Association recommends a number of ways to face imposter syndrome, including remembering what you do well, reminding yourself that no one is perfect, and changing your thinking.
Mabo says that the key to eliminating imposter syndrome is by thinking back to the time you internalised the negative opinions of yourself and then correcting those opinions.
“When such beliefs have been planted in you, it’s like a story that somebody wrote about you, and you took it and you made it your own. We need to change the narrative within ourselves by going back to the time when we were less conscious of [these] things, and [then] we correct it.”
For Williams, dealing with the condition comes down to one thing: realising that you are good enough just because you exist. “The most important thing is, you are good just because you are. It is very difficult but tell yourself, ‘I am good enough the way I am; I am good enough because I am.’ Do not only focus on, ‘I am good enough because I achieve this or that,’” she says.
“[Try] accepting yourself the way you are, regardless of what happens. Focus on other strengths, like being a good friend or being proud of your achievements. But know that, no matter what happens, no matter how many mistakes you make, you are still good enough the way that you are.”