Perhaps you feel like a fraud in the workplace. Despite an impressive resume, numerous accomplishments and glowing accolades from your boss and peers, you’re utterly convinced you’re inept and deserve neither praise or success. All those poor misguided souls who admire your talents are exactly that, misguided. Until they realise the truth that is. The worst thing about believing you’re an imposter is that you live in perpetual fear your cover will be blown. Not surprisingly, sufferers tend to experience little joy or realise their potential.
For a number of years, researchers have been investigating the condition. One observation is that all sufferers exhibit a distinct imposter-like pattern of thinking. They feel fraudulent, they see only their shortcomings even if they have done a fabulous job and everyone says so, and they attribute their good fortune to other factors such as chance, their good looks, or people’s blind spots.
Martin Seligman is an American psychologist and argues that we all practice a certain style of attribution to explain why something good or bad happens to us. This style consists of three dimensions: the reasons exist inside or outside us; they’re stable or unstable; and they apply to many situations or to just one specific event.
Attribution style has often been linked with emotional health. For instance, the emotionally strong person who gets promoted attributes this to internal, stable and global factors (“I’m just one talented dude!”); conversely, when this same individual doesn’t get the top job he blames unstable and specific factors (“not so blessed this time!”). Depressive folk are the opposite: they blame themselves for failing but attribute victory to serendipity.
You guessed it. People who feel like imposters use this latter style of attribution. Which begs the questions: are they simply depressed? Or indeed, are they suffering from some other mental illness? Psychologists say no, not entirely. Nor can psychologists say definitively one gender is more susceptible to the condition than the other. Indeed imposter feelings seem to ebb and flow in both men and women, depending on life’s vicissitudes.
So what to do if you are afflicted? One key strategy is practicing appropriate attribution until it becomes habitual. Whenever you accomplish something, note which of your talents were involved and to what extent they contributed. Another is reflecting on your positive qualities to boost self esteem and reduce fear and depression.
The idea is to learn to recognise and appreciate your successes in order to better maximise your potential and feel good about yourself. Life is hard enough as it is. Why be your own worst enemy and make it even harder?
You can read more about Imposter Syndrome on the Forbes website. Dr Pauline Rose Clance first described the imposter phenomenon in 1978. Her website is also a great source of information about the condition.
If you want to learn an arsenal of tools and techniques to help overcome a range of neurotic mind states, check out the program for Happiness & Its Causes 2011 with workshops including Strengths: the “back door” to happiness with Dr Robert Biswas-Diener, The confidence gap with Dr Russ Harris and Don’t worrry be happy with Dr Sarah Edelman.