Impostor Syndrome: Why you feel your success is ‘sus’

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Amanda Stevens

Click here to see more information on Hayes students and self-confidence.

By Amanda Stevens, Rutherford B. Hayes High School

For many people, self-confidence is key to knowing they have the skills and abilities to take on various challenges. However, those who experience Impostor Phenomenon may be regularly haunted by feelings of self-doubt, in spite of their achievements.
Impostor Phenomenon, also called Impostor Syndrome, is defined as a psychological pattern in which a person has persistent feelings of self-doubt and fears others will discover they’re not really as capable as they’re perceived to be.
Impostor Phenomenon was first described in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in their research on high achieving women.
While it has often been described to occur among high achievers who are unable to “internalize and accept their success,” various studies cited in a 2011 analysis of Impostor Phenomenon indicate that it is widely experienced. Although Impostor Phenomenon isn’t an actual diagnosis found in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM), it is recognized as a specific form of intellectual self-doubt and it can have consequences for one’s psychological well-being.
The Impostor Cycle, originally described by Clance, outlines the process that people go through. It begins with an achievement-related task, which stirs anxiety, self-doubt and worry. “Impostors” react by over-preparing or procrastinating.
If the task is achieved, they are relieved, but not for long. They may push away positive feedback and attribute success to their hard work or their luck, but not ability. Such attributions can lead them to have feelings of anxiety, doubt and being fraudulent. Then, when they encounter another achievement-related task, the cycle repeats.
Studies show that 70% of the general public report feeling Impostor Phenomenon, but this percentage has been shown to increase in academic settings.
In a voluntary survey of Hayes students, 55 of the 99 respondents indicated that they generally worry that people will discover they’re not as capable as they’re perceived to be.
The belief that one has fooled others into thinking that they are more competent than they really are is a key characteristic of Impostor Phenomenon. It may also be paired with a tendency to attribute success to external factors such as luck or hard work, rather than ability. However, amongst the respondents, only 33 indicated that they thought their past success was due to luck.
By comparison, students showed a far greater tendency to worry about their future successes. The survey showed that 75 of the respondents said they generally worry about not succeeding at something, even if others around them have confidence in them.
Additionally, around 60% of respondents said they were worried about being able to keep repeating their successes and being able to meet future expectations.
As described by the Impostor Cycle, persistent self-doubt can lend itself to worries about being successful.
For many students, however, such worries may not be precisely caused by Impostor Phenomenon but from an already existing desire to achieve high standards and not disappoint people close to them.
“Once, I had done something I was proud of or thought was very good and ended up getting negative feedback from a person who played a significant role in my life,” said freshman Carissa Matson. “From that point forward, there’s this sort of battle with not wanting to let anyone down.”
According to the 2011 analysis of Impostor Phenomenon, perfectionism and fear of failure are often contributing factors to Impostor Phenomenon.
In her clinical observations of Impostor Phenomenon, Clance suggested that people experiencing Impostor Phenomenon may disregard their success if there’s a gap between their expectations and their actual performance.
The analysis also noted that another influence on Impostor Phenomenon is family environment.
Several students said familial expectations and lack of support from those around them were sources of self-doubt.
“I believe a lack of support from loved ones can very heavily contribute to someone’s self- doubt. If you look around and you don’t see confidence from other people, then it can be hard to believe in yourself,” senior Hayden Crawford said.
Senior Wesley Davey III shares a similar sentiment.
“Self-doubt could stem from terrible home lives or lack of encouragement. It could stem from high expectations that have been set for [students] by their parents,” Davey said. “If [students] surround themselves with fantastic and encouraging friends, they might be able to improve their self-confidence.”
For some people who struggle to internalize success, it can be difficult to accept positive feedback from others.
It has been observed that people experiencing Impostor Phenomenon may not only have difficulty accepting positive feedback, but they may also focus on the times when they hadn’t performed well as a way of trying to “prove” they don’t deserve praise.
In the survey, 62 respondents said that they tended to remember the times in which they didn’t do their best more than the times when they did do their best, and 40 respondents said they generally have difficulty accepting positive feedback, though not all 40 respondents selected the previous statement.
The greater number of selections for remembering not doing so well may be a reflection of a general observed tendency to remember the bad more than the good.
Freshman Mia Saksa notes that this seems to not only be prevalent, but also damaging at times.
“As a society, we often seem to remember the negative comments rather than focus on the positive ones,” Saksa said. “This can affect our self-esteem because if we only look at the things we can fix, we often forget what we are able to do or accomplish.”
So while not everyone necessarily experiences the Impostor Phenomenon, everyone can be subject to different factors which affect how they see themselves.
One particular factor is comparison. While social comparison can be helpful for self-evaluation, it can have a mixed bag of effects depending on who people compare themselves to.
“Comparing yourself to others has a lot to do with self-doubt and confidence. I find myself doing it all the time, and I can say that when I am not comparing, I am a lot more confident,” senior Madison Bricker said. “I would suggest actively avoiding comparisons to other people to help with self-doubt.”
Despite the commonality of struggles with self-esteem and self-confidence, they can be difficult to deal with. However, positive social relationships and social support can help strengthen self-esteem, so being in good company can be essential to getting through challenging situations.
“For me self confidence has been a big struggle, so I try to think about what others see in me that they like. I also understand that it can be hard to see things that are good about yourself sometimes…” junior Jacob Payne said. “I also have good friends who support me whether I do well or poorly. I think having people around you that enjoy your company is the most important.”

This story was originally published on Hayes Talisman on April 8, 2022.