Unmasking truth behind impostor syndrome: why success can still leave you doubting your worth

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Dhyana Shah
  • Signs of impostor syndrome include constantly feeling like you don’t deserve what you have achieved and worrying that others will discover you are a fraud
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with questions and exercises about the story we’ve written
Dhyana Shah |
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Impostor syndrome describes when people cannot realistically assess their skills because they only focus on their flaws. Illustration: Shutterstock

“Who am I? I’m unworthy. My success is just a product of chance.”

Have you ever talked to yourself in this way because you doubted your worth? Maybe, you feel as if you aren’t smart enough to be a student at your school, or aren’t deserving of your friends or family.

While it may seem as if you’re the only one having these thoughts, you are not alone. Nanki Luthra, co-founder of diversity and mental health consultancy Blueberg and former programme coordinator at Hong Kong youth NGO KELY Support Group, explains what this self-critical internal dialogue is: impostor syndrome.

“Individuals doubt their skill, talent or accomplishments. They think they might be frauds, and whatever they’ve achieved, they call it luck,” said Luthra, who has master’s degrees in public health and health management.

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“They might think that other people are overestimating their intelligence or capabilities.”

Luthra explained a few factors that could lead to this mindset, such as family upbringing, societal expectations, social anxiety disorder and being surrounded by people who deprecate you.

The American Psychological Association describes impostor syndrome as a situation in which highly accomplished individuals “believe they are frauds who ultimately will fail and be unmasked as incompetent”.

Based on a systematic review of impostor syndrome published in the National Library of Medicine in 2019, prevalence rates varied widely from 9 to 82 per cent depending on the screening tool and cut-off used to assess symptoms in the studies.

If your self-critical thoughts feel overwhelming, consider talking to a professional about what you’re going through. Illustration: Shutterstock

Even Emma Watson, who rose to fame playing Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film series, shared about her insecurities in a 2013 interview with American online publication, Rookie Magazine.

“It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am and what everyone’s expectations of me are,’” the actress explained.

While, of course, how each person experiences impostor syndrome depends on their individual experiences, one common type is the perfectionist.

Luthra described the traits of a perfectionist: “[They] expect a lot from themselves even when it’s their first time doing something and always want to achieve perfection ... demanding a lot of [themselves] with unrealistic expectations and unfulfillable goals.”

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Even if these people have received positive feedback, they have the unshakeable feeling that they could have done more and end up focusing solely on their flaws. This constant self-doubt meant that they often struggled to assess their skills in a realistic way, Luthra explained.

While on the outside, this type of person may seem like a successful student who is an overachiever, the inadequacy they feel causes them to push past their limits, leading them to feel exhausted but not any happier.

“It is a phenomenon associated with incredibly low self-esteem ... and intrusive thoughts questioning self-worth,” Luthra said, adding that when unaddressed and left to fester, impostor syndrome can lead to depression and anxiety.

“Despite evidence of competence, they believe everything they’ve accomplished is not enough and that they don’t deserve what they achieve.”

Impostor syndrome can manifest in many settings: at school, at home and increasingly on social media.

On social media, people usually only present filtered versions of their lives. Illustration: Shutterstock

According to Luthra, social media intensifies these negative thoughts and insecurities because users often compare themselves to others on the platform, who often only post the appealing aspects of their lives.

“The truth is: the only person you can truly compare yourself to is you – see how you were last year as compared to this year,” she stressed.

If these descriptions of impostor syndrome fit the thoughts you have, Luthra emphasised the importance of seeing a therapist or counsellor.

Even if you do not have a formal diagnosis of a mental health issue, it can be helpful just to talk to someone about how you are feeling and learn to develop healthier thought patterns.

Click here to download a printable worksheet with questions and exercises about this story. Answers are on the second page of the document.

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