Work Makes Frauds of us All

You can do it, Science Dog!

Some topics are like an itch.

Eventually you scratch at them so much they start bleeding and you have to call a doctor.

…Okay, so that analogy didn’t work.

What I’m trying to say is that when you’re a writer, there are these topics that you keep scratching the surface of. Maybe you make a small mention here and then make it a part of the main thread, etc. Eventually you get interested enough in the subject to notice when it comes up on your radar. And then’s your chance to write more substantially on it.

Imposter syndrome is such a topic.

I’ve briefly touched on the topic here and here and have noted its prevalence within programmers both times. But the phenomenon goes much deeper than just that. It’s a psychological disorder that affects many people and is a serious mental health concern for those who have it.

Originally, imposter syndrome (IS) was thought to mainly occur with women because they were the ones at the time being studied. But after more studies and research on who does and doesn’t have traits of IS it was found to happen across genders, ethnicity, etc. Though there was was an interesting study I found about it being more prominent in Asians but it was (naturally) behind a paywall.

IS is a phenomenon whereby you think that you simply don’t have what it takes. The fact that you’ve achieved so much is merely luck, hard work or something else. It’s not the result of your innate abilities, skills or good judgment. Nope, instead it’s all a matter of fooling other people into thinking that you’re competent.

You might see a few problems with this.

First, this leads to cycles of feeling like (get this) an imposter. Start an activity, get anxious, panic for a while, finally do it at the last second, do well, explain it away as “luck” or “the stress made me do well” or something else. Or maybe you start an activity and really overdo the work. In that case all you have to say is that you worked so hard on it that no one noticed how awful your presentation actually was.

Second, all of that overwork is no good if you want some time to yourself. Even if you’re not anti-work yourself it’s going to severely impair you to constantly keep working at something. Only to, in the end, feel like you either accomplished nothing, downplay what you know you accomplished or feel lucky about that you accomplished.

On a personal level I can see some of myself in this syndrome.

But, thankfully, I don’t think I quite have it.

I do tend to downplay my accomplishment. I chalk them up to good research or hard work and sometimes I just divert the original compliment with a laugh or a joke. I don’t take compliments in general well and it’s much harder for me to dwell on success and recognize it for what is is, then failure.

Fortunately/unfortunately I can chalk most of that up to depression and poor self-esteem!

…Yay?

Depression, by the way, is exhausting.

But that’s a story for another time.

Coming back to imposter syndrome then there are some common traits (PDF) one may find:

(1) The Impostor Cycle, (2) Theneed to be special or to be the very best, (3) Superman/Superwoman aspects; (4) Fear of failure, (5) Denial of competence and Discounting praise, and (6) Fear and guilt about success.

Alternatively:

Harvey and Katz (1985) proposed that the Impostor Phenomenon consisted of 3 core factors: (1) the belief that he/she has fooled other people, (2) fear of being exposed as an impostor, and (3) inability to attribute own achievement to internal qualities such as ability, intelligence, or skills.

Just as a note, the authors seem to prefer the second one as it is more “specific” than the last one.

Honestly, they both seem perfectly acceptable to me. The first, by the way, requires at least two of those traits being matched for IS to be going on. The latter requires all three for it to be happening.

So one is more rigid than the other but it’s also more specific.

The article that got me thinking about all of this stuff is called, Feel like a Fraud? and focuses on a few graduate students and their struggles of self-worth in a very achievement-based culture:

William Somerville has always been a good student. In high school and college, he looked forward to taking tests and writing papers — objective measures of success gave him a chance to prove himself.

But as a PhD student in clinical psychology at The New School in New York City, he began to doubt his abilities. Now he wasn’t just studying to make the grade, but actually leading therapy sessions with patients in a hospital psychiatric unit.

“I felt, what gives me the right to be here?” he says.

In those moments, he says, he didn’t just feel he was lacking certain skills. He wondered whether he belonged there at all. “There’s a sense of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and needing to learn to swim,” he says. “But I wasn’t just questioning whether I could survive. In a fundamental way, I was asking, ‘Am I a swimmer?’” (emphasis mine)

I don’t usually quote from the beginnings of articles but that line at the end really got me.

Because my relation to imposter syndrome is my own struggles of self-worth.

When you deal with low self-esteem (or at least when I do) I’m not simply asking if the water is too deep or if the pool is the right size. I’m asking myself if I am a swimmer at all. Do I even deserve to be in this pool? What right do I have to be in this pool? And especially when there are so many people who don’t have to worry about these things?

And on and on it goes.

In my case, the “pool” can sometimes be life, but for people suffering from IS it’s their greatest achievements.

One thing that I thought was interesting was the ways in which IS is distinct from perfectionism.

The previously mentioned PDF is actually an overview of IS by Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander done in 2011.

The following contrast with perfectionism comes from there:

The difference between Impostors and perfectionists is that perfectionists will not disclose their mistakes to other people because they fear being viewed as imperfect (Frost et al., 1995), while Impostors will openly communicate their self-perception of imperfect performance to others (Ferrari & Thompson, 2006). Impostors do not want to appear imperfect and actively attempt to conceal their imperfection, but paradoxically Impostors do openly disclose their imperfection to others.

Not to keep making it about me (though I’m going to anyways because that’s what I know best) I tend to disclose my faults much more readily than my accomplishment.

I’ve even been accused of carrying around a scarlet A every now and then.

Regardless, I do appreciate my accomplishments and frequently take credit for my writings. I don’t get into spirals of shame cycles (one of the most important parts) and I’m certainly no perfectionist. And as we discussed, while perfectionism is not the same as IS, it has many similar traits. In addition, many individuals who are perfectionist tend to overlap with IS fairly well according to several studies sourced by Sakulku and Alexander.

Similarly, people who came from certain backgrounds with their families may also be more likely to have IS in the future. Families that heavily overemphasize achievement and success for example, may make the child less ready for failure when it happens. And this can lead to all sorts of negative effects even if it’s not necessarily IS.

Whatever the cause of IS there are some tips to dealing with it. It’s also worth noting that even some of the most accomplished people have it.

As the New Yorker’s Carl Richards wrote:

One of my favorite discoveries involved the amazing American author and poet Maya Angelou. She shared that, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

Think about that for a minute. Despite winning three Grammys and being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, this huge talent still questioned her success.

So if you feel like this, you’re not alone.

Hell, pending on your opinions of Angelou and her work, you’re even in good company.

There’s all sorts of people from high and low who feel like they don’t deserve what they have. And you can reach out to some of those people and try to figure out what caused that or just how to deal with it the best way.

Geek Feminism has some various tips that may warrant a look-see.

The original article Feel like a Fraud also lists things like talking to mentors, remember what you do well, talking to someone you know who can help, etc.

Whatever your solution, try to treat yourself well and remember that no one is perfect.

…But can you believe I messed up on that analogy at the beginning?

Ugh. Idiot.


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