What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome Definition

noun: imposter syndrome
the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.
“people suffering from impostor syndrome may be at increased risk of anxiety”

If you’ve been feeling like you are incorrectly perceived as better than you actually are, and you’re worried that you won’t be able to keep up the façade forever, you might be suffering from Imposter Syndrome.

This is not the same as worrying that you’ll be caught for deliberately defrauding people, where there is solid evidence that you don’t deserve your position or power and you’ve deliberately engineered it that way. That’s just guilt!

Imposter Syndrome is recognisable by the lack of evidence to support the doubt. No one valid has given you negative feedback. None of your measurement numbers have come back indicating failure. According to the facts, you’re doing OK at least. And yet you feel unconvinced by this evidence.

If, for example, you applied for a leadership position at work, and they hired you without you committing any serious deception or manipulation to achieve the position, then the evidence suggests that you probably deserve the promotion. You feeling like you don’t isn’t evidence in itself, it just suggests that your beliefs don’t accept the actual evidence.

If you’re worried that your partner is “out of your league” and yet they clearly seem to be attracted to you, have sex with you, and all signs indicate they’re loyal and committed, then your fear is not based in facts or reason, just fears and insecurities.

So when you think you’re an imposter and yet the evidence suggests that you have no genuine reason to fear that you’re out of place, we call this Imposter Syndrome.


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Causes of Imposter Syndrome

Social conditioning around humility. Many of us are raised to see doing “well” as something to be ashamed of. We’re taught to be “humble” and modest about our wins, and hyper-critical or even proud of our failings. Naturally, Imposter Syndrome will come up when we’ve successfully achieved a higher level at something – it’s that pesky childhood conditioning to play down our strengths.

Haters. We are programmed to pay far more attention and give much more weight to negative feedback over positive. It’s not unusual for people to lose sleep over a single criticism and yet simultaneously dismiss dozens of compliments. Imposter Syndrome will have you treating a tiny percentage of hate as if it’s the entire feedback sample. Ironically, this “hate” is often worthless feedback, coming from uninformed, invalid, unreliable, or maliciously intentioned people.

Low self-worth and poor critical thinking skills. Humans are generally bad at reasoning, compared to mathematical statistics. We’ll make judgments about ourselves and our abilities that just aren’t rational. So when someone who’s already unreasonably critical of themselves gets a bit of success, they will doubt its validity rather than calculate the truth: that they most probably earned it.

General fear that good things get taken away. Some of us are raised to believe that doing well and getting good outcomes is like a beacon signal that attracts catastrophe; like God wishes to punish anyone who gets too far ahead. This leads us to get irrationally anxious when we succeed, assuming that we have provoked Fate into punishing us. It’s coming any minute now! We’re usually thinking we will have good things taken away if we enjoy them or take them for granted.

High competence. If you’re a high achiever and good at what you do (e.g. intelligent or attractive etc.), then you’re like to succeed more than you can handle! You might find the momentum of your achievements exceeds your ability to handle change; to reflect and get used to your new level of success. This can start to feel like you’re surfing a dangerous wave that’s too big for you.

Shame around confusion and newness. Most of us were conditioned through the school system to think that getting something “wrong” and not being sure of yourself is a “bad” thing. This leads us to want to hide any sense that we don’t know exactly what to do at all times. This is why a lot of people get Imposter Syndrome in a new position, e.g. promotion, new relationship. We have an impulse to hide the fact that we’re not sure of ourselves, despite the obvious: you’ll never be sure of yourself in a unfamiliar position! No one is.

Placing yourself in a responsible position that attracts criticism. Imposter Syndrome is sometimes just the price we have to pay if we want to achieve certain positions, particularly those more likely to attract unsolicited feedback, like being popular, powerful, depended upon, or controversial. In these positions, we get far more negative feedback than the average person, and so it can easily be mistaken for proof that we’re incompetent, when really we’re just polarising.

Healthy levels of uncertainty and caution. As my old coach used to say, it’s GOOD to have Imposter Syndrome! Being concerned (to a healthy degree) that you might be wrong and that you might have missed some important information will lead you to be careful and cautious in a helpful way. Imposter Syndrome is only debilitating when it leads you to refuse to open yourself to correction, new information, and the possibility of being wrong.


Maybe it’s not a bad thing?

I used to think of Imposter Syndrome as a bad thing. I often put myself in positions that attract judgment and criticism, situations where I get noticed, so I’d get it a lot.

Whether it’s telling a joke in front of a big group at a party, or managing a high level team at Corrections, or posting content like this, I’ve always taken risks with my reputation. Sometimes, this has attracted extremely negative reactions and feedback, making me doubt myself and wonder if I’m deluded.

I’ve worried that everyone secretly hates my jokes. I’ve laid awake at night anxious about being too young to be a manager. I’ve had flushes of shame reading hateful comments on my YouTube channel.

But one day a friend of mine put this all in perspective. He pointed out that this concern about being an imposter leads me to double-check my facts, seek out feedback from reliable sources, and adjust my beliefs based on new evidence. It humbles me rather than holds me back.

Imposter Syndrome can prevent narcissism and delusional thinking. By constantly needing to double-check if you’re wrong, you can avoid the high-achiever’s temptation of believing your own hype and becoming immune to critical feedback.

How to deal with Imposter Syndrome

So if it’s not necessarily a bad thing, then how are we to respond to it?

Think of it as being on a spectrum from helpful to harmful. We essentially want to keep it in the “helpful” range. We don’t want so little of it that we become ignorant, stagnant, self-important and narcissistic. But we also don’t want so much of it that we feel the need to put on a false front, hide weaknesses and failings, and basically commit actual fraud.

The good news is that through our behaviour we can choose how much Imposter Syndrome affects us.

There’s a basic formula here;

1) Deliberately seek out critical feedback from reliable sources. Rather than sitting around worrying what people think or what you might be doing wrong or reading unsolicited hate comments, engineer a system where you consciously solicit the information you need to make informed measurements of your efficacy. It could mean asking your boss to discuss your KPI performance. It could mean asking your partner about what you’re doing that causes them resentment. It could mean asking a nutritionist for an evaluation of your health.

2) Make changes if there is information that arises from these checks that warrants attention. If there’s proof and reliable feedback that says you’re failing, then correct that error.

3) Here’s the most important step: if there is no evidence of significant failure, or you’ve corrected any failures that came up during your careful yet rational audit, then just keep going. Act with confidence, keep doing what you’re doing, and stop hesitating based on imagined fears.

Know that you will identify problems if they arise, so if you haven’t identified them, you must be on track!

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Thanks for reading

Hope to speak to you soon

Dan Munro


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