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Shyamal Majumdar: The 'imposter syndrome'

Even high achievers often dismiss their success as some fluke or luck, and not the result of their own competence

Shyamal Majumdar  |  Mumbai 

Sonia Sotomayor is one of the nine most powerful judges in the US. Yet, in My Beloved World, her memoir published last week, she admits to her insecurity about many things, including her appearance. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the judge said she had some variant of the “imposter syndrome” — feeling like she doesn’t really deserve to be where she is. Sotomayor said when she joined the Supreme Court, she sensed a “common misperception that I wasn’t smart enough or capable enough” for the job.

is lucky because she got out of the “imposter syndrome” through her sheer Some have been able to do that with the help of mentors. Take (name changed), for example. An economics graduate, Anand cracked the (Common Admission Test) and got admission in one of the top Indian Institutes of Management (IIM). So, he was on top of the world. Ironically, that’s precisely when his problems started.

A topper in his school and college who was always in the limelight, Anand suddenly found himself amid so many “incredibly talented” people that he started having self-doubts. He had this strange feeling that his entry into the was a fluke, and not the result of his own competence. He was scared that he would blow it all up unless he puts in superhuman efforts to keep up with the quality of his classmates.

His mentor at the describes him thus: When he met Anand for the first time, his fear was: “Soon everybody will know the truth that I am an idiot and don’t belong here. I better not speak up because I am surely wrong about this. These people [other students] know so much more than I do.”

The “imposter syndrome” is well known to millions of high achievers – and to those who could be, were it not their self-destructive thoughts – that they do not deserve the success they have achieved.

What exactly is the “imposter syndrome”? It’s a mindset under which people dismiss their success as luck, timing, or a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. This overwhelming sense of being a phony, of not being good enough for the job, despite much evidence to the contrary, was first identified 35 years ago by two clinical psychologists, and In their paper, the duo described women who, despite reaching significant intellectual milestones ranging from advanced degrees to professional awards, cannot internalise their success or convince themselves they deserve it. “They consider themselves to be imposters,” they said.

Subsequent research has found that even men fall prey to this. Psychologists have been grappling with the reasons for this “emotional self-sabotage”. Clance and Imes found that childhood experiences typically begin the cycle. Sufferers were often valued for their intelligence, giving rise to self-doubts and feelings of fraudulence when excellent grades don’t materialise in graduate school and later, when a new post-doctorate degree or new job isn’t a breeze.

Clance has developed an Imposter Phenomenon Test that, he says, helps you see how you compare to others. Here’s a sample of the questions: (For each question, you have to circle the number that best indicates how true the statement is of you). 1) I avoid evaluations if possible and have a dread of others evaluating me; 2) When people praise me for something I’ve accomplished, I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to their expectations of; or, 3) It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments.

Many HR experts say a high “imposter syndrome” is the reason every day, so many people take jobs far below their abilities and aspirations and allow their dreams to wither.

But is divided. There are others who say having a little of the “imposter syndrome” may be uncomfortable, but healthy. “It forces you to be open to new learning and to consider the opinions of others on your team. In a situation of power, it’s easy to be seduced into thinking that you know everything or that you are supposed to,” says a note by Spencer Stuart.

Amid these points and counterpoints, here’s something that may make you feel good. Seventeen Oscar nominations and 26 Golden Globe nominations haven’t been enough to convince Meryl Streep that she isn’t rubbish at the whole acting thing. Streep has been quoted as saying: “You think, why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

So think about it: all of us have this “imposter syndrome” in varying degrees. The idea is not to let that overwhelm you.

First Published: Fri, February 01 2013. 00:45 IST
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