“Do you still feel younger than you thought you would by now,” echoes Alex Turner in the opening stanza of Arctic Monkeys’ Love is a Laserquest. It is a lyric that has reverberated in my subconscious since I first heard it in, oh, I don’t know – 2014 maybe? I was a relative latecomer to the AM party, but consider myself an integral member, nonetheless. I digress, the lyric is more than an exercise in songwriting by Turner, for it has once again reared its head in my consciousness for the better part of the last six months. I am 23-years-old and I am working what has been the ‘dream job’ aspirant my entire life. Yet, I still feel younger than I thought I would by now. I still sometimes feel vastly unqualified, like this should have been so unattainable for a girl like me. I still feel like someone is going to catch me out, that I am a meagre shapeshifter who’s filling a gap. And here I am, grappling with that. This is imposter syndrome, and I am not alone in experiencing it.
Like any writer pondering a personal affliction and their abilities, I turned this into a story – the one you read now. Bolstered with a healthy dose of curiosity and intrigue towards the concept of imposter syndrome, I reached out to Karina Mak, a Registered Psychologist and PhD Candidate at the School of Psychology, The University of Sydney.
Mak refers to imposter syndrome as imposter phenomenon, as it is a self-perceived, intellectual or professional experience.
“[Imposter phenomenon] is extreme and pervasive self-doubt, especially when an individual is faced with achievement tasks that may be in the professional space – it could be in the academic realm – anything that an individual would consider its achievement associated and where there would be either a positive or negative outcome associated with it,” explains Mak.
“Imposter phenomenon is not a diagnosable condition, which is why I don't like using the word syndrome, because people think, “oh, there's something pathologically wrong with me.” There’s not something pathologically wrong with you – it's an experience that a lot of people have, with this type of pervasive self-doubt.”
While there may be a perception that imposter phenomenon is becoming more common in society and perhaps your own inner circle, Mak attributes this to more people being willing to talk about feeling this way, citing the transparency of high-profile individuals as a potential motivator for this.
“People like Sheryl Sandberg when she was the CFO of Facebook, Maya Angelou, and a lot of actresses have also come out talking about how they doubted their skills or their ability, when they are given an opportunity,” says Mak. “I think it's increasing in terms of the people that are talking about it, and therefore, it's getting a lot more traction. You writing an article [about imposter phenomenon] says a lot about how common it is.”
Mak also explains many people experiencing imposter phenomenon externalise why they have achieved what they have, attributing it to luck or connections or the idea of being in the right place at the tight time; that the entire reason they have achieved a goal has nothing to do with their own abilities, skills and tenacity. She explains the idea of ‘faking it until you make it’ can be a detriment to self-recognition and honouring the goal you have achieved.
“A lot of people say, “fake it till you make it” – well, it’s a problematic thing,” offers Mak. “Faking it until you make it is dangerous because it's important to recognise you have actually achieved these things and attribute it to yourself rather than externalise or discount praise, which is also another feature of impostor phenomenon.”
Yet through the more prominent discussions of imposter phenomenon, misconceptions with the prevalence of those afflicted continue to permeate conversations of the self-perceived experience, particularly when it comes to gender and race.
“The misconception that it's experienced more in women is because it was initially researched in women first in the 70s [in] high achieving professional women,” says Mak. “But more research that's been conducted since then has found there is no real gender difference at all. [Imposter phenomenon] is also more common in ethnic minority groups. A lot of research has been done in African Americans in the US, and it's more prevalent among that particular group.”
Those believing they are experiencing imposter phenomenon cannot simply snap out of this mindset; they won’t wake one morning and feel satisfied with every goal achieved. Rather, training oneself to rethink the way they process their achievements and abilities is often the first place to start.
One of the best things a person can do when they doubt themselves, suggests Mak, is to recognise the achievements they have already completed in the past as a reminder that they can do it again. It’s important not to push achievements aside as that is evidence you’re capable and have the skills and competencies to carry out the task at hand, whatever it may be.
“Because we don't have sufficient data to support specific treatments, a lot of the times the suggestions or the strategies [to better imposter phenomenon] are linked to things like working through well-being issues like depression, anxiety and confidence,” offers Mak.
“Have conversations with your support people, whether they're counsellors or psychologists or even mentors at work. There has been one study in 2020, which showed that if your organisation provides coaching, people are more willing to talk about their errors and feel negative evaluations less.”
“Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.”
And thus, what do we do with all of this now? Bolstered with the greater knowledge and insights, we go forth. We attempt to acknowledge our achievements rather than simply ticking them off of an infinite list of goals needing to be met. They're lofty ambitions, but a challenge is never off the cards. “Darling, have you started feeling old yet?” asks Turner in the lyric immediately following the preceding line referenced at the start of this piece. I wait, with bated breath and a jar of neck cream, for the day to arrive. If it ever does.
Karina Mak is a Registered Psychologist and PhD Candidate at the School of Psychology, The University of Sydney. She has a Master of Organisational Psychology and is currently researching individual differences in the impostor phenomenon.