By Carmen Hoober
Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The impostor syndrome—part 1

Once upon a time (1980-something), in a land far, far away (Greentown, Indiana), an 8-year-old girl (me) was pulled out of her class in school and told she was going to be moved to another class where she would be "challenged." She walked down the hall to the new classroom with four other students who had been told the same thing. The kids walking down the hall looked at each other with a mixture of apprehension and pride. No one said it out loud, but they all realized it: They were the smart kids.

In the new classroom, things seemed to go well, but after a few months, the girl noticed something. She wasn't in the highest-level reading group at first, and she wasn't able to do the multiplication flash cards as fast as the other "smart kids." So … the girl wondered … maybe … she really wasn't that smart after all???  

The years flew by and she continued to be identified as one of the "smart kids," but in the back of her mind, she knew—it was only a matter of time until everyone else learned that she had them fooled. She wasn't that smart; she was just coasting by on a few lucky successes and a nice personality. But she made peace with herself through the years, and even occasionally allowed herself to feel good about her accomplishments. At critical junctures in her life, however, the same old doubts would creep to the surface—reminding her time and again that despite any evidence to the contrary, she really wasn't that intelligent or competent or worthy, and someday, Everyone. Would. Find. Out.


This experience is one I identify as the root of something I deal with to this very day. I never had a name for it until about a year ago when I stumbled onto a podcast about the Impostor Syndrome (more accurately known as the Impostor Phenomenon or Impostor Experience). Discovering that this is an actual "thing" has been incredibly freeing for me - and so I bring this topic to you here because, left unchecked, it can and will hold you back in your career.

Does any of this sound familiar? Take this quiz to see if the Impostor Syndrome is impacting you.

Q: What is the Impostor Syndrome?

A: According to Wikipedia, the Imposter Syndrome is:  

A psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud." The term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

People with Impostor Syndrome are really good at deflecting praise, minimizing accomplishments, and explaining away successes. Because (take your pick) anyone could have done it! I was just in the right place at the right time! People just like me … I'm actually not that smart! This has so many negative consequences, but perhaps the worst one is that, eventually, other people will begin to believe you.

Q. What isn't the Impostor Syndrome?

A. The Impostor Syndrome is not just a lack of self-esteem or self-confidence. In fact, it's really not a "syndrome" at all. More, it's a collection of feelings of inadequacy or fraudulence that persist despite evidence to the contrary. A certain degree of self-doubt is a positive thing - especially when you are learning something new.

Maureen Zappala writes: "The Impostor is not the person who says, 'I don't think I can do this.' It's the person who says, 'I'm not sure I'm doing this correctly now,' while they are actually doing it. And then looks behind and says, 'It wasn't all that great. I didn't really do a great job. In fact, it wasn't really me who did it.'"

Q: Who has the Impostor Syndrome?

A: Basically, everyone. But it does (in my opinion) hold some people back more than others. Researchers believe up to 70 percent of the population experiences the Impostor Syndrome at some point in their lives. Originally, it was thought that women were mainly the ones who suffer from the Impostor Syndrome, but studies now show that men experience it at the same rate. Here are some groups commonly identified as being particularly affected by the Impostor Syndrome:

  • High achievers.
  • Academics.
  • Tech workers.
  • Writers, actors, and creative types.
  • Minorities, women, and those who represent their entire social group in areas where they are not typically present.

Anecdotally, at least, I would add MVSers and your fellow millennials to this list. I don't put much stock in participation trophy rhetoric, but anxiety about "adulting" is a recurring theme in the folks I talk with in my role as a personnel counselor. There seems to be a perception out there that real adults have reached some elusive level of maturity and thereby have received all the knowledge. Here's the truth: To a certain degree, we're all pretending. Times I feel like I'm masquerading as an adult include: completing a W-2 form, praying in front of a group, walking through an airport, flossing, lecturing my kids about swearing, anytime I'm trying to act "professional," etc.

So, I am learning not to despair. Lots of amazing people have dealt with this! And you know, me, Albert Einstein … Maya Angelou … basically the same thing, right?

Coming next month: Strategies to overcome and manage the Imposter Syndrome.


Carmen Hoober is a personnel counselor for Mennonite Mission Network.



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