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Successful People or Impostors?

Although they might not show it, successful people often suffer from the Impostor Syndrome, which means that deep down they do not believe in their own abilities and are afraid that their secret will come out one day and they will be discovered as “frauds”. Everyone knows that self-esteem may be high or low. However, not everyone suspects that another factor – self-confidence – may be more important in the context of career choices, the work ethic and relationships with your coworkers, explains Dr. Magdalena Łużnik-Piecha, social psychologist and lecturer in the management and leadership program at SWPS University.

Self-confidence: capable or not

People with low self-confidence, for example your co-workers or worse – your mangers – need constant confirmation that they are right. They want to prove something to themselves and others, usually at the cost of the team and the price of good relations in the company. High self-esteem and low self-confidence lead to exhaustion of oneself and others by assigning tasks that exceed the abilities, including the physical abilities, of the team and by agreeing to unrealistic responsibilities and timelines – all in the name of proving to oneself and others that “I can do this”.

Low self-esteem and low self-confidence constitute the foundation of anxiety, fear of making even the simplest decisions and the need to have everything approved by others. Individuals with low self-esteem and low-confidence are not sure whether they are able to do something or whether they are experts in a certain discipline. They make everyone miserable by constantly requesting new reports on other reports and summaries of other summaries. Low self-confidence also manifests in a controlling attitude related to the need to control everyone and everything, because if someone does not believe in himself or herself, they are not able to believe in others.

Self-confidence, regardless whether it is low or high, is the factor, which allows you to prepare a balance sheet of your strengths and weaknesses. Thanks to this balance sheet, you see that you are an expert in budget and project management, but you do not know how to compile technical documentation in German, so you hire a sworn translator.

Imposter Syndrome

The sole claim that it is better to be self-confident than to be unsure of oneself cannot form the foundation of the effectively working management team, because it would lead to the firing of all managers who have ever doubted their own competencies. If this was the case, companies would lose 90 percent of their managers and only thoughtless individuals, impervious to any feedback, would be left. It would be better to ask, why people who seem to be successful have such volatile self-esteem.

For years, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes from the University of Georgia have been researching the so called Impostor Syndrome in high achievers. Impostor Syndrome is an internalized belief that one’s own achievements are not the result of one’s competencies and intelligence, but rather that they result from a coincidence or luck and are often accompanied by fear of being exposed as a "fraud". According to Clance and Imes, the Impostor Syndrome develops in the course of two radically different life scenarios.

Impostor Syndrome is an internalized belief that one’s own achievements are not the result of one’s competencies and intelligence, but rather that they result from a coincidence or luck and are often accompanied by fear of being exposed as a "fraud".

Life Experiences and Impostor Syndrome

The first scenario occurs when, a person becomes convinced, due to various circumstances, that they are “nice, work well with others, are agreeable, etc.”. The syndrome is further instilled in the person, if this type of behavior is contrasted with the behavior of other people who are “unpleasant, but very competent and therefore cannot be touched”. Due to these circumstances, the nice person becomes convinced that his or her achievements result from their niceness not merit, because other people, who are truly competent, do not have to be nice.

TThis scenario is especially powerful in childhood, when parents tell their children to always “sit in front of the class and do whatever the teacher wants, because obedient children get A’s”. Then it turns out that other children, who challenge the teacher by completing tasks in their own way are regarded as rascals, but brilliant rascals. As the result, the obedient children may start believing that the only way others would ever appreciate them is by being nice, since they are not smart enough to challenge the powers that be.

The second scenario applies to people who have been convinced that they are perceived by others as exceptional and outstanding in every aspect of life and that their talents allow them to achieve success without much effort. Obviously, very few people are so talented that they can achieve outstanding results in all disciplines. This scenario often plays out in children who hear from their parents all the time that they learned to read, write and paly piano at the age of three and that they have never had any problems with any tasks. Unfortunately, in this case, a definition of outstanding achievement includes “exceptional results achieved with ease”. This means that the child is learning these specifications, to later convince everyone that he or she is inherently great and that he or she understands everything.

Scenarios for imagined deficiencies

Can’t someone just stop believing that they have to be nice to mask the lack of talents or that they have to achieve success with a false sense of ease, so that others do not realize that success requires effort? Unfortunately, the following four behavioral scenarios described by Clance and Imes impede this simple solution.

“Diligence” - people suffering from the Impostor Syndrome work very hard to make up for their “deficiencies”. Therefore, they set unrealistic deadlines and take on overambitious responsibilities. Every time they are successful, imposters are left with a feeling that they’ve managed this time, but now they must work even harder, because the bets are higher.

“Feeling phony” - imposters attempt to align their opinions or answers to what others would want to hear. They refrain from expressing their own opinions and become intellectual chameleons. These attempts go beyond simple diplomacy. They arise from a careful observation of others and aligning one’s messages to the expectations of interlocutors. It is caused by fear of being exposed as a “fraud, someone who does not know anything”, rather than diplomacy. As the result, impostors have no chance of finding out whether their real views could be interesting and appreciated by others, because they have never revealed them.

“Charm” - impostors use charm, sense of humor, wittiness or other tactics to win the hearts of others. There is nothing wrong with being charming, however, in case of imposters these social graces do not stem from an authentic need to befriend others or from the love of human kind. The charm is just a strategy to mask the lack of social graces.

“Playing stupid” - is characteristic for members of communities or cultures that value modesty and where boasting about one’s own strengths is seen as distasteful. Living in this type of environment, people may come to believe that an open demonstration of their competencies would put them in trouble. And they would be right, because we are talking about the cultures, where stepping out of the line meets with sanctions imposed by the society. To avoid the punishment, talented and competent people who achieve spectacular success, use a strategy of presenting their achievements as the result of sheer luck and a happy coincidence. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being modest, but if someone has really put a lot of effort in achieving a goal, is an expert in the given field, has managed similar demanding projects before and he or she still maintains that the achieved success is a matter of luck and additionally, is convinced that saying openly “I am an expert in this field” would cause problems, then we are dealing with the Imposter Syndrome.

What should you do, if you diagnose this condition in yourself or others in your life?

Dealing with an impostor

The first step to improving one’s wellbeing is the realization that you are following a pattern drafted for you by an Impostor. Perhaps, you should admit that you are an expert in the given field? Thank your colleagues, who are congratulating you. Be nice, but do not add that the success was due to “pure luck”. Perhaps you can tell yourself: “I work very hard and I do have a lot to offer and I am an expert in this field.” As the result, it will be much easier for you to admit that you are not that strong in another area and it will be easier for you to acknowledge the competencies of your colleagues. A healthy dose of self-esteem and self-confidence is the best remedy for the encroaching Impostor.


The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 1/18”.
Magazine available here »

piecha luzniak

About the Author

Magdalena Łużniak-Piecha, Ph.D. - social psychologist, lecturer in management and leadership at SWPS University. Collaborates with Polish University Abroad (PUNO) in London and with the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico. Develops and implements gaming techniques in training, consulting and research practice. Researches and helps to eradicate organizational pathologies. She is especially interested in the techniques of coping with personality pathologies and communication breakdowns in organizations.

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