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Bittersweet success: The curse of Imposter Syndrome

Posted by Deb Muoio

Nov 11, 2015 8:58:55 AM

Despite being one of the greatest (if not the most celebrated) guitarists of all time, Jimi Hendrix never fully embraced his acclaim.

“I don't really live on compliments,” he mused during an interview on The Dick Cavett Show. “As a matter of fact, they have a way of distracting me. I know a whole lot of musicians, artists out there who [hear] the compliments and [think] ‘Wow, I must have been really great,’ and so they get fat and satisfied and they get lost and forget about their actual talent and start living in another world.”

Success changes people, sometimes to their own detriment. On one extreme you have those who, upon realizing a major achievement, get a little too caught up in the glory and become egotistical, condescending, and self-important. As Hendrix suggested, they lose sight of the fact that self-improvement and learning is a lifelong process.

On the other extreme we have the self-proclaimed imposters; people who feel that they don’t deserve success or the praise that comes with it, and for whom every achievement is tainted. Despite their past successes, they still see themselves as an imposter who will be found out eventually.

Who is more likely to struggle with this issue? This is what data from our Imposter Syndrome Test reveal:

PERSONALITY AND ATTITUDES

Self-esteem

Perhaps not surprisingly, as self-esteem decreases, the likelihood of developing Imposter Syndrome increases.

  • Score for people with very high self-esteem: 30
  • Fairly high self-esteem: 47
  • Passable self-esteem: 59
  • Low self-esteem: 75
  • Very low self-esteem: 83

Goal Achievement

The less goal-oriented a person is, the higher the probability that he or she will develop Imposter Syndrome.

  • Score for people who achieve all of the goals they set for themselves: 60
  • People who achieve most of their goals: 62
  • People who achieve some of their goals: 67
  • People who achieve a few of their goals: 78
  • People who have not achieved any of their goals: 78

Perfectionism

As the tendency toward perfectionism becomes more extreme, the propensity for Imposter Syndrome increases.

  • Score for extreme perfectionists: 71
  • Moderate perfectionists: 66
  • Mild perfectionists: 61
  • Non-perfectionists: 60

Job Satisfaction

Imposter Syndrome tends to be higher among people who are dissatisfied with their job.

  • Score for satisfied employees: 62
  • Moderately satisfied employees: 65
  • Score for unsatisfied employees: 71

Job Performance

Individuals who have received poor performance reviews are more likely to struggle with Imposter Syndrome.

  • Score for top performers: 53
  • Satisfactory performers: 66
  • Poor performers: 75

DEMOGRAPHICS

The PsychTests study found statistically significant differences in scores between different age groups, and different levels of socio-economic status. While these differences are interesting and statistically robust, the margins are rather small. Essentially, the data show that the Imposter Syndrome is rather prevalent, albeit to a moderate degree, with older women from low socio-economic class being most at risk.

Gender

Women are more likely than men to feel like an imposter, but both genders are prone to self-doubt.

  •    On a scale from 0 to 100 (where a high score is indicative of Imposter Syndrome) the average score for women is 66. The average score for men is 63. (The difference was not statistically significant, but there is a clear trend: Women are more likely to struggle with Imposter Syndrome).

Age

Imposter Syndrome increases with age, but then drops after the age of 40. 

  • Score for those below the age of 18: 61
  • Age 18 to 29: 65
  • Age 30 to 39: 68
  • Age 40 and older: 64

Grades in school

Top-performing students and below average students are equally likely to suffer from Imposter Syndrome; average students are least likely to experience the issue.

  • Score for students with top grades (in top 5%): 67
  • Students with good grades (mostly A’s, but not within the top 5%): 65
  • Students with average grades: 63
  • Students with below average grades: 68

Socio-economic status

As socio-economic status decreases, the probability of suffering from Imposter Syndrome increases. 

  • Score for people in the $100,000+ economic bracket: 64
  • $75,000 to $100,000 economic bracket: 65
  • $50,000 to $75,000 economic bracket: 66
  • $25,000 to $50,000 economic bracket: 67
  • $25,000 or more economic bracket: 68

ADVICE & TIPS

Despite having achieved success in the past, people with Imposter Syndrome refuse to take ownership of their successes. They diminish the significance of their achievements and attribute them to luck or other forces outside their control, rather than their own effort, dedication, and even intelligence. For people with Impostor Syndrome, the only thing more threatening than a seemingly undeserved achievement is the terror that one day, people will recognize them for who they feel they really are: A complete and utter fraud.

Given that Imposter Syndrome is indelibly linked with low self-esteem, here are some tips to help boost your self-image: . 
  • Learn from - but let go of - mistakes. Absolutely everyone, no matter how perfect they may seem, messes up from time to time. This is how we learn. Like the process of learning to walk as children, if we don't stumble we won't learn how to get up and keep our balance. Keep this in mind as you venture out into the world. Be gentle with yourself.
  • Don't rely on others to make you feel good. One potential trap of a shaky self-esteem is a tendency to allow our self-view to wax and wane depending on how others view us or treat us on any given day. The fact is, if you feel empty inside or unhappy with your life, no one can change that but you. While developing healthy relationships with others can enhance our life and make us feel good, what's more important is the relationship we have with ourselves. 
  • Practice positive affirmations. This isn’t just a philosophy – it has a scientific basis. The success of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy lies in the reprogramming of the brain. Write 5 or 10 self-affirming statements (“I am healthy, wealthy, and wise”) and repeat them to yourself every day several times a day. Basically, don’t just say them 3 times, and then spend the rest of the day criticizing yourself or complaining. Say your affirmations as often as you can, whether you’re on the way to work, cleaning the house, or shopping. When a negative thought pops into your mind, replace it with something positive – and say that positive statement three times. Continue to practice your affirmations for as long as it takes for them to sink in. It will feel silly at first, even fake and untrue, but that’s from years of brain programming in the opposite, negative direction. It can be done, if you make it a habit.


If you’re interested in using assessments, request a free trial for ARCH Profile here.

Want to learn more about using psychological tests for hiring, leadership development, career development or talent retention? Download our free eBook loaded with down-to-earth information about psychological testing for HR purposes.  

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Topics: Employee Attitude, Mentoring, Employee Wellbeing, Personal Development, Coaching

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