- The curious intricacies of imposter syndrome
Have you ever had a fleeting thought, or a tiny voice in the back of your mind, where you thought that a success you enjoyed was just all about luck and nothing about your talent and hard work? While feeling this way occasionally could be just human, there are many among us that see themselves as not worthy of the successes they achieve or the goals they accomplish. For them, life becomes a constant game of cat and mouse, where they wait anxiously for somebody to come and ‘unmask’ them, and show the world that they really have no skill or talent.
Say hello to imposter syndrome; a condition that eats away at one’s ability to believe in themselves. In order to understand the intricacies of this common yet oddly obscure condition, which still is not even categorised in the diagnostic manuals of psychology, Brunch spoke to Shanthi Margam Clinical Psychologist and private practitioner Ammarah Ashraf.
Syndrome or phenomenon?
“If I had to talk about imposter syndrome, I would say that it is actually more of a phenomenon that is generally observed among high achievers, where they are generally unable to internalise their success, and therefore tend to attribute whatever successes they may have seen to luck than ability,” shared Ashraf. The Clinical Psychologist also explained that they have a fear that at some point somebody would ‘unmask’ them and point out that they are a fraud. This fear then leads them to self-deprecate constantly.
Ashraf also said that even though this condition is referred to as a syndrome, it has not been identified or categorised in the DSM -5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition), which means that psychologists may not necessarily be able to identify this condition in a patient as a conventional diagnosis.
“Even though we may not be able to make a conventional psychological diagnosis, we cannot deny that this phenomenon has been presenting increasingly in recent years. Therefore, when a person comes to us and presents the symptoms, we help them using therapeutic methods to control and manage the condition, and perhaps to even overcome it,” she shared.
The Clinical Psychologist went on to stress that this condition is one that is completely treatable and that individuals should not be discouraged by the fact that they may not be able to get a textbook diagnosis and instead trust that therapies are being offered to them to manage and overcome the condition.
The usual suspects
It certainly seems that many of the psychological conditions experienced in adult life go all the way back to early childhood dynamics and imposter syndrome is no different. Elaborating on the possible contributing factors of the condition, Ashraf stated that early childhood family dynamics as well as gender stereotypes had been observed to play a big role.
“When imposter syndrome was first observed and recorded in the 1970s, it displayed a tendency in women not being able to accept their success in workplaces, owing to gender stereotypes. Factors such as racism and colourism also had a similar effect,” she shared.
Ashraf also delved into the role of family dynamics, and explained that children who are brought up in families where achievement is viewed as critically important, may grow up with imposter syndrome, especially if they feel that they need to achieve something in order to feel validated by their parents. Ashraf also shared that parents who are authoritarian or very controlling, may contribute to a child developing imposter syndrome.
“A significant and new change could also trigger this. For example a change of workplace, school, or any form of transition could also cause imposter syndrome,” she added. The Psychologist also shared that personality traits may have a role to play in imposter syndrome, where people who have personality traits such as perfectionism, neuroticism, and low self-efficacy can easily be afflicted with this sense of not being able to accept that they have the ability to succeed, and that they are simply a ‘fraud’ with luck on their side, which is accompanied by guilt and anxiety.
Competition and the woes of youth
Ashraf shared that the condition has been clinically presenting more and more especially among the young generation in recent years. She attributed this to multiple factors and stressed on the immense competition out there that pushes one to be successful, to achieve something, and to even remain in the spotlight, thanks to social media.
“It feels like competition across all areas has reached its peak right now. Young people have more pressure than ever to graduate by a certain age, secure the perfect job with the ideal salary and maintain this flawless life on social media. All these factors have a very real impact on why young people now face this more,” she shared.
Ashraf observed that parents also push children to enrol in universities immediately after school and even enrol them in multiple programmes so that they can stay one step ahead, and even graduate faster than other children if possible. “People are graduating, starting their own businesses, enrolling in many activities at the same time, and interestingly, they do this almost on autopilot because of the pressure around them. So obviously, there comes a point when they ask themselves, ‘did I really do that, and why?’” she said.
Diagnosing the ‘un-diagnosable’
While Ashraf noted that imposter syndrome was not conventionally diagnosed because it was yet to be identified in the DSM-5, she went on to say that psychology professionals identify the condition according to the symptoms and implement methods to help the client overcome it.
“One of the most common methods would be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), where we identify and challenge these irrational thoughts, in order to replace them with adaptive thoughts and improve their self-esteem,” Ashraf noted. She strongly stressed that anybody experiencing this condition should not feel that they will be unable to receive a diagnosis and encouraged everyone who may feel that they are at risk of developing, or have developed imposter syndrome, to reach out for help.
Ashraf also said that prolonged cases of imposter syndrome could lead to depression and anxiety. Therefore, the clients could present with a completely different set of symptoms that have imposter syndrome as the underlying cause, or they could simply come with a clear cut case of imposter syndrome itself. “We generally work with guiding clients to align with their goals, identify their abilities, and recognise expertise. This is where a lot of therapies will come in,” she added.
Wrapping up the conversation, Ashraf said that one of the most common telltale signs of imposter syndrome was the inability of the individual to enjoy their success because they could not attribute it to themselves. They also constantly underestimate their abilities and are overcome with the fear or anxiety that they will not be successful at completing something that is expected of them, or that they have taken on.
Ashraf also added that reducing the usage of social media was a good way for somebody to avoid experiencing a trigger, while questioning their thoughts and looking for actual evidence of facts rather than allowing thoughts to take the lead was important in self help. “I would like to really stress that even though imposter syndrome is not in the diagnostic manual, we can still help clients based on evidence through a multitude of therapies and other strategies. Therefore, I want to encourage anyone experiencing this condition to reach out without any hesitation. Maybe start with confiding in family or a friend if you feel unsure at first, but then always seek professional support,” Ashraf concluded.