Imposter syndrome – the sense you’re faking your way through life and will surely get found out – is on the rise. Here’s how to break free
Ever feel like you’re winging it, and you’re bound to get caught out, that there’s surely someone way more qualified than you for your job (despite the fact you meet all the criteria)? You’re part of a growing number of men suffering from imposter syndrome.
First identified in women, impostor phenomenon, as it was originally described, was coined by US psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s. Having spoken to over 150 highly successful women, they discovered that despite their obvious talent, skill and intellect, these women didn’t consider themselves intelligent, and were convinced that they had fooled anyone who thought they were. It was quickly determined that many men fall victim to this syndrome as well.
‘We set an absurdly high bar for ourselves,’ says Dr Valerie Young, an internationally recognised expert on impostor syndrome. ‘If we think that competence means knowing it all, never having to ask for help, always feeling confident, doing everything perfectly, then we’re bound to feel inadequate.’
It’s not surprising men are struggling with expectations. These days many feel they need to excel at work, but also have the body of David Beckham, the emotional capacity of George Clooney, and the sensitivity of Ryan Gosling. They need to be successful, fit and woke. ‘There are also expectations on men to be perpetually confident,’ says Young. ‘To be able to pop the bonnet, look at the engine and know what they’re doing.’
Brad Johnson, a professor of psychology, agrees that while imposter syndrome is an ‘equal-opportunity affliction’, gender norms play a role and can in some ways make it harder for men who are affected to seek help. ‘While women are socialised to share their imposter worries, guys are socialised to buck up and use bravado or stoic silence to mask self-doubts.’
Recent studies found a third of millennials suffer from imposter syndrome at work, and it’s no surprise – our modern world feeds those feelings of inadequacy. ‘Thanks to social media, we now operate in this culture of comparison,’ says Dr Young. Open your feed, and you see endless images of people’s achievements, but none of the struggle that got them there. The impression is that everyone else is gliding through life, and you’re the only one struggling. ‘Google “CV of Failures Johannes Haushofer”,’ says Dr Young. ‘He’s a Princeton University assistant professor who posted a CV of all the schools he didn’t get into, papers that were rejected, conferences he didn’t attend, and jobs he didn’t get. We think success is a straight upward trajectory, when it’s a series of wins and losses.’
Imposing as an imposter
So how can you tell if you suffer, and why are some people seemingly immune, while others battle self-doubt every day? ‘Symptoms include chronic worry, trouble sleeping and obsessive thinking about perceived failures,’ says Johnson. ‘Successes get attributed to sheer luck, so even after a win, the imposter may feel more worried – they’ve fooled the boss once, now they’ll raise expectations.’
Then there are the coping and protecting mechanisms people use, because when you feel like an imposter you have to find ways to both manage the anxiety of being found out, and avoid being found out. One strategy is to be invisible. ‘People don’t speak up at meetings, don’t ask questions, don’t share ideas, don’t go for more challenging opportunities, because it’s safer to stay under the radar where no one can find you out,’ says Dr Young. ‘On the opposite end of the continuum are workaholics who over-prepare, taking three hours over something that by any measure could be done in 30 minutes. Others self-sabotage their chances: staying up late before a first client meeting, for example.’ The end result often isn’t pretty: a combination of stress, frustration and burn out.
A combination of societal and cultural influences, and for some, childhood experiences, can lead to imposter syndrome. ‘Kids get labelled early; they’re the funny one, the creative one, the cheeky one, the athletic one, the smart one,’ says Young. ‘If you didn’t get to be the smart one, you spend your whole life trying to get your parents to notice you. If you were the smart one, there’s a lot of pressure to keep that up.’ Then there’s how success is viewed. ‘You could have been raised in a family where you got all As and one B – and your family respond by saying, “What is that B doing there?” so you get the message early on that only perfection is acceptable.’
Expectations of boys play a part, too: ‘They are socialised to practise bravado,’ explains Johnson. ‘To be able to say, “I got this!” in every circumstance. This can make it hard for them as men to accept the limits of their knowledge and skill set.’ What they learn in the playground, they take with them to the office. ‘Boys are told not to show vulnerability. As men, rather than acknowledge and discuss our imposter syndrome, we suffer in silence, trying to manage our anxiety with workaholism or even substance use.’ One US study backs this up; when women were faced with stress, they tended to seek social support; men responded by turning to alcohol or drugs.
What happens on the job
Work and further education can be the perfect breeding ground for your inner imposter to flourish. ‘It’s counterintuitive, but the more educated you are, the more people you feel like you’re fooling,’ explains Young. Then at work, various factors can leave you rattled, one of which is the people you’re surrounded by. ‘A sense of belonging fosters self-confidence, so the more people who look or sound like you, the more comfortable you feel,’ says Dr Young. If you have a different accent, if you’re from a different socioeconomic class, or a different race, you have less of a sense of belonging.
According to Young, the reverse isn’t much better. ‘Some people have the opposite problem, known as the Dunning- Kruger effect (named for the psychologists who worked on it). It’s a cognitive bias where people of low ability mistakenly assess their competence as greater than it is. Often, the people who have the highest sense of confidence, perform the worst.’ Young is looking for the middle ground. ‘I try to teach people to form a healthy relationship with failure, mistakes and criticism, and a realistic idea of what it means to be competent.’