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BuzzFix: Is Impostor Syndrome Exclusive to Millennials or Are We All Just Human?

Ironically, the people who are struck with Impostor Syndrome, are most likely high achievers and perfectionists, who attribute their success to fluke and not their own capabilities. 
Credits: Representative Image

Ironically, the people who are struck with Impostor Syndrome, are most likely high achievers and perfectionists, who attribute their success to fluke and not their own capabilities. Credits: Representative Image

Impostor Syndrome has gained widescale attention in recent years after the social media boom and with millennials and Gen Z openly talking about it.

It’s almost as if we lead double lives. Many of us live with the fear that we are just moments away from being outed as a ‘fraud’ and people who are the real deal will see through the ‘facade’. The closer we are to achieving our aims, the deeper the sinking feeling that ‘it’s all a lie’. Seems like familiar territory? Then you are in the 70% (an International Journal of Behavioural Science study shows) bracket of young folks who have experienced the same at some point in their lives. And it has a name – Impostor Syndrome. Ironically, the people who are struck with such feelings of inadequacy are most likely high achievers and perfectionists, who attribute their success to pure luck or fluke and not their own capabilities. They live in constant fear of being found out by the ‘talent police’ and guilt of conning people into believing that they’re more capable than they actually are.

Is Impostor Syndrome a Millenial or Gen Z Thing?

But, do millennials (those currently in the 26-41 age group) battle Impostor Syndrome at a far higher rate than others? According to a Forbes report, this is likely to be the case due to technological advancements and the role played by their parents. The first generation which had technology at the centre of their lives, they grew up in the ‘age of comparison’. Be it LinkedIn reminding you about all the overachievers in your circle, or Instagram throwing up perfectly touched up lifestyles, the tendency to compare is more than ever before and the attack on our self-esteem is far more incisive. Although, going by statistics, the person you’re comparing with, most probably is going through the same syndrome.

Millennials grew up believing in their uniqueness and the power of personal stories. They are part of the generation raised by parents who flitted from overpraising to hypercriticism. This leads to a rise in fraudulent feelings, as per the American Psychological Association. The intense pressure to make a difference in the world with their skills or lead socially perfect lives has resulted in further incidences of depression and anxiety than in the previous generations. No wonder, then, that millennials also double up as ‘Generation Stress’. Millennial parents have reported feeling more inadequate and overwhelmed than baby boomers and Gen X, according to TIME.

Riya Goel, author of ‘The Gen Z Book’, describes Impostor Syndrome as when a person wishes to be someone else and emulate their actions, thanks to social media projections. It has led to a ‘viral’ culture facilitated by applications like TikTok and Instagram reels. It also drives the fear of missing out, or FOMO, where you’re constantly fed with superficial updates, which makes you feel like an underachiever. She adds that many even resort to drugs to enter an alternate reality free from social constructs.
But, is it just a millennial or Gen Z thing? No. According to the International Journal of Behavioural Science, “anyone can view themselves as an impostor if they fail to internalize their success.”

It’s Human

First recognised in the 1970s by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, it initially focused on women achievers who felt that their successes were ‘undeserved’. Later research found out that it affects people of all ages and gender. From college kids to professionals, people from all walks of life have overriding feelings that their accomplishments are fraudulent and that they’ll be exposed for the same. As Jason Feifer, Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Magazine, summed it up in a LinkedIn article, “The more we realize that everyone feels it (Impostor Syndrome), the less we’ll feel trapped by our own individual experience of it.”

Dr. Rupa Murgai, counsellor, agrees. “Imposter Syndrome is experienced by nearly everyone at some period of their lifetime. It has been prevalent for a long time now, and self-doubt is natural to all human beings. Personality traits and the environment are also contributive to this syndrome,” she said. However, social media adds to the struggle of experiencing this syndrome. The curated “perfect” posts, self-projection in an ideal light, one up attitude through toxic competition among colleagues, a faulty belief system manifested as an internalised social expectation in a person, are all factors behind ‘impostor’ feelings.

Unrelenting criticism or huge emphasis on achievement during childhood leaves ‘impostors’ in a constant pursuit of validating their talents and achievements. However, considering that women and minority groups have been socialised into feelings of self-doubt since forever, some reports suggest that they struggle with Impostor Syndrome more than other demographics.

Many successful personalities have admitted to experiencing this syndrome at least once. Author and activist Maya Angelou, during an interview, said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now.’ I’ve run a game on everybody.” Titanic actress Kate Winslet once said, “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.” Even Paul McCartney, winner of 18 Grammies, has felt like an impostor. “You never think you’re good. I really ought to think I’m fantastic because I have this pile of achievements … but I’m still going, “Oh, can I do it … ?” A line from one of his songs says, “Everybody else busy doing better than me.” He goes on to add that he still thinks that way and tries to convince himself that “that’s probably not true.”

According to Clance, the ‘impostors’ rarely seek help and strive for perfection in each of their tasks, which leads to two outcomes – procrastination out of fear of incompetence or overspending more time and effort than necessary. This becomes a cycle wherein, if they succeed, they think it’s due to all the anxiety-ridden efforts.

A 2019 study published in the National Library of Medicine, found that at least 80 percent of adults reported feelings of being an impostor. Although it has not been recognised as an official mental disorder, psychologists have recognised it as a “specific form of intellectual self-doubt”, usually coupled with anxiety or depression.

How to Combat it?

Dr Murgai says it is important to first recognise the symptoms and be mindful of one’s influences and thought processes. To examine the validity of the wrong belief system, the pattern of thinking needs to be reframed. “Being a perfectionist is counter productive and can make the syndrome worse. One needs to remind themselves that they are not the only ones going through these inadequate feelings.” If the syndrome is really bothersome, then professional help must be sought, she adds. Cognitive behaviour therapy, a talking therapy that helps in challenging negative thoughts about the self and world, has helped many combat this condition.

Some tips to keep in mind according to Dr Murgai:

Positive self talk for personal encouragement
Being practical, not setting very high standards
Self-awareness to know oneself from a realistic perspective
Replace fear of failure by being comfortable with who you are
Talk about and share your feelings, thoughts
Digital file that makes you happy about yourself and your achievements
Open communication with bosses
Learner attitude brings in flexibility, dissipates rigid thoughts

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first published:April 08, 2022, 09:41 IST