Jodie Foster won the Oscar in 1989 for the movie “The Accused.”
When she was invited to speak about her achievements on stage, she shared that she had a strong sense of being a “fraud” or an impostor within her. She kept on thinking the results were simply the result of good charm taking her favor.
After her brilliant celebration of winning the Oscar, she was invited to the Yale Campus, her alma mater, to be awarded with the Yale Undergraduates’ Lifetime Achievement Award. During her speech, she mentioned that she never felt she came to Yale because of her own talents and achievements. She always felt everyone in Yale was leaps and beyond smarter than her. It induced a strong anxiousness within her during her time at campus. As a result, at one point, she almost had decided to shun acting and pursue graduate school because she felt so. . . out of groove with everyone.
“Honestly, I thought my career would be over by the time I was 18,”Said Foster, when Guido asked for her to explain why she nearly ended up quitting acting to pursue graduate school after graduating from Yale.
Well, things worked out for her. However, the problem that we can see in her is called Impostor Syndrome, which is very common in our society these days.
What is it?
Impostor Syndrome was first described in the article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” written by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in 1978. Their study was actually focused on women because they had speculated women were more susceptible to having a feeling of being a “fraud” more than men. However, since then, studies have dictated men to be as equally vulnerable as women to Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud. People with Imposter Syndrome fear being caught out. They fear not living up to what they think are the expectations of others. The fear of being caught out means that they may continually take on new challenges in order to manage the impression of not being seen as a failure.
Paradoxically, the fear of being caught out may be so great they avoid coming out of their comfort zone. Ultimately, they can end up in a spiral feeling more and unhappy in work and in life. The more difficult things get, the more the imposter mask becomes indistinguishable from the face. You might be guessing this is a natural phenomenon in people who are starting a new challenge. A fear that sticks with you when you decide to venture out.
However, it’s a necessity to understand that these two things have a stark difference. Psychologist Liberman says, “Yes, most people might experience some self-doubt when facing new challenges. But someone with [imposter phenomenon] has an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes.” The fear is tremendous and could immobilize a person from functioning even the mundane of all tasks.
Disorder vs symptom
If you think about it in terms of human brain chemicals, Impostor Syndrome isn’t a disorder; rather, it’s a symptom. This might be one of the reasons why people don’t take it as seriously as they take other human brain disorders and mental health. However, we must recognize that Impostor Syndrome could equally, if not more, affect our mental situation. Many people in graduate schools have suffered terribly in their academia because of Impostor Syndrome. After all, it’s a weird space where a bunch of intellectually curious and often times insecure people vie against one another to showcase how smart they are. This creates a bizarre seminar/lab environment where it is really easy to come down on oneself through negative self-talk and comparison (what you perceive as ‘gaps’ in your knowledge) to one’s peers.
The worst thing about Impostor Syndrome is that people are unable to talk because they have a fear of “being caught” deep within them. Part of the experience is the looming insecurity in their minds that the society will soon recognize they didn’t belong or deserve to be at a certain place/win certain achievements. As a result, people with Impostor Syndrome suffer from anxiety and depression before they know.
A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that impostor feelings more strongly predicted mental health problems than did stress related to one’s minority status. It confirms that Impostor Syndrome is a very real and very specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Therefore, colleges around the world have started focusing more on this and counsel students to make them believe more on themselves.
Why does Impostor Syndrome exist?
The cause behind the problem is engraved within the deepest roots of our society. It mostly comes around with our upbringing. Psychologist Imes dictates that people who feel like impostors grew up in families that placed a big emphasis on achievement. In particular, parents who send mixed messages — alternating between over-praise and criticism — can increase the risk of future fraudulent feelings. This creates a lot of confusion between approval and love and worthiness in the minds of a growing child and they end up relating their self-worth on achieving. It is one of the reasons people from minority background have troubles with Impostor Syndrome more than others. If people differ in any way from the majority of their peers — whether by race, gender, sexual orientation or some other characteristic — it fuels the sense of being a fraud within them.
Furthermore, our tendency of picturing success stories as something which everyone should have has added more fuel to the problem. The world pushes us to be high-achievers like Elon Musk/Bill Gates/Steve Jobs constantly. Our perspective of putting them on a pedestal and treating them like they’re the norm has backfired on us. Rather than inspiring us, it is burdening our tiny shoulders with enormous weight, which has further contributed in us feeling we don’t deserve to be here. Sure, all of us are free to pursue our choices and dreams, but it’s equally important to be pragmatic and realize it’s extremely difficult to be the one in one million.
How can we keep it in control?
Although Impostor Syndrome isn’t recognized as a human brain disorder, the solution comes around with therapy as it does with other mental health complexities. It’s necessary for one to believe in themselves, feel confident about themselves, and love themselves. Therapy from professionals could guide a person to look back at themselves, connect the dots, and start believing that it was their choices and capabilities that brought them where they are, enhancing the feeling of confidence within them. Along with seeking therapy, it is equally necessary to find a friend/mentor figure who understands you well. A mentor with whom you could share your deep feelings and emotions, and who could guide you towards a brighter path.
As discussed above, the preoccupation with how we perform is something that lends itself to Imposter Syndrome. Being overly preoccupied with the impression we give to others means that we can become terrified of showing any doubt or anxiety. Being more concerned with learning rather than performance can help. Learning means that it is okay not to know. It is okay to fail because if we don’t fail, how do we learn? It’s understandable that to feel like a fake in the company of others can be lonely. But we must know that this feeling is very common. If we all owned up to feeling like imposters from time to time, it is likely that we will feel less alone and more connected with others.
Finally, let’s all take a moment every day for five minutes and realize we aren’t here to accomplish any Herculean task. We are here just to live. Not strain our mind, body, and soul. For this, we could slowly start changing the notion of success in our society. First step would be the recognition of the fact that not everyone can walk on the moon, be a musician, speak 10 languages, be a president, discover a new planet, invent the car, develop the theory of gravity, document biological wonders of the animal kingdom, do rocket science, invent the internet, run a million dollar company, etc.
We should understand that successful people in other places will not necessarily thrive in the place of another successful person. The world has been built as a team effort, and we are standing on the shoulders of giants who also stood on the shoulders of the giants before them again. Therefore, let’s start realizing steadily, in individual scale, that none of us are perfect. The concept of success has been deeply imprinted in our mind. But with consistent and small efforts, we could change the way of thinking and help more people stand up, be vulnerable, and lead a happier life.
— Bibatshu, Kathmandu
* This is a submitted post *