I worked in office jobs for three years after university and, not knowing as I do now that I was destined to be a millennial snowflake blogger, never felt like I properly belonged in any of them. I found the work monotonous, pointless and dull, yet I desperately wanted to gain the approval of my colleagues and managers. While I couldn’t really see the point in anything I was doing I just kept plugging at it, all in the name of praise. However, whenever I actually received any praise, I immediately felt guilty about it. I would come up with excuses in my head, such as, “I’m just winging it, and no-one has noticed yet,” or “This isn’t because I’m good, it’s because I’m lucky,” or “How has no-one noticed how hungover I am yet?” Nothing could ever be good enough, and yet when I really wanted to make something good enough, that ennui and boredom about what I was doing in the first-place crept back in. It’s a charming little Catch-22 of anxiety and apathy which I suspect all of us have felt at some point in our lives and is but one of many examples of the mental strains, large or small, that we can suffer in the world of work. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing around the subject of professional anxiety, whether it’s fears around progression, responsibility or industry, yet today I will be writing about the guilt of success that I described above – the Imposter Phenomenon.
In 1978, Doctors Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes introduced the term imposter phenomenon in a study on high-achieving women. The basic concept of imposter phenomenon is that whoever suffers from it is convinced that they are a fraud and don’t deserve their achievements, even if there is demonstrable evidence to suggest that they are competent (or even excellent) in their field. So, in layman’s terms, even if you’re getting pats on the back from your line manager for your latest quarter-on-quarter analysis, even if you’ve painstakingly constructed an automatic budget-checker in Excel (which I have, depressingly), or even if you’ve given a Nobel Prize-worthy presentation to a client, you still feel like you have no idea what you’re doing and you’re not worthy of recognition. In their studies and trials, Clance and Imes noted that this feeling is not a mental disorder like ADHD or depression, but rather an individual phenomenon. However, people who suffer from it are also more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder as well. This will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has suffered from anxiety, as many of the symptoms will ring true with them. Some 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, and not just professionals – students going to university or new schools are highly likely to experience it too, and it can even be found in social interactions or even relationships (if someone perceives themselves to be “batting out of their league,” for instance).
So, if you are currently suffering or have suffered from imposter syndrome then fear not – you are not alone. There are many reasons why you might be feeling it, from family expectations or overprotective parenting, to racial or gender identities, to perfectionism or low self-esteem. While they may not seem like much of an issue in isolation, these thought-processes or anxieties can slowly be reinforced over time into accepted realities, which can cause serious damage to your mental health. Indeed, the guilt felt about receiving success can even lead to a fear of success itself, which can be doubly-damaging if you received continuous praise or pressure to succeed as a child. Early expectations of success placed upon you, positively or negatively, can start to weigh heavy on the mind and, as I experienced first-hand, lead you to a position where you desperately want to succeed for success’s sake, but do not feel like you’ve earned or deserved it when you get it, no matter how much time or effort you put into that sodding budget checker. Jesus Christ I hate Excel formulas.
Clance furthered her research in a paper in 1985, whereby she created the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale. This measured:
- The imposter cycle
- Whether the subject over-prepares an achievement-related task or procrastinates and completes it last minute, the end result will be the same: discounting their own ability.
- Over-preparation means they have had to fight tooth and nail to overcome their own limitations;
- Procrastination means that they just got lucky and should have worked harder.
- The need to be special or the best
- Characteristics of Superman/Superwoman
- the subject’s interpretation of perfection
- Fear of failure
- Denial of ability and discounting praise
- Feeling fear and guilt about success
Yikes. While measuring just how neurotic you are might not seem like much of a jolly way to examine yourself, it’s extremely important to recognise factors like these if the cycle is to be broken. As with many issues surrounding mental health, being able to recognise the symptoms are the first step in overcoming them.
Therapeutic approaches were proposed by Clance and Imes in their original paper: they claimed that rationally breaking down the process of receiving praise and turning it into negative thoughts was beneficial for their subjects. One technique, for instance, involved writing down some praise they had received, then adding why they had received the praise and what about it felt negative to them. This usually resulted in no logical explanation, which can help to subvert the subconscious thought-processes. Additionally, simply taking the time to extract the self-doubt before an event occurs can help – identifying the trouble-spots and being able to challenge them before going into a stressful environment can help to undermine them. In general, however, simply talking to friends and family can be hugely beneficial – anxious thoughts are hard enough to deal with outside of a professional environment, let alone somewhere as competitive as your place of work.
Human beings are complicated creatures. We are incredibly impressionable from an early age and those little things that may not have seemed important at the time can really come home to roost when you enter the world of work. There is no shame whatsoever in feeling like you don’t deserve to receive praise, as it is not something you would or even could wish upon yourself – the subconscious mind can just be a bit of a jerk sometimes, that’s all. If any of the symptoms I’ve described ring true then try not to ignore them, but rather talk to someone you trust about how you feel, don’t feel embarrassed and most importantly, don’t feel pressured. It is subconscious pressure to succeed that creates imposter syndrome, so when you take the pressure off, try to relax and even enjoy your job, you’ll soon find that you feel right at home.