By Elizabeth Leong (18S06G)
Self-doubt is a pesky yet unavoidable thing – it rises in us whenever we think that our abilities might fall short. Logically, having a record of past achievements in a certain field should improve confidence in our skill in that particular area. For those of us with “impostor syndrome”, however, this may not be the case.
Despite its name, this syndrome is not a disorder. It is a recognised phenomenon, named in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Sufferers are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments. They dismiss their successes as a result of circumstances rather than their own ability. As a result, they are constantly afraid that their perceived lack of skill will one day be discovered, revealing them to be nothing more than frauds. This fear may cause them to downplay their achievements, as well as work obsessively to prevent failure in order to ensure nobody “sees through” their fraudulence.
In my capacity as a student and as a friend, I have seen the impostor syndrome take on different forms. Some people unfairly perceive themselves as undeserving of the leadership positions they hold, while some feel that others overestimate their moral character, even when this is not the case. Others seem unable to accept proof of their success, continuing to believe in their perceived fraudulence despite evidence to the contrary.
The environment we live in likely influences our susceptibility to this syndrome. Growing up, most of us were told stories of nearly-superhuman individuals with impeccable moral character. We are also regularly exposed to talented celebrities and personalities. As a result, some of us may develop an idealised definition of “true success”. When our own achievements do not conform to this definition, we choose to dismiss ourselves as frauds. Some of us may also perceive success as a faraway, mythical concept, making us even more unlikely to value our own successes.
Our school environment may also prove challenging for those of us prone to the impostor syndrome. Students who effortlessly excel in their studies seem to be everywhere (case in point – those enviable people whose results seem proportional to how often they nod off during lectures). There are also students who embody the concept of a holistic education, with accomplishments in the spheres of music, sport, and art – all on top of the required schoolwork.
This further fuels the mindset that success is a preserve of a special few, and that our own achievements will always fall short of (and thus can never be considered) “true” success. The fact that these students – these living embodiments of real success – are in such close proximity to us, makes them far more difficult to ignore.
Impostor syndrome may initially lead to some very positive behaviours; in its earliest stages, it may even seem similar to humility and determination. These traits are impossible to label as bad.
Still, the syndrome can seriously damage one’s self-esteem. The constant fear of being “discovered”, alongside the persistent guilt of perhaps not deserving one’s accomplishments, contributes to feelings of anxiety. Occasionally, the fear that one’s opinions are not coming from a place of true expertise may paralyse us, preventing us from acting when necessary.
As a result, those of us experiencing symptoms of this syndrome may desire to free ourselves from its influence. This is not necessarily an easy process, as it requires us to slowly change how we view situations, others and ultimately ourselves.
A good first step would be to take our idols off their pedestals. Even the people we idolise do not necessarily conform to the idealised form of success that some of us may have. I used to be intimidated by many people I considered high-achieving. I was convinced that their success had to come from their meticulous, rational, diligent and resilient natures. If these traits – amongst many others – were absent in an individual’s journey to achieving something, then the achievement was a fluke.
As I got to know some of these people, I realised that this line of thought was rather flawed. Even the mighty have moments (or even persistent signs) of weakness. In these people, I have seen amazing traits but also negative ones – procrastination, proclivity for complaining, and instances of giving up. Realising that our “idols” also have flaws may make it easier for us to accept that success does not need to be achieved by a certain type of person, or take on a certain form, before it can be considered valid.
We may even realise that these high-profile individuals doubt themselves as well. Maya Angelou herself has confessed to such thoughts: “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
Perhaps you are thinking, impossible! How can they doubt themselves after all that they have done? Chances are, others are thinking the same of you. It may be good to look at ourselves as if we were someone else. If another person declared that their track record was completely unreflective of their true self, we would not be inclined to believe them. So why should this logic apply only to ourselves?
I do acknowledge that this is a difficult mindset to get rid of. There will inevitably be a dissonance between how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others. We almost always know our own situations best, and therefore feel more comfortable with imposing different standards on ourselves. However, we should remember that others are judging us based on their own metrics; they are not privy to our private expectations of ourselves. Thus it is unlikely that others will “expose” us as frauds, or even over-analyse our “worth” in the first place.
What happens, then, if we realise that our idols do match up to our perceptions and expectations? We may have to accept that some expectations are too unrealistic to be applied to ourselves. Perhaps we are not naturally able to learn a subject at the same pace as others. Perhaps we struggle more than others to overcome our weaknesses. We can aspire to be the best, but another person doing better than us does not completely override our achievements. Some expectations can be rather arbitrary anyway, and it may be best not to get hung up over them.
Constant self-comparison is not the only reason behind the impostor syndrome. When a person frequently acts in a way contrary to what they consider their “natural self” in order to complete tasks, they may also feel that their accomplishments are not genuine. I used to do reasonably well in argumentative essay tests back in secondary school. Back then, I could never quite believe that I deserved my test scores; I never saw my “natural self” as opinionated or particularly good at clarity and argumentation. This did contribute to the feeling of being “fake”.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that whether or not we feel that we are simply “acting a part”, it is still ultimately ourselves who choose to make the right decisions, put in the appropriate effort, and achieve the final results. None of that can be said to be fraudulent. And if we still remain convinced that all of our efforts are “fake”, we can at least take comfort in the fact that we fake it well.
Impostor syndrome often takes root in our minds without our knowledge, and it will take some time and plenty of conscious thought to reverse its symptoms. If you find yourself constantly bothered by this syndrome in a way that negatively affects your daily life, it will be wise to seek the advice of a trusted adult or a counsellor. Otherwise, it is my hope that our efforts in changing the way we think about ourselves will help us be at peace with what we do. Let us not let our own insecurities undermine the effort we have put in to achieve what we have.