Imposter Syndrome: A Common Reality and How You Can Overcome It By Bushra Satkhed

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong somewhere? Or if you are not able to fit into that really amazing high profile company or you don’t deserve the appreciation you are receiving for your achievements? 

If your answer is yes, then you’ve probably experienced imposter syndrome. You may wonder, what is this new term? But don’t worry as this is something that almost 70% of the population in this world goes through making it extremely common, however no one talks about this. This is a psychological condition that makes an individual feel as an ‘imposter’ in situations. Impostor phenomenon, also called as impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

One may feel severe inadequacy and self-doubt that can leave them fearing that they will be exposed as a “hoax”, usually in their work lives. It can affect anyone, regardless of their success. This phenomenon was first described in high achieving women, but it can affect men as well and more marginalised members of the society. 

Dr Tejal Lathia, a consultant endocrinologist at Apollo and Fortis Hospitals, Navi Mumbai has over 15 years of experience in treating diabetes, thyroid, PCOS and other hormonal conditions. Dr. Lathia began exploring her questions on this syndrome when she discovered that people tend to feel out of place, especially women which made her realise the importance of paying attention to this phenomenon.

“I remember being the only female faculty at a conference in Lonavala and I asked the organisers why this was so?’ Dr. Lathia said, “They spoke of how they invited umpteen lady speakers most of whom refused the invitation for various reasons. I started to reflect on how in MBBS and even up to MD, women outshine their male peers at every step of the way but when I entered my super specialty course, I was the only woman in the entire batch across Maharashtra that year. As time went by, I saw that there were less women at faculty positions, on the podium at conferences and in advisory board meetings though the ratio of male: female doctors is roughly 50:50 during MBBS. I know that this state of affairs is complex and multifactorial, but I decided to look more closely at why women seem to be on the back foot so to speak. I came across Amy Diehl’s tweets on Impostor syndrome and it was a moment of eureka. The Impostor phenomenon simply put means that a person feels that they are not good enough or do not deserve their success and attribute this to their luck or being ‘blessed or fortunate’ rather than ascribing it to their capabilities.This then makes them feel like a fraud and is associated with low self-esteem, and in more extreme cases depression or even self-harm.They feel like an Impostor!”

According to medical psychologist Dr Mahati Chittem, the budding impostor falls back on procrastination, unable to make a decision, not stepping up when opportunity presents itself, wondering if they will be able to do justice or not to the role or task assigned to them by which time the opportunity has passed on be. So one can imagine how this would result in a professional losing out on promotions or projects or opportunities. In more mature people experiencing this phenomenon, they change into someone who has to do it all and do it perfectly creating a perfectionist, who juggles too many things at the same time, which for women is known as the “superwoman phenomenon”. Exceling at work and home at great personal cost – anxiety, self-doubt, stress, fear of failure, fear of not being good enough or perfect at everything.

Dr. Lathia shares her insights on the reasons one may experience this syndrome. “Often this phenomenon is attributed to the individual’s personality or being too soft or tending to over think.” She stated, “But there is a larger sociocultural context where our environment makes us feel like this. It can be a result of criticism where we tend to measure our self-worth from tangible outcomes, social comparisons which make us try to keep up or measure up to others’ achievements and if we don’t measure up – feel inadequate, that we are not good enough. So, I think that each person wants approval and validation from their peers and family. Therefore, it is an external construct and cannot be called a disorder or illness.”

Talking on how this syndrome can be conquered, Dr. Lathia stresses on the need to spread awareness of this condition through professional courses and media which will help people recognise it in themselves as someone experiencing this may not pursue opportunities that come their way and not achieve the kind of success they want or deserve, and may try to overcompensate for their self-doubts or fears and face the risk of burnout or emotional exhaustion- the success may be at great personal cost.

“Having a mentor to guide you and reinforce your self-belief as well as mentoring others which helps in overcoming our own self-doubts as we endeavour to guide and coach others can help in overcoming this condition.  Having a non-competitive hobby and staying away from negative and toxic people or situations will also be very helpful.” Dr. Lathia states.

Speaking on the requirement of media on this issue, Dr. Lathia believes that media coverage is indeed very valuable to spread the message. 

“I also think it should be discussed during our trainings in our respective professions. Be it a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer. Most of our course curriculums do not cover very important issues like effective communication, critical thinking and analysis, effective presentation, how to grow professionally. We are largely fed theory which is essential but these ancillary issues are equally important for achieving professional success and feeling we deserve our success.” Dr. Lathia further added, “We are the drivers of our lives and as achievers with above average intellect, we must become aware of this phenomenon and if it rears its head at times in our lives, when opportunity knocks at the door, we learn to examine the opportunity dispassionately and objectively and decide if it is something you WANT to do, CAN do and have SPACE in your life to take up – then do it!”