Do you ever feel like you need to correct people when they compliment you on a job well done? Do you feel like saying, ‘Yeah, but…’ and then proceeding to brush off the compliment? Do you keep silent, not wanting to prolong the conversation, but inside thinking ‘If only they knew the truth?’
Welcome to Impostor Syndrome – the feeling that any success you encounter is luck or a fluke. The feeling can touch anyone – but actually becomes more pronounced the higher achieving a person is. The more success you have, the harder it can be to believe you’re really worth all the good attention and compliments people are giving you.
The thinking style of impostor syndrome is a way of explaining results that is associated with depressive thinking. Basically, there are two main ways in which we can view both success and failure– as a result of us, or as the result of circumstances. One way is good for our mental health, the other, not so good.
Success Three Ways
Attributional style theory suggests there are three ways we can attribute success (or failure) to ourselves. We can assume that our success came from our innate talents (a pervasive feature), talents which we have demonstrated over and over again (a permanent feature), and for which credit goes solely to us (a personal feature). This is the ideal way to think if you want to avoid impostor syndrome, depression and low self-esteem. The worst way to frame our success is by assuming the opposite. That is, that our success was just due to one aspect of ourselves, not our innate awesomeness, that we demonstrated this ability just this one time, and that our success was actually at least partially due to circumstances or other people’s assistance. Externalising your success in this way suggests you are not innately capable. No surprise then that thinking in that way repeatedly can lead to depression and low self-esteem.
Example: Promotion at Work
Best way to think of it: ‘I totally deserved that promotion. I was the best person for the job. I work hard all the time and I spent ages preparing for the interview.’
Worst way to think of it: ‘I don’t know how I fluked that promotion. It was lucky that my boss remembered I’ve been working really hard recently and that the assessor I got was so nice. Plus, my partner helped me prepare for the interview. I couldn’t have done it without their help.’
Mixed thinking: ‘I guess I deserved that promotion. After all, I’ve done well in my current role for ages. But I’m just not sure I can do the new job. I’m going to need a lot of support to succeed.’
Often, people are good at owning their success in some areas of their lives, and not so good at owning it in other areas. You might be good at accepting praise of your work, but have a hard time accepting praise as a parent.
If you often feel like an impostor, and have a hard time accepting your success, what can you do about it?
Change your language. Listen to your answer the next time someone praises you. Then go home and prepare a better answer – one which asserts that you were successful because of your talents, talents which you’ve developed over time, and which you demonstrate without much assistance from others.
Stop making excuses. If you’re the type to say, ‘Thanks, but… (launch into excuses, giving away praise to others, saying it was easy and anyone could have done it)’, try stopping at Thanks. Just accept the praise!
Look for evidence you deserve it. Instead of thinking about what you didn’t do, and how ‘lucky’ you were, focus on what you did do. Pay particular attention to what you might have done that others didn’t.
Celebrate your success. Nothing says ‘it was me’ more than making a bit of a big deal about what you got!
Think about the story you want to tell. Generally, people will believe what you tell them – whether you say that you deserved your success; or that your success belongs to someone or something else. If you want to keep achieving, people need to trust that you are capable of the responsibility – and that means letting them know you are capable by owning your successes.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.