• Pranavi Hiremath

Tackling the Feeling of Inadequacy

This article provides a brief description of imposter syndrome, how it was first recognised and a few tips on how to deal with the 'critic' in your head.


Artwork by Kate Granholm (Instagram: @katesartthings)

Image description: This work was made digitally with the sketchbook app. In the centre of the page sits a bright pink figure which contrasts to the sombre grey background of its contexts. The figure in the middle clutches their legs in as they crouch into their body, as if consoling or soothing themselves. Though there is a gloomy tone to this image, the pink and blues used to make up the body are illusive to a happier and more powerful tone. The roughness of the lines and brightness of the colours are reminiscent of a playful technique. The artist contrasts the 'angsty' position of sitting with a playfulness, highlighting that though these feelings of anxiety and inadequacy are pertinent now, they are not your defining features.

We are bound to failure just the way we are bound to success. It’s easy to say that but accepting it is a challenge. Most of the time failure drives us towards feelings of inadequacy and social comparison. In some cases, a person doesn't even need a so-called ‘failure’ to tell them that they are inadequate. This feeling is a consequence of disregarding achievements, focusing on the negatives, and constant self-doubt. So, how do we deal with such feelings that are always lingering at the back of our minds? Is there anything we can do or are we destined to eventual doom by the critic that exists in your mind? The internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be is known as the imposter syndrome. In other words, people having this syndrome consider themselves to be phoney, believing all that they have achieved is only due to luck. They fear being found out or exposed to their true self. This can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise. The main characteristic of this syndrome is that any kind of formal recognition or evidence does nothing to change the beliefs of the person.

In 1978, researchers Pauline Clane and Suzanne Imes were the first to investigate the imposter phenomenon among 150 high achieving women in the US. All the participants in this study had been formally recognised for their professional excellence, and they had displayed academic achievement from their degrees and test scores. However, interviews with them proved this external validation did not change their belief in their incompetence. It was found that this was the consequence of various factors that affected them during their lifetimes, such as gender stereotypes, early family dynamics, and culture. It also concluded that these women experiencing the imposter phenomenon showed signs of depression, anxiety, and low self-confidence. Although it was previously thought to only affect women, recent studies have proven that it is more widely experienced.


While imposter syndrome is not recognised as a disorder, it is not uncommon. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon in their lives. A few signs of imposter syndrome are: if you find yourself agonising over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work, you attribute your success to luck or the outside world, find yourself to be very sensitive to constructive criticism, feeling that you will be found out as ‘phoney’ and often downplaying your achievements and expertise. The causes for imposter syndrome can vary depending on the person, their upbringing, and opportunities. There have been studies proving the links between different parenting styles and imposter syndrome. For example, people coming from families who greatly value achievement. It was also shown that the lack of opportunities and support from a young age also correlated to having imposter syndrome. It may also depend on a person’s personality type. For example, being a perfectionist, having low self-efficacy, and neuroticism. Other factors such as social anxiety can also play a role in developing this syndrome.


I believe to cope with the imposter syndrome, it is important to understand that it mainly arises from setting unrealistic goals for yourself. Many people who suffer from this syndrome are high achievers but the associated perfectionism only feeds into the feeling of inadequacy. As you are constantly comparing yourself with some ‘perfect’ outcome that’s either impossible or unrealistic. These standards often lead to being counterproductive. So, a step towards coping with the syndrome is to recognise these patterns and to be kind to yourself. Engaging in positive self-talk and laying the pressure off yourself. This can help with being less anxious and help you build the courage to do things that will bring you greater rewards. Also, recognising your achievements so far and realising that they are your achievements. Instead of giving credit to external factors, giving credit to yourself can go a long way. Embrace your accomplishments by separating your feelings from the facts.


While these are helpful ways to cope with the syndrome, an easier start would be to simply talk about it. Choosing a non-judgemental environment to express your feelings can help a great deal. It can help you understand that you might not be the only one suffering from such undesired thoughts. Talking to others might help you gain insights into how others are dealing with such similar situations. If these negative behavioural patterns persist and hinder your everyday life, getting external help like a therapist might be a good option.


Overcoming these feelings takes action, it's about not getting stuck in the thought of ‘I can’t do this' but making sure that you take action and move forward. Nonetheless, self-doubt can be paralysing but recognising these feelings is the first step towards coping with them. Acting, taking charge, and focusing on facts can help you make efforts to move forward instead of getting stuck in the imposter cycle. An interesting approach to imposter syndrome is provided in this article:


“We know what the feeling is called. We know others suffer from it. We know a little bit about why we feel this way. And we now know how to handle it: Invite it in and remind ourselves why it’s here and what it means."


Carl Richards (the guy in the article) says he's been invited to speak about his work and career all over the world, and yet he still hasn't been able to get rid of his impostor syndrome. What he has learned to do is think of it "as a friend."


Whenever he hears that negative voice in his head, he pauses for a minute, takes a deep breath, and says to himself, "Welcome back, old friend. I'm glad you're here. Now, let's get to work." ”


So, accepting this feeling and taking steps to believe facts over feelings can help overcome the imposter syndrome. Moreover, talking to friends and family will not only help you but maybe help them as well. Just starting the conversation can go a long way and avoiding negative self-talk and focusing on the positives. It is about changing habits that are not beneficial to you and adopting habits that will help you grow.


Further reading:

https://www.mindful.org/how-to-overcome-impostor-syndrome/

https://health.clevelandclinic.org/a-psychologist-explains-how-to-deal-with-imposter-syndrome/


Online course on overcoming Imposter syndrome:

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/overcoming-imposter-syndrome


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