Impostor syndrome, the feeling that other people are over-estimating you and that you’ll be found out, is quite common. Some studies say that as many as two out of five high achievers consistently feel themselves to be a fraud, and that seventy per cent of them will feel like that at some point in their career.
Why is the impostor syndrome so common? Part of the reason may be found in the Four Stages of Learning model. This is based on the idea that people are initially unaware of how little they know, or “unconsciously incompetent”. As they realise the extent of their ignorance they move to being “consciously incompetent” and then through acquiring skills and knowledge become “consciously competent”. The final stage is when the skills and behaviours are so well learned that they can be used without conscious effort, a stage called “unconsciously competent”.
People with impostor syndrome may be mentally stuck in the second or third of the four stages. They realise how much they still have to learn, or how consciously willed their achievements are, and so discount their own ability. Even being paired with a more experienced or senior colleague doesn’t help. This can be because it reinforces the individual’s view of how little they really know, and because people tend to believe that they don’t have impostor syndrome but that they are genuinely out of their depth.
Impostor syndrome is particularly common where people take on their first job following a promotion or professional qualification. By its nature it also affects the high achieving and conscientious, the irony being that the more people suffer from it the less likely it is to actually be true. The best way to deal with impostor syndrome is to acknowledge that it exists, and then to acknowledge that you may be affected by it. Further ways of dealing with the feelings of being an impostor are to use cognitive behavioural techniques to examine the thoughts behind them and assess how valid and they are, or to use mindfulness to acknowledge the feelings without engaging with them, accepting that they will pass.
Impostor syndrome does have a polar opposite, the Dunning-Kruger effect, or ‘illusory superiority’. This is found in people who are “unconsciously incompetent” and as such overestimate their abilities and under-estimate other people’s. As Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent Of Man in 1871 “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. Perhaps another way to approach impostor syndrome then is to be thankful you aren’t undeservedly confident.