Written by: Valerie Adeline
Edited by: Fanya Tarissa
Illustration by: Pricharia Via
“I have written eleven 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.” Would you believe me if I had told you that I quoted that from the literary legend Maya Angelou? Or that Harvard graduate and esteemed actress Natalie Portman once said a similar thing: “I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.” Probably not. But they are every bit as true as the story I’m about to tell.
A few months back, a close friend of mine who greatly aspired to be a filmmaker opened up about the struggles that he was facing. Aside from being insecure about the short movies he’s made, he also had a deep-seated fear of people finding out he wasn’t as talented as they thought. It genuinely caught me by surprise. Not only did he arguably have the most potential and talent to become a filmmaker, but he also exuded confidence from his amazing works. Regardless, he never managed to get rid of these doubts—which he later found out was a part of what’s called Impostor Syndrome.
In 1978, a study—which observed a correlation between the said phenomenon with high-achieving women—coined the term ‘Impostor Syndrome’ as an ‘internal experience of intellectual phoniness’ (Clance & Imes, 1978). At first, the syndrome was thought to be unique to women, but multiple studies have failed to find significant differences in the degree that both genders experience (Harvey, 1981; Busotti, 1990 as cited in Langford & Clance, 1993). Harvey and Katz (1985, as cited in Sakulku & Alexander, 2011) proposed that the Impostor Phenomenon consisted of 3 core factors: (1) the belief that he/she has fooled other people, (2) fear of being exposed as an impostor, and (3) inability to attribute own achievement to internal qualities such as ability, intelligence, or skills.
Interestingly, some people, including myself, might identify closely with the feeling yet aren’t aware of the term. Growing up, my parents and friends perceived me as this straight-A student who always manages to ace her exams. I was truly satisfied, knowing that my hard work and dedication had been worth my time. But more often than not, there comes this voice whispering at the back of my head that I was fooling everyone. In reality, I was far from smart—as smart people supposedly don’t need to spend days studying to get good grades nor do they need to memorize the formulas because it comes naturally to them, and most of all, smart people don’t doubt that they’re smart. Or at least, that’s what I and most people would agree with.
In my case, while these uncertainties don’t necessarily discourage me from setting high goals at once, it doesn’t occur without problems, either. Because when you feel like a ‘fraud’ and have ambitions as high as studying abroad at the world’s top universities or pursuing a career in STEM, that little voice never stops asking the recurring questions: What if I’m being delusional and exaggerating my capabilities? What if my ego has inflated because of the seemingly insincere compliments I received? And, if I manage to get in by some extraordinary miracle, how long until my luck runs out and I finally get exposed?
It is an on-going battle against these thoughts.
The syndrome, however, doesn’t always present itself in this type specifically. In fact, Dr. Valerie Young—an internationally-known expert of Impostor Syndrome—categorized it into 5 distinguished types. The perfectionist type who fixates on their flaws and is never satisfied with their work. The superhero type who overcompensates their internal feelings of inadequacy among their peers by pushing themselves to work as hard as possible. The expert type who continuously seeks knowledge due to feeling unsatisfied with their expertise—but when done overboard, can come off as a form of procrastination. The natural genius who bases their competence on the speed that they learn and are obsessed with getting things right on the first try. The soloist type who refuses to accept assistance based on the belief that self-worth stems from independence. One way or another, all these insecurities originate from a failure of internalizing one’s competence—even with compelling evidence at hand.
Many psychologists have conducted experiments to determine the source of these doubts. One of them found that the intense sense of fraudulence can stem from separating what’s experienced internally and what’s presented outwardly (Lawler, 1984, as cited in Langford & Clance, 1993). This mindset is particularly prevalent in introverts according to the Jungian theory of psychological types. Another reason is due to childhood parentification—children who are demanded to take on the roles of their parents (Castro, Jones & Mirsalimi, 2010). By failing to do so, they develop an inauthentic false self and likely hide their feelings of inadequacy to receive their parent’s validation. As proven by Clance and Imes (1978), external factors can come into play here as well, for example, internalizing social stereotypes such as women are less capable than men—which unfortunately is still very prevalent in our society.
When faced with this kind of crisis, my usual coping mechanism was to exert as much effort as possible—not wanting to risk the possibility that a slightly lesser amount of effort could plunge me to the bottom of the rank. In retrospect, it might not be the worst coping mechanism to ever exist, nonetheless, it was still very physically and emotionally draining. Sometimes, when these doubts were at their peak, I would delay doing a certain task altogether as much as possible. Even though I knew procrastinating will only rob me of my time, it was still a better alternative than finding out for sure whether I had what it takes to succeed.
However, it’s worth mentioning that not all doubts necessarily equate to Impostor Syndrome. In fact, having doubts from time to time might be one of the most humane things to happen. The problem, however, lies when it starts to interfere with our daily performance. Because if our self-esteem is largely influenced by others’ feedback and validation, we become more reliant on praise and more sensitive to criticism (Langford & Clance, 1993). In my friend’s case, his insecurities worsen to a point where he discounts even the positive feedback he receives. Until today, he’s still unable to fathom a compliment at 100%.
But, hey, having that pesky little voice at the back of your head isn’t necessarily the end of the world! Or, at least, we can learn to manage it without much hassle and stress in ways that we’re most comfortable with. What I found most helpful was to be more vocal and open about my doubts to someone I trust. It can seriously be daunting and counterintuitive at first because I was practically exposing myself on purpose. But once my friend gladly related to the feeling and even introduced me to the term for it, it gave me a sense of relief—knowing that it’s much more common than I thought and that I am hardly the only one experiencing these apparent fears. In addition, we also learned to give each other honest and transparent responses which further assuaged our insecurities and allowed us to view things from a different perspective.
From there, it soon became a habit for me to take the time to reflect on these feelings instead of reactively acting upon them. It took a while, but I started to learn to acknowledge the obstacles that I’ve passed to be where I am right now and, most importantly, give myself credit for what I’ve achieved. Lisa Orbe-Austin, PhD, a New York–based psychologist and executive coach also said that taking the time to reflect on your efforts and applaud your successes can go a long way in internalizing them.
All in all, combatting Impostor Syndrome is a lengthy process. It’s fairly easy to become intimidated by all the formidable figures surrounding us, especially once we’ve reached a certain age in which we’re expected to become one of those figures. But it takes a leap of faith to fully understand that we—along with many other people out there—often have little to no knowledge about what other people are struggling with. So, occasionally feeling like we’re out of place or in over our heads doesn’t automatically make us impostors, it simply makes us humans. And it is with these right and controllable amounts of doubts that we are able to thrive and become the best version of ourselves.
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