Words Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen | Picture Jorge Bermudez

Let’s talk about imposter syndrome. Time for real talk.

What is imposter syndrome? 

It is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It is when people find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Having many questions playing and re-playing in their head, whether they’re deserving of the accolades they have received. 

Imposter syndrome usually makes a person feels restless and nervous. Then, negative self-talk kicks in, followed by anxiety and depression which often accompany this syndrome.

How can you tell if it is indeed imposter syndrome?  

The most prominent tell-tale is the feeling of self-doubt, even in areas you typically excel in.

Does this sound familiar? Read on.

While imposter syndrome is not a mental disorder, it is somewhat a phenomenon – an ongoing phenomenon, if you will. Imposter syndrome is not a recent finding. It has been going on for years except it is only now we talk about it openly.  And it is only now that we know it does not only affect women.  

Why women? 

The term imposter syndrome was first called “impostor phenomenon”. It was coined in 1978 by Georgia State University psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes in a study of, you guessed it – high-achieving women. These psychologists discovered that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalize and accept their achievements.

The term imposter syndrome is usually narrowly applied to individuals of a certain level of intelligence and those with achievement. It also has links to perfectionism and the social context

Many high-flying individuals I have spoken with admit to having felt it at one time or the other – some even feel it all the time – no matter how confident they are or how many awards, credits or titles they’ve bagged. Michelle Obama felt this throughout her journey – so does Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Cheryl Sandberg. 

Closer to home, imposter syndrome is something that has always been at the back of my head except those times ago, I did not know this feeling has a name. When I was crowned Mrs Singapore 2017, instead of taking in fully all the hard work I have presented through the journey, I credited my win to the fact that perhaps the judges felt bad that I’d been travelling to-and-from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I am based to Singapore for the whole 4 months duration of the competition. In my mind, that is also why they decided to let me have the crown and represent Singapore in China later that year – I have no part in the success whatsoever.  

When I was selected to contribute to a book published by Penguin Publishing along with 22 other big-time journalists across Asia, I immediately heard a whisper, “It’s not you – they decided to have you in to make up for the numbers of contributors.” 

What about this magazine – the one I started with sweat and tears? Fab! Luxe has been going great since it started nearly 3 years ago. We have garnered so many readers from all over the world and I am so very proud of it, however, I still cannot fathom how I managed all these and just credit it to luck. When the truth of the matter is, luck has got nothing to do with it.

These are just some of the examples. I have lived through so many of those moments. Whenever success comes around, instead of standing and feeling proud, I let my mind stray into a crazy realm of imposter syndromism.  

Imposter Syndrome is nothing one should be ashamed of. If anything, it affects more people than we know. A snoop at a study, reveals that 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives and usually the more successful one is, the more episodes he or she will have.

The main trait of imposter syndrome is the feeling of being a fraud, hence working harder or trying to do better might not help thwart it. Through the years, I have learned to quieten my mind whenever these thoughts come around. 

First and foremost you have to acknowledge your feelings. Talk to a friend or get a coach or mentor to get some perspectives from someone on the outside while helping you to be a little less overwhelmed. 

Next, challenge your doubts. Think about what makes you feel that way. Are there any reasons to support what you feel? If you have constantly received accolades for whatever work you have done, thinking you are not good at it, does not make sense, does it?  

Never compare yourself to others. This is one of the most fundamental ways to shake off imposter syndromism. Social media is a catalyst. Follow people who inspire you not make you doubt or feel bad about yourself.

You have to keep in mind that success doesn’t require perfection. There is no such thing as perfection. We are all on a journey and failing to achieve something does not make you a fraud – it is simply being human.

Give yourself lots of kindness and compassion. Say nice things to yourself – words that you will say to a dear friend. Those conversations will always be coated with love – so why not give yourself the same?

Most importantly, if the feelings persist or interrupt your day-to-day living, perhaps it is time to speak to a therapist. While it is not a mental disorder, imposter syndrome can disrupt the things you want to do, making it hard to be motivated and driven. A therapist can offer support in terms of overcoming feelings of unworthiness, addressing anxiety and reframing your mind against unwanted beliefs.