You're on your way to an interview for a job at a company you'd love to work for. On paper, the position you're being considered for fits perfectly with the experience you have under your belt. You're more than qualified, and the team would be lucky to have you — the hiring manager even said so herself.
But as you head in to meet with the company's top dog, you start questioning whether or not you're really capable of the job you're vying for. The resume you pass across the desk to your interviewer lists job experience you know you've lived through, yet you feel like you're an actor playing the part of someone qualified enough to take on this role — and you start to worry that your performance won't be convincing enough. Your interviewer asks you questions that you have the answers to, but your responses feel fake in your mouth as you form them.
If you've found yourself in a similar scenario, you're in good company. According to a clinical research paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Science, it's estimated that 70 percent of the U.S. population has experienced what's known as impostor syndrome.
The term was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who were looking for a better explanation as to why high achieving women often attributed their success to luck rather than accomplishment. "The term now applies to both male and female achievers who are psychologically uncomfortable with acknowledging their role in their success," explains psychologist Dr. Renee Carr. "This psychological discomfort is often rooted in pressures — from self or others — to achieve great success."
It's estimated that 70 percent of the U.S. population has experienced what's known as impostor syndrome.
Many psychologists, including the two that coined the term, believe this should be referred to as "impostor experience," since it's not a clinical diagnosis or mental illness, but rather a temporary state of being.
What is it that causes us to feel like we're frauds in our own lives? Are some of us more susceptible to experiencing this than others? And what can be done to push past these feelings when they creep up on us? Here's what you need to know about impostor syndrome, why it impacts certain people and how to move past it.
Your Brain On Impostor Syndrome
Typically, the stressor that triggers impostor syndrome involves a new success or opportunity. "Impostor syndrome often begins with an accomplishment, like a new job, completion of a degree or another competency or milestone," explains Cara Maksimow, LCSW. "The person who achieved this level of success begins to have negative thoughts that the success was not really earned. These negative thoughts, which are often referred to as 'cognitive distortions,' are based on fear and anxiety and not based in objective facts."
For example, in the case of interviewing for a new job, you may begin to tell yourself that you're not really qualified — that the wins listed on your resume are just flukes, and feel worried your interviewer will somehow find that out.
Noteworthy high achievers who have struggled with impostor syndrome include Academy-award winner Tom Hanks, best-selling author Neil Gaiman and business leader Sheryl Sandberg.
Once these negative thoughts start to flood our brain, it activates the process that translates into the stress we feel during the experience. "We get the thought about our insecurity or how we are a fraud, and that stimulates the amygdala in the brain that is part of the limbic system (which controls our moods and instincts)," explains Dr. John Mayer, clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand. "The amygdala then sends signals to the regions of the frontal cortex that are involved in analyzing and interpreting data. Next, the brain evaluates whether this data is accurate. If the data is perceived as something that causes angst, the adrenal gland produces a hormonal secretion that results in the release of catecholamines, especially norepinephrine and epinephrine. Then the body is brought into a state of stress."
Cut to you wiping sweat off your forehead as your puzzled interviewer offers you water and waits for you to formulate coherent sentences to answer the (seemingly simple) prompt: "Tell me about your experience."
Who Is Most Commonly Affected?
Impostor syndrome doesn't discriminate, and can happen regardless of the level of success a person has achieved in their field. Noteworthy high achievers who have struggled with impostor syndrome include Academy-award winner Tom Hanks, best-selling author Neil Gaiman and business leader Sheryl Sandberg.
However, there are a few factors that increase your chances of experiencing impostor syndrome — one being your gender. "As children, boys are socialized to be more risk takers and girls not as much," Maksimow explains. "Girls are socialized to be more risk averse than boys, and it often comes out in adulthood and in situations related to career. In careers that are more male dominated, women feel isolated and begin to doubt themselves and their ability to be where they are — despite the evidence that they deserve to be there."
According to Carr, childhood experiences can also make you predisposed to impostor syndrome.
"Achievers might describe their success as 'luck' because they have been taught to not bring attention to themselves or not promote themselves as being better than others," she explains. "Alternatively, an achiever's thoughts of being an impostor can also stem from mixed messages during childhood where accomplishment was a requirement for love, approval and affection."
Your birth order can also impact your chances of having this experience. "Impostor syndrome is often observed in first-born children who are expected to perform or behave in a certain way, or to be an example for younger siblings," says Carr. "First-borns who are pressured or punished for 'not knowing' can experience, during adulthood, guilt and self-blame for not achieving immediate success, greater success or for 'not knowing' how to avoid mistakes. They develop beliefs of being an impostor because they view themselves as not having done enough to be worthy of the approval or accolades."
In terms of upbringing, Maksimow says there are a few factors that may put millennials at a higher risk for experiencing impostor syndrome.
"Millennials have grown up with the pressures of social comparison and the age of technology as well as the beginnings of overprotective helicopter parenting, which may be contributing to anxiety and fear around work and school performance," she explains. "Insecurities and self-doubt reinforce fears. The bar is also set so much higher than in the past. Pressures to perform at a higher level to get ahead are more demanding now than ever before and yet, failure is not something many millennials have had much experience with. In the age of 'everyone gets a trophy' and overprotective parenting, kids grow up without grit, and are less able to handle the higher expectations and pressures and increases in anxiety, stress and insecurity about performance."
In the initial study, researchers found the clinical symptoms associated with impostor syndrome to include anxiety, depressive symptoms and lack of self-confidence. Maksimow says that in her experience, perfectionist patients tend to suffer from impostor syndrome more frequently as well.
"A big correlation I see in my clinical practice is the connection between perfectionism and the impostor syndrome and anxiety," she says. "People who are very driven, success oriented and work hard for achievements can often become frightened once they accomplish what they set out to do. They can doubt themselves; thinking is distorted in order to protect themselves from this very strong all or nothing thinking. They believe that they have to be perfect or else they have completely failed."
How Impostor Syndrome Affects Your Career, Health and Relationships
Those who experience impostor syndrome often find themselves locked into what's called the "impostor cycle."
"So-called impostors think every task they tackle has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help," clinical therapist Carla Lundblade explains. "That perfectionism can lead to two typical responses. An impostor may procrastinate, putting off an assignment out of fear that he or she won't be able to complete it to the necessary high standards. Or, he or she may over-prepare, spending much more time on a task than is necessary." If procrastination breeds a successful outcome, it's written off as luck or a fluke. Success from over-preparation reinforces the idea that the "impostor" needs to work extra hard for it, and would not have succeeded otherwise.
This cycle can quickly become an exhausting one, and has plenty of negative implications on not only your career, but your health, well-being and personal relationships.
"Impostor syndrome contributes to psychological distress, continued self-monitoring, increased self-doubt and persistent fears of failure," says psychologist Dr. Audrey Ervin. "It can negatively impact careers because people may over produce to prove that they are capable. This can lead to burnout and ultimately be counterproductive. People may also miss opportunities because they do not feel worthy or capable, despite being quite competent. Impostor syndrome can negatively impact relationships when a family member prioritizes career success over time with families or children. Partners and families can suffer when someone spends too much time trying to prove themselves in a professional capacity to the detriment of their personal lives."
How to Reverse the Cycle
When impostor syndrome hits, psychologist Dr. Jason Eckerman says that talking with someone who embodies your idea of success can actually help you see things differently.
"When you're feeling like you don't belong in these situations, it can be helpful to talk with mentors who are more experienced," he says. "Many times we find that other people who we see as deserving often feel the same way, and it can help put things in perspective to realize that what you're feeling is normal. Part of what makes impostor syndrome so powerful is the feeling that we're not able to talk about it without exposing ourselves as being a fraud. Pushing against this and 'exposing yourself' actually helps by showing you that you're not alone in that feeling."
Because impostor syndrome stems from an inability to recognize or accept your achievements, Eckerman says that taking the time to sit down and purposely spend time thinking about them can help as well.
Make a list of your strengths and accomplishments and refer back to these when you're questioning whether you actually deserve to be there.
"Take a balanced inventory of your strengths and accomplishments," he says. "It's easy to look at each small success in isolation and discount it for various reasons. It's much more difficult to discount it when you acknowledge what your strengths are and how many successes you've had over time. Make a list of your strengths and accomplishments and refer back to these when you're questioning whether you actually deserve to be there."
Those with perfectionist tendencies will likely want to list areas where they want to improve during this process, which Eckerman says is helpful so long as you keep your list equally weighted. "Conversely, it can make it more powerful if you balance this with areas that you know need some work," he says. "This can help your assessment feel more honest and push against the tendency to discount it."
Also, pay attention to your thinking process and be aware of when impostor syndrome begins to take hold.
"Make a conscious effort to push against your natural tendencies when you get feedback," Eckerman says. "When you feel like your success is due to outside factors, ask yourself what makes you deserving of that success and how your positive characteristics contributed to that success. When you internalize your failures, step back and label this for what it is. Acknowledge that what you're experiencing is just the impostor syndrome. Acknowledge that others experience it just like you do. Acknowledge that failure is a natural part of the process that everyone goes through it at one time or another."