Competent people feel they don’t really know what they’re doing, and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for someone to expose them as a fraud. This is a fairly common phenomenon, with more than 70 percent of the population experiencing it at one time or another. Interestingly, impostor syndrome is worst among high performers. When I speak about it at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and MIT, I see the students breathe a sigh of relief as they realize this feeling has a name and they are not alone in experiencing it.
— Olivia Fox Cabane (Forbes)
Individuals with the Impostor Phenomenon experience intense feelings that their achievements are undeserved and worry that they are likely to be exposed as a fraud.
— J. Sakulku, J. Alexander (2011) The Impostor Phenomenon
A phenomenon observed since 1985, the impostor syndrome has been useful for me to understand certain behaviours, relate better with people and situations, and be explicitly supporting everyone that is affected by it. I found out it’s a great notion to make the whole team aware because removes one layer of fears between the people, sending the message that’s ok feeling that way, it’s relatable, and creates a safe space for it.
At the same time, I was wondering about it for myself. The first time I read about the syndrome, it made sense, but reviewing me and past situations that kind of “I’m a fraud” thought wasn’t there. Sure, I dismiss my own achievements as irrelevant and I tend to forget them, but I always did things because I thought I was either capable or capable to learn. Yet, that was still one of the traits that characterize people with impostor syndrome:
Davidson (1998) found perfectionistic cognitions in subjects reporting high levels of impostor fears, such as a tendency to externalise success, holding high standards for self-evaluation, overgeneralisation of a single failure experience to their overall self-concept, and a high level of self-criticism.
On one side, I never had these thoughts, and I’ve always been very proactive and present in many moments of my life, even by career choices alone I basically never avoided sending a CV or asking anything. On the other side, there were many others that matched.
I then realized I had what I jokingly called “Type II” impostor syndrome: my fear of being a fraud is replaced with the anger of demonstrating I can do it.
The “I’m a fraud” thought is replaced by “I’ll show you” thought. It’s still relational: still connects to an outside judgement, but its results in practice it’s opposite. Instead of inaction, drives to action.
Which means that while I share the same source and some of the same behavioural patterns, when it comes at feeling and taking decisions, I act in the exact opposite way as impostor syndrome would suggest.
Taking the impostor cycle diagram from Clance (1985):
The Type II is identical, but substitutes the “Anxiety, Self-doubt, Worry” step with “Anger, Self-drive, Worry” and there’s no perception of fraudolence.
Now this might sound far more sophisticated than it is because I don’t have any study to back it up, just my personal experience. But here’s an attempt to show the perceived changes from what I can tell:
- Fear becomes anger.
- Luck becomes merit.
- Self-doubt (at the beginning) becomes certainty.
- No self-shaming of success, just dismissal.
- No fear of being discovered.
- No doubting that I can do it again.
The two share common traits:
- Discounting positive feedback.
- Discounting achievements.
- Self-doubt (at the end).
- If something positive is about to happen (promotion, prize, etc), it won’t be mentioned until done deal.
- Seeking external validation, even if never really believing it.
- More focus on what it’s yet to be done.
- Self-imposed pressure.
- Constant comparison with others’ achievements.
The irony of all of this? Given for most practical, external effects, the actions are opposite of the impostor syndrome, saying I have impostor syndrome… feels like a fraud. Then studying more the research on the subject, it’s more clear that most of the internal factors, as well as the cycle above, are at play. Type II? Let’s go with that.
This might be entirely my experience, but maybe this brief outline gives someone else a way to understand themselves better.