Commentary: My imposter syndrome was a weakness, until I turned it into my strength
Imposter syndrome gets a bad reputation, because it convinces us we’re frauds and don’t deserve our success. CNA's Grace Yeoh asks, what if we stopped seeing it as a hindrance and used it to advance our career instead?
SINGAPORE: Few things make me feel like I'm drowning, like setting my annual performance goals – and not because I loathe administrative work.
Even though I am a natural planner, setting goals and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) forces me to confront a deep-seated fear: That I could fail to attain them.
And if I do, everything I’d achieved in my career would be attributed to sheer luck.
This catastrophic thinking stems from imposter syndrome – the feeling that your achievements are undeserved, that you’re not worthy of success, and that you are likely to be exposed as a fraud.
Psychologists call this the imposter phenomenon, which according to the International Journal of Behavioural Science was identified from observations of women during therapy by Dr Pauline Clance.
Despite objective evidence of success, these women kept thinking they were frauds and suffered anxiety and a fear of failure.
For me, having imposter syndrome is like looking into a funhouse mirror and believing what you see. Just like you know you don’t have bendy limbs and a weird-shaped head from looking in a proper mirror, your tangible achievements prove you’re relatively capable at your job.
Yet, this syndrome convinces you to ignore reality and believe the warped reflection is real.
Many people who feel they’re not up to a task proceed anyway, not letting fear hold them back from the chance that they could succeed or at least learn something.
But those with imposter syndrome tend to allow this fear to define their decisions, potentially leading to complex self-sabotaging consequences.
From my experience, it can manifest in not fighting for what you want; compromising your values just to feel accepted; believing criticism but rejecting praise; and excessive procrastination on important tasks because you feel inadequate and unable to meet expectations.
But as crippling as imposter syndrome might sound, its muted, albeit persistent, whisper is easy to ignore – until it makes itself heard, like a wave pulling me under.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
Although imposter syndrome has been said to affect high-achieving individuals more, the reality is anyone can be plagued by it.
According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, more than 70 per cent of people are affected by workplace imposter thoughts at some point in their lives.
And in Singapore, 74 per cent of workers reported experiencing imposter syndrome in 2020, according to a global survey done by workplace application tool Asana. This figure is significantly higher than the global average of 62 per cent.
These imposter feelings are so common that Our Imposter Stories, a recent local campaign by interns at creative agency BBH, got notable public figures, including Members of Parliament Jamus Lim and Alvin Tan, to start sharing their experiences on social media.
The more high-profile individuals revealed their self-doubt despite their status and achievements, the easier it would be for the average person to confront their own demons. Breaking the silence around imposter syndrome would mean no one needed to suffer alone.
These conversations are necessary, because imposter syndrome is often painted as negatively impacting one’s life. Fighting it seems like the most intuitive way to kill it.
But what if there was no need to rid ourselves of imposter syndrome because we can turn an affliction into an advantage?
REFRAMING IMPOSTER SYNDROME
Imposter syndrome doesn’t have to be a barrier for achievement. It can be a fuel.
According to best-selling author and organisational psychologist Adam Grant, some people harbour a chronic belief that they’re frauds, but for most of us, imposter feelings manifest as ordinary doubts about our capabilities.
However, it’s when we turn these ordinary imposter feelings into a syndrome that it can feel debilitating, Grant suggests.
As a result, rather than trying to overcome imposter feelings, experts believe the real goal should be to change the assumption that imposter syndrome is completely detrimental.
This requires getting to the roots of imposter syndrome: Perceived competence gap.
One defining characteristic of imposter syndrome is the gap in how individuals perceive their own competence compared to how competent they actually are, according to researcher at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Basima Tewfik.
When Tewfik worked with finance investors, she found those who experienced imposter thoughts, such as self-doubt, were rated more interpersonally effective than their peers without imposter thoughts. Managers also described them as better collaborators at work. Even medical students with imposter thoughts were better at bedside manners.
This suggests that the self-doubt associated with imposter syndrome encourages imposters to put in extra effort into their interpersonal connections, which might help them outperform their non-imposter colleagues.
Moreover, it appears the perceived competence gap might not negatively affect one’s quality of work after all, debunking the myth that having imposter syndrome necessarily makes one a worse performer.
Having perfectionistic tendencies is also a core trait of those who grapple with imposter syndrome, because they tend to believe that achieving perfection is the only way to prove they’re good enough.
To turn imposter syndrome into a strength requires revising the extent of one’s perfectionism.
As it’s impossible to be perfect, imposters inevitably fail to fulfil their perfectionist goals. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, this can lead them to feel “overwhelmed, disappointed, and overgeneralise themselves as failures”.
In turn, this self-criticism forbids them from accepting praise about their work, reinforcing their self-doubt about their abilities. And when they do receive positive feedback, the monster of self-doubt tends to attribute their success to luck.
But rather than beat yourself up for demanding perfection, give yourself some credit: The need to be perfect stems from wanting to be better, which is a good thing.
“Where we trip ourselves up is when we aim for the best, rather than better,” advises Grant.
“You should be aiming for mastery, not perfection. This means you keep improving. You can see your progress. You compare your performance to your past self, less to other people. You don’t believe in best practices because that implies an end point. What you believe in are better practices.”
If we continue to let perfectionism drive our imposter syndrome, we essentially keep ourselves trapped in a never-ending cycle where we become our worst enemy.
Perhaps the hardest part about reclaiming imposter syndrome is the mammoth task of embracing self-doubt, at least for me. The outsized shame of feeling like you’re not good enough can be uncomfortable to sit with, what more harness.
“But when you never feel like an imposter, you get complacent. You think you know all the answers; you do things you’ve always done. Sometimes, you’re over confident,” says Grant in the Don’t Keep Your Day Job podcast.
“Feeling that twinge of ‘maybe I’m not good enough’ motivates you to work harder, learn more from people around you, takes you off your pedestal, and puts you into a growth mindset.”
To illustrate this, Grant points to Halla Tómasdóttir, who ran for Iceland’s presidency and nearly won as a completely unknown candidate.
“She told me that the biggest key to her success was imposter syndrome. For a long time, she said, ‘Who am I to run? I’m not qualified’, and then at some point, she said, ‘Who am I not to run? Technically no one’s qualified, this job is bigger than anyone. And if I can keep in mind every day that this job is bigger than me, then I’m going to challenge myself to grow into the job.’”
When you’ve viewed your life through the filter that is imposter syndrome, it can be challenging to stop listening to the self-critic altogether. But big change happens in small steps.
Like Halla, when I set my goals these days, I reach for something a little greater than what I believe I can achieve – and if it scares me a little, I know I’m on the right track.
Like clockwork, however, my imposter syndrome booms that I am not good enough – except I no longer run from the voice.
Looking my insecurities in the eye has helped me realise they aren’t monstrous, and that my fear that I’m not good enough needed my attention, not abandonment. No matter how loud the voice gets, I now choose to hear it out, then I make a decision whether to listen.
Imposter syndrome was a tide I’d tried swimming against for years; the more I kicked, the more exhausted I got.
But when I stopped treading water, I found that I didn’t drown.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist with CNA Insider.