Does success or praise ever make you feel like an imposter? Do you secretly worry that you”ll be “found out” and everyone will realize you’re not as intelligent or talented as they believe? Does praise embarrass you because you think your success is due mostly to luck?
If you answered yes to those questions, you’re far from alone. The “imposter syndrome” is as common as it is baffling. I’d say it’s especially common among writers, judging by the number of talented authors who react to success with jokes about waiting for everybody to realize they’re really hacks. In his latest newsletter, for example, the fabulously successful John Connolly says he's about to turn in a manuscript with "the usual misgivings about whether I've managed to fool most of the people most of the time once again."
Authors who say things like that are, admittedly, more charming than the jerks who think they’re the greatest writers alive and want everybody to know it. But when a person is demonstrably talented and widely praised, where do the self-doubts come from?
I’ve been poring over an article in the March/April issue of Scientific American Mind, trying to find out why so many perfectly decent people see themselves as fakes, frauds, imposters, con men. I was especially interested in whether women are more prone to this phenomenon than men. The answer is yes – and no. Some studies have shown that women feel less worthy, but other studies have found no difference between the sexes. The results of such research apparently depend a lot on who is studied and where they are in their lives at the time. Some people, male or female, may develop more inner confidence as they age and build up an indisputable record of success.
But what about those who never lose the feeling of being an imposter? Psychologists believe they’re caught in a “closed thought loop” that makes them over-prepare for even the simplest challenge – then attribute their success not to their ability but to their extreme preparation. If they don’t do any extra preparation and still succeed? Pure dumb luck, in their minds. If they fail, they blame their own stupidity and lack of ability, not their lack of preparation.
How do you break this vicious cycle? The experts don’t have a lot of help to offer beyond the kind of advice your mom might give: Reflect on your talents and intelligence, your strong points, all the things you do well. Respect yourself. Give yourself credit where it’s due. Easier said than done.
Back to the original question: Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? Exactly how much success would it take to make you stop feeling like a Great Pretender?