self criticism, thoughts, judgements

Understanding Imposter Syndrome

The term imposter syndrome has gained a lot of popularity (notoriety?) in recent years. Many of us use the term, but do you really understand what it means? (Chances are, if you’re neurodivergent, you do.)

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Have you ever felt like a fraud, despite your accomplishments and expertise? Do you constantly doubt your abilities and fear being exposed as incompetent? When you do this, you are experiencing imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon characterized by persistent feelings of self-doubt and the belief that your success is undeserved or the result of luck.

Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, was first described in 1978 by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. It refers to the experience of highly accomplished women who struggle to internalize their achievements and live in constant fear of being exposed as frauds. People with imposter syndrome often attribute their success to external factors, such as luck or a mistake, rather than acknowledging their own skills and efforts.

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Let that sink in for a moment. All the way back in 1978 (before some of you were born), these two women were already seeing imposter syndrome in high achieving women. As women, we downplay our achievements in ways men never would. And if you’re neurodivergent, you do this even more because you’ve spent a bunch of your life being told that you’re not smart or you’re too emotional or you’re not normal.

You’ve learned to doubt everything.

Understanding Imposter Syndrome - African American woman holding her chin in thought

The Imposter Cycle

One of the key characteristics of imposter syndrome is the imposter cycle. This cycle involves two common responses to achievement-related tasks: over-preparation and procrastination. People with imposter syndrome may feel the need to work harder than others to achieve the same goal, falsely believing that they are not as competent. You might work around the clock to prove your worth while others do the bare minimum. You look at what they do and convince yourself that they have a natural ability that you don’t have.

On the other hand, some people may procrastinate and rush through tasks, fearing that they will be exposed as frauds if they invest too much time and effort. This is a safety mechanism. If you don’t put in effort, and you fail, you can blame it on the lack of effort or not having enough time or insert excuse here.

Perfectionism and Superheroism

Perfectionism is another central characteristic of imposter syndrome. People with imposter syndrome often set unattainable standards for themselves and strive to be the best in everything they do. Failure is not an option.

They may overwork and sacrifice their well-being in pursuit of perfection. This perfectionistic mindset is closely related to superheroism, where you feel the need to over-prepare and appear more capable than you actually feel.

These people want to show how much they can handle. They’re willing to take on multiple jobs to show the world how well they can juggle them all and still be successful. However, inside, they still feel like they’re not really capable, so they work harder.

superwoman, heroine, mother

Fear of Failure and Denial of Competence

Imposter syndrome is also characterized by a fear of failure, known as atychiphobia. People with imposter syndrome dread the possibility of making mistakes or not meeting expectations, as it would confirm their belief that they are imposters. Screwing up equates being found out as a fraud.

This fear of failure is often accompanied by a denial of competence. Despite evidence of their skills and accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome discount their abilities and attribute their success to external factors.

Story time. I’ve always been good at school. I’m smart. Probably not genius-level smart (but I’ve never had an IQ test, so who knows?). But I have suffered from imposter syndrome my whole life. I am a woman with a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. But every time I had to start a new phase of school, I feared being found out.

I went into high school terrified because they put me in all honors classes. I didn’t think I could handle it. School had been easy in elementary school. This was going to be too hard. (It wasn’t). I went to a small school. My graduating high school class was 200 girls. I graduated in the top 10% (maybe in top 10 – I don’t remember. It wasn’t important to me).

Then I went to college. On a full ride scholarship. And I still doubted I would be able to hack it. I earned that scholarship while I had been working 30 hours a week at night through high school. But I worried that I wouldn’t be able to maintain my 3.5 GPA to keep my scholarship. Spoiler – It wasn’t a problem.

But I kept on this cycle through 2 more degrees. I kept telling myself that it was going to be different this time. I was going to find that thing that was too hard.

I’m not telling you this to brag. I’m telling you because I convinced myself that I was “good at school” and that I was “lucky to get a scholarship” and that I chose majors that were “easy.”

The real truth is that I am smart. And yes, I am good at school. I deserved every one of those grades I earned.

But as women especially, we’re taught not to own those things. We shouldn’t brag. It would make us conceited and unlikeable.

Fuck that.

I’ve done everything I can to break that cycle with my daughters. I want them to not only own their accomplishments, but to let the world know.

Being neurodivergent and struggling with executive dysfunction can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and fuel imposter syndrome. As I mentioned, when you’re seen as the “silly” or “flighty” girl who talks too much, people dismiss you.

And then you learn to dismiss yourself.

Negative Self-Talk and Internalized Stigma

Negative self-talk and internalized stigma are additional factors that link imposter syndrome and neurodiversity. Neurodivergent people often face societal and cultural biases that perpetuate the idea that their differences are flaws or shortcomings.

This internalized stigma can contribute to negative self-perceptions and reinforce imposter syndrome. The constant self-doubt and fear of being exposed as inadequate are amplified by the negative narratives they have internalized.

self criticism, thoughts, judgements

Factors Contributing to Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can arise from a combination of personal, social, and cultural factors. Understanding these factors can help you recognize and address imposter syndrome effectively.

Early Experiences and Upbringing

Childhood experiences and upbringing can significantly impact a person’s susceptibility to imposter syndrome. High parental expectations, excessive praise, or constant comparison to others can create an environment where you feel the need to constantly prove yourself and fear failure.

Cultural and Gender Expectations

Cultural and gender expectations can also contribute to imposter syndrome. Societal norms and stereotypes may reinforce the idea that certain groups are inherently more competent than others. This can lead people to doubt their abilities and attribute their success to external factors rather than their own merit.

Academic and Professional Environments

Academic and professional environments, especially those that emphasize competition and high achievement, can foster imposter syndrome. The pressure to constantly excel and the fear of making mistakes in highly demanding fields can intensify feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.

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Lack of Support and Mentoring

A lack of support and mentoring can exacerbate imposter syndrome. Without guidance and encouragement from mentors or peers, people may struggle to recognize their own strengths and achievements.

Sometimes we need to be called out on our BS. Supportive relationships and mentorship can play a crucial role in helping you overcome imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a common experience that affects many high-achieving people, especially women and in particular, those who are neurodivergent. It is essential to recognize the signs and understand the underlying factors that contribute to imposter syndrome.

Start questioning your doubt so that you can stop feeling like an imposter. And remember, real imposters never question if they’re phony.

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