Impostor Syndrome is the failure to internalize your own success. Impostors commonly believe they have used luck and charm to trick the world into thinking they’re more competent than they actually are.
WikiPedia describes impostor syndrome as follows:
Despite external evidence of their competence, those with 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.
So, impostor syndrome revolves around how competent we feel ourselves. When we are successful — be it with a fulfilling career, a fat paycheck, a healthy relationship, or whatever else we find important in life — we are convinced that that success is not due to our own competence. We tell ourselves that people are just being nice, or we were “just lucky”.
And as if feeling unworthy wouldn’t be bad enough on it’s own, our skewed perception of competence has us believe others actually are competent — it’s only a matter of time before they find out we are not. And when that happens, our entire web of lies will surely come crumbling down.
Why would we think we’re frauds? Our brain is a funny thing. It comes equipped with two processors:
We can reason we are not actually “impostors”: we know we got this job, or this raise, because we did a good job with that project last year. But reason is slow and mentally exhausting, and just not always available — especially when our energy is drained.
Instinct, however, is fast, light-weight and always available (really, it’s impossible to turn it off). It’s our instinct that is very good at jumping to conclusions about the world around us.
Here’s how that works: people suffering from impostor syndrome usually have impossibly high standards of competence. They cannot possibly live up to those standards, so it only follows they feel incompetent. But according to everybody else’s notions of competence, they’re actually doing pretty well! Their instinct has to make sense of this juxtaposition, and the simplest story it can come up with is that they must have everyone fooled.
Instinct can sometimes save us from tigers, and other times make us feel like frauds.
How did we develop a skewed perception of competence? Crudely speaking, the answer is simple: blame your parents.
Of course, not only parents influenced your image of competence. There’s also teachers, sports coaches, friends and other family members. And we don’t crave approval from just our parents: impostor syndrome was first observed among “outsiders”, such as the only woman in a male-dominated corporate culture, the only foreigner among natives or the only black kid in an all-white class room. In such cases, the weight of representing your entire gender, ethnicity or whatever other minority, skews our expectations of competence.1