Self-doubt. Fear of discovery. Two critical factors that make up the phenomenon known as Imposter Syndrome. When the emotional mind takes over from the rational mind, things that had seemed to be crystal clear can become a little blurred. So, when a person successfully applies for a job for which they are eminently qualified, for instance, they may think that somehow, implausibly, they're not qualified and they’re going to be found out. This is what’s known as Imposter Syndrome and mental health specialist Dr Harry Barry and Dr Ann-Marie Creaven, lecturer in Psychology at the University of Limerick, joined Claire Byrne to talk about this particular psychological phenomenon. According to Harry Barry, imposter syndrome inextricably linked with doubt:
"Where a person really begins to doubt their accomplishments or skills in some particular area... Not only do they doubt them or are anxious about them, but they’re really anxious that other people will discover their secret, that they’re not – in their mind – up to the job and they will then be totally embarrassed."
The two critical parts are that fear of not being good enough and the fear that this inadequacy will be discovered and made public. Claire wanted to know how we can recognise imposter syndrome in ourselves. Harry told her that people who suffer with this syndrome spend all their time being down on themselves. Starting a new job is where imposter syndrome is most commonly seen.
"Everybody, when they go into a new job is a little bit anxious and a little bit bothered and, 'Will I be good enough?’ etc. So, I think it’s really important that this is deeper. This is a more ingrained pattern of thinking. Very much associated with perfectionism, very much associated with people maybe with a little bit of general anxiety underlining it."
Often people who find this pattern of thinking going on in their minds are high achievers. And the causes of imposter syndrome can be varied, Ann-Marie says, although our knowledge is limited by it being an understudied area.
"I do think early life experiences are important to every aspect of our adult life, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see imposter syndrome related to low self-esteem, for example. They’re closely-related constructs. But I also think the work or education environment can create feelings of imposter syndrome."
Ann-Marie gives the example of a person who’s the smartest kid in the classroom, but when they go to college, they find that all the other smartest kids in all the other classrooms are there too. But what will people be feeling when they’re suffering from imposter syndrome? Harry says that emotional states are the key and the biggest emotion is anxiety:
"So, they’re constantly worrying, constantly foreboding, constantly catastrophising what’ll happen and all the time, you know, if jobs have to be done, it has to be done perfectly, do you know what I mean? In other words, I’m often trying to over-achieve, I’m often trying to almost be hyperactive, to make sure that I’ll cover all the bases, so nobody can see anything. The second one that screams out is embarrassment, or shame."
At the heart of imposter syndrome, Harry says, is the emotion of depression. So a person with imposter syndrome is anxious, self-downing and embarrassed. As Claire says, it sounds exhausting.
Although imposter syndrome is not a recognised psychological disorder, it often occurs alongside depression and anxiety. That leads people to attribute their successes to factors other than themselves, as Ann-Marie explains:
"So they’re not saying this project went well because I led it well. They’re saying this project went well because I got a bit lucky or because these people around me really pulled their weight and they’re not attributing their success to themselves."
The good news, though, is that there are treatments available for imposter syndrome. In fact, Harry says, it can be quite easy to treat – it’s all about teaching a person what’s really happening to them and dealing with the inner voice that tells them they’re not good enough:
"An awful lot of people, it’s going on in their mind and they're not really understanding what’s happening. So, I teach them all about the internal critic and then I teach them the world of unconditional self-acceptance and how to deal with success and failure. That’s how you manage the imposter syndrome."
Unconditional self-acceptance sounds like the sort of thing we should all embrace, imposter syndrome or not. If you want to hear Claire’s full conversation with Dr Ann-Marie Creaven and Dr Harry Barry, you can find it here.