28-year-old Haruna is a funny and hardworking man who graduated as one of the best students in his department during both his undergraduate and postgraduate studies, after which he got a job in a prestigious software company. Three years into his employment, he was appointed the team lead for a project which did not go according to plan. Everyone in the office knew Haruna was not to blame for the project’s failure, but he didn’t believe it. As a result of the failure to deliver on the project, he suffered from anxiety; became unsure of himself and felt like a fraud, someone who should not hold any position in the company. Despite his stellar performance on all other projects, the failed project kept him awake at night and became a recurring source of frustration and unhappiness.
Haruna’s anxiety as a result of Imposter Syndrome did not serve as a motivator; instead, it led to depression and social exclusion. He began to over-prepare for his projects due to a constantly looming fear of failure, and he began to feel unworthy of his position in the company and began to even query his university certificates. He was no longer sure he merited them and often wondered if the teachers were not excessively lenient in their marking of his grades. While his coworkers applaud him for the effort he put into all projects, Haruna always felt as if he duped everyone into believing that he put in his best efforts and that the previous projects’ success was due to luck and other people’s input while he was wrongly partaking in the glory.
Impostor syndrome is an internal state of mind in which usually, very high achieving individuals find it difficult to accept their success, but rather feel like a fraud and live in perpetual fear of being discovered as unworthy of their success. Even though they may have a long list of outstanding achievements under their belt, as we can see with Haruna above, they often attribute their success to luck or the efforts of others. They may even feel guilty for the success, which they may be convinced, is undeserved.
It is not an officially listed mental diagnosis but it is increasingly recognized by mental health professionals as a very common and distressing condition experienced especially by high achieving young students. It is also commoner in females.
Imposter syndrome causes fear because they are constantly waiting for someone to “discover” that they cheated their way to the top. Most times, this syndrome stems from either existing mental symptom, acquiring new responsibilities or taking over new roles, or promotions. The problem with impostor syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs.
Regrettably, Imposter syndrome is not a well-known syndrome and affected persons suffer in silence for many years and sometimes, for life. They frequently struggle with a chronic state of anxiety, self doubt and depression. In some unfortunate instances, it has culminated in suicide or attempted suicide. So, it is imperative that we learn to identify and overcome impostor syndrome, by learning to appreciate your accomplishments and acknowledge that you are deserving of them.
How can we overcome Imposter Syndrome when one notices the symptoms?
- Acknowledge the symptoms and talk to a trusted mentor that can help.
- Avoid comparing yourself to others, and downplaying your contributions. It does more harm than good.
- Learn to practice self affirmation and develop a positive and healthy response to self-doubt. Affirm yourself via positive words and acknowledge the effort and achievements you have made, and the richly deserved success you have scored over time.
- If there is persistence in self-doubt with consistent emotional distress, it is advisable to talk to a mental health professional (psychologist or psychiatrist) who can give professional help.
You can also contact the Asido Foundation’s helpline (09028080416), where psychological first aid will be provided. In addition, if more than first aid is required, guidance on how to contact mental health professionals will be provided.
Perfection is never a requirement for success. And everyone who works hard will record successes as well as encounter failure along the way. We should not allow ourselves be wracked by guilt and self doubt when we fail, but should rather learn from it and move on. Similarly, when we succeed, we should allow ourselves the satisfaction that we got something right and be happy with it.
Choosing kindness and compassion for yourself over criticism and self-doubt can help you maintain a realistic perspective and inspire you to pursue healthy self-growth. While everyone experiences symptoms of impostor syndrome from time to time, we should never undervalue successes, no matter how little it may seem. Acknowledge these ‘little’ achievements, and be grateful for them. If you were genuinely an impostor, you would not be worried about it.
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 15th September 2022