Impostor syndrome: Are you unable to recognize your achievements?

You could have imposter syndrome; it is a multifactorial phenomenon that prevents the subject from having self-confidence. Perfectionists, individualists, and superhumans are among those who suffer from this psychological phenomenon.

Impostor syndrome: Are you unable to recognize your achievements?
Are you incapable of recognizing your achievements? Photo by sporlab / Unsplash

At some point in their lives, more than 70 percent of the world's population has suffered from impostor syndrome; in other words, seven out of 10 people have believed that their achievements or triumphs are the results of "a stroke of luck" or the help of others, but not of their effort, capacity, talent or creativity, said Laura Barrientos Nicolás, from the Faculty of Medicine (FM) of the UNAM.

Celebrities such as Emma Watson, the actress who played Hermione Granger, a character in the Harry Potter saga; Michelle Obama, lawyer, and writer; Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks; and Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, faced this psychological phenomenon.

Despite credible evidence (diplomas, degrees, trophies) and recognition at work, academia, public, or from people close to them, these patients do not believe they have any merit. First discovered in women in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, it was eventually discovered that it affects men equally.

Not considering themselves capable, they live vigilant and fearful that someone will discover that they have committed a "fraud". Hence, they feel guilty and like "imposters". Under so much stress, insecurity predominates in these people. They may suffer from anxiety, depression and sadness, emotional disorders that affect their work, academic or professional performance.

Their inability to recognize their achievements prevents them from enjoying them as their "own successes". In patients who are perfectionists, anxiety can paralyze them and prevent them from finding the right solution to certain problems, or cause nervousness or alterations in their assertiveness when "saying and doing", said the member of the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health of the FM.

Another characteristic is permanent dissatisfaction because what they do will never be enough. And they have the idea that they could have done something better, which leads to a loss of motivation: "why do this or that if I don't reach the standards I set for myself?

Their "defensive pessimism" makes them mentalize or program themselves not to achieve what they set out to do. They anticipate thinking that something is not going to happen or they are not going to achieve it so that, if it does happen, they will not feel so hurt.

Multifactorial phenomenon

This syndrome does not have a specific cause. Its origin is multifactorial: biological, psychological, and social. Comparisons or overestimates in childhood ("your sister is better", "you are not good at school" or, on the contrary, "you are a champion"), can eventually lead to it. This situation, "not necessarily real", is an irrational belief that does not allow the subject to have self-confidence.

The type of personality and one's perception of what success, failure, and competition are can also cause it. And when it causes problems at interpersonal, academic, or work level, the sufferer should seek psychological support (cognitive-behavioral type), psychotherapy that will help him/her to identify this type of erroneous beliefs so that they do not affect him/her.

The syndrome is more common in people suffering from depressive affective problems, with generalized anxiety disorders and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders. If psychological treatment is not enough, Barrientos Nicolás recommended consulting a psychiatrist.

Who presents it?

Clinically, five subgroups of impostor syndrome are recognized: perfectionists, who set too high expectations for themselves. However, even if they meet 99 percent of their goals, they will feel like failures, because that one percent makes them think that they do not have the ability or competence to achieve perfection.

Another is that of the experts, who seek new training, certifications, or diplomas because they do not assume they are competent. Faced with the opportunity of a job, they do not go until they are certain that they meet the requirements.

One more is that of the "natural genius", who fall into the mental trap that if something cost them work, "it means I'm not as good as others think". This leads them to the misconception that they are impostors.

Then there are the individualists, who need to "do everything" so as not to think of themselves as a failure or a fraud. They are convinced that they must do several things, without asking for help, to achieve success.

Likewise, the superhumans, i.e., those who strive every day, more than others, because of their need to succeed in all aspects. They want to be the best parent, student, partner, in business, etc. and suffer constant stress because of these self-demands.