Imposter Syndrome: who is she and also how dare she?
Imposter syndrome. That old chestnut. You’ve almost definitely felt it, and if you haven’t, there is a 100% chance that you will at some point. Every time you push yourself, there’s a high likelihood that some level of imposter syndrome will come too.
Thoughts like “I can’t do this”, “I’m falling behind”, “Everyone else is doing better than me”, “I’m not qualified for this”, “How the hell did I land this job?”, “My colleague must think I’m f*cking useless”, “It’s only a matter of time before people realise I’m not good enough to be here”, “I can’t ask for help or my boss will think I’m a waste of space” are all types of imposter syndrome.
They’re not just unpleasant thoughts and feelings to have though, they can also really hold you back, not just in terms of your career, but when it comes to hobbies, relationships and personal development too.
Dr. Valerie Young, one of the world’s experts on imposter syndrome (she literally owns the domain impostersyndrome.com, so you know it’s legit), breaks down imposter syndrome into 5 key types, each with its own specific origins, symptoms and effects. You might have just one, a combo of a few, different types at different times or the grand slam of imposter syndromes (congratulations!!! You win a work life that’s riddled with anxiety!!! Also are you okay???).
So with that in mind, let’s break down the five types and have a fun choose-your-own-adventure, except you don’t find buried treasure, you get to confront your own deep-rooted anxieties instead! Isn’t that fun?
The five different types of imposter syndrome
As a perfectionist, chances are you set incredibly high goals for yourself – well done you lil go-getter!! But also, are these goals attainable? Are they realistic? Are they even things you want to do, or do you just think that you need to do them to be better than other people, or better than you were yesterday?
As a perfectionist, you’re incredibly vulnerable to imposter syndrome because even when you do hit your goals it doesn’t feel like enough. There is always something that you could have done “more” or “better”, and that means you’ll never actually celebrate your achievements and accomplishments.
You might well be a perfectionist if you:
- Struggle to delegate and might be accused of being a micro-manager.
- Have the mindset “If you want something done right, do it yourself”.
- Feel like everything you do has to be 100%, or you may as well not have bothered at all.
- Find yourself relentlessly kicking yourself and ruminating over your mistakes for days, weeks, or even months, even after the problem has been resolved and the case closed.
- Feel like you’ve been just a bit too seen when this turned up on your TikTok fyp: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMLmkskKW/
For a Perfectionist, learning to see mistakes as part of the natural learning process, and accepting that no one in the history of ever has been able to do everything “perfectly”, so what makes you so special? Forcing yourself to start things before you feel ready, or before whatever you perceive as the “perfect time” is scary, but can also be really good for you!
People who experience this form of imposter syndrome are really good at convincing themselves they’re essentially phonies, surrounded by “actually talented” people. There are a few types of imposter syndrome that stem from this feeling, but Superhumans respond to this anxiety by working longer hours to “make up” for their shortfalls and keep up with the pack.
However, in a shocking turn of events that no-one saw coming, working long hours and overloading yourself is a bad idea™, and is detrimental to your mental health, your work relationships and can push a toxic office culture too!
Superhumans are very prone to:
- Staying late at the office, working evenings, and weekends and finding yourself unable to set time boundaries for fear of being seen as lazy or not pulling your weight.
- Getting stressed even in your downtime, feeling like you always have to be doing something and experiencing the sensation of wasting time when you do finally get to stop for a minute.
- Struggling to set boundaries at work, resulting in social plans and hobbies taking a back seat due to “having” to work.
- Feeling like you have to prove your worth by working longer and harder than anyone else, to make up for your perceived lack of skills, achievements and experience.
A fun realisation for a lot of Imposter workaholics is that you’re actually addicted to the validation that comes from working, not to the work itself! Ouch. However, training your brain and your thought patterns to need less external validation is the best way to start combating these unhealthy practices – easier said than done, I’m aware!
The Natural Genius
A lot of the time, Natural Geniuses were considered “gifted children” growing up – straight A’s in school, didn’t have to work or study too hard to be successful, lots of extracurriculars you were great at, the works! However, for a “golden child”, not being successful straight away can trigger some pretty debilitating anxieties, and set you back years in your career.
Being a “smart kid” isn’t a prerequisite for being a Natural Genius, but it is pretty common. People with this form of imposter syndrome, like perfectionists, set themselves an impossibly high bar for their achievements, but their anxiety comes not from being unable to reach this bar, but being unable to reach it with ease. Even if they accomplish their goals, if they didn’t do it perfectly on the first try, Natural Geniuses will still consider themselves a failure.
Common patterns of a Natural Genius include:
- Feeling embarrassed or ashamed when they can’t get something right the first time.
- Disliking the idea of having a mentor, or needing additional help or training in a skill.
- Going “off book” a lot – just like being faced with an IKEA flat-pack, you think you know better than the instructions when things start to go wrong (this can, of course, be both a strength and a weakness! The difference is where the motivation to try your own methods comes from – is it creativity or anxiety?).
- Being used to getting success and praise without too much effort.
- Avoiding trying new things or learning new skills due to the massive anxiety you associate with not being good at something.
One thing that Natural Geniuses often don’t really take into account is that even the most skilled, intelligent and accomplished people can’t be good at everything the first time, and more to the point, shouldn’t be good at everything the first time.
So try that thing you’re “not good at” – chances are that you’ll get more respect by trying and failing than you would by refusing to try at all.
Similarly to the Perfectionist, the Soloist wants to do things on their own and often refuses help. The difference here is that a perfectionist doesn’t want help because they’re scared of something going wrong, while the soloist is convinced they don’t need help, and if they do then they’ve failed.
The Soloist is also quite similar to the Superhuman, in that they feel they’re a phoney surrounded by experts, but instead of working long hours to compensate, they work almost entirely alone! In some roles, having a strong sense of independence is a vital skill, and these people will never lean too heavily on others or ride someone else’s coattails, but refusing help because you see it as an indicator of your “worthiness” for a role, is, unsurprisingly, very unhealthy, and a straight road to burnout (are we starting to sense a pattern here? Maybe?).
As a Soloist, you are very likely to:
- Get frustrated when others “butt in” with advice or assistance (spoiler alert: they are not bad people, they are not overstepping and they are not judging you, they are just being nice and doing their job too).
- Find yourself Googling complex concepts and trying to work it out yourself when you know you actually have that expertise in your team just a desk, email or message away.
- Find yourself working outside of your job scope, just so you can square away a project yourself, without having to ask anyone else for help.
It’s not shameful to ask for help when you need it. Don’t be afraid to ask a co-worker how to do something if you don’t know. If you are having difficulty solving a problem, ask a supportive supervisor or even a career coach for assistance, no matter how painful that concept might seem for you!
Experts are prone to imposter syndrome because you measure their competence (and their worth) by what you can do, how much you know about a specific topic and the things you can deliver. Like the Perfectionist, you always feel as though you could know more, do more and be better, even when all the evidence speaks to the contrary! You want to be seen as an expert, but don’t feel like one, even if you’ve put significant time and effort into becoming more knowledgeable or practised about a subject.
As an expert, your fear is to be exposed as undeserving of your “expert” title, and so there are a few patterns you might recognise as a result:
- Feeling uncomfortable, insecure and fearful when someone calls you an expert.
- Always looking for training, certifications and accreditations to improve your skills and prove them to those around you.
- Feeling like you don’t “know enough”, even when you’ve been working in a specific job or role for a long time, and rarely run into questions you can’t answer.
- Immediately feeling panicked or upset when you are faced with a question you can’t answer straight away.
- Not applying for new roles unless you meet every one of the job requirements, particularly educational and experience-related requirements.
Learning more and prioritising your development is a good thing! This isn’t to say you should stop pushing yourself, but for Experts, always looking for ways to expand your horizons can actually be a type of procrastination, and prevent you from knuckling down and getting things done!
Mentoring, training and volunteering to help junior colleagues can be a really good way to help improve your confidence as an Expert, and start to give you concrete (and productive) indicators of your expertise.
Almost everyone gets imposter syndrome
The thing with imposter syndrome is that it can feel incredibly isolating, but actually, almost everyone experiences it at some point (studies vary but anywhere between 75% and 98% of people are estimated to regularly experience imposter syndrome). There are actually also some big positives to imposter syndrome – it keeps you motivated, keeps you moving and growing, and looking ahead to the next challenge in small doses. When it starts to feel a bit heavier is when the problem comes in. Imposter syndrome can paralyse you, prevent you from grabbing important opportunities and stop you from pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Even worse, it makes you incredibly vulnerable to hitting a big wall of professional burnout, as you’re mentally unable to stop and celebrate your achievements and successes. Rewarding yourself and acknowledging your own value is something that people actually do incredibly badly, and incredibly rarely! But there is no reason we shouldn’t prioritise ourselves and reward ourselves exactly as we do with others.
Imposter syndrome is unavoidable for most people, but being able to acknowledge it, understand it, and accept it is the first step towards being able to combat it and celebrate yourself for all of the things you really do know and the incredible value you have. 💙