Imposter Syndrome and Fear of Failure

The solution to imposter syndrome doesn't always lie within the sufferer.

Ever felt out of your depth? Most of us feel this way from time to time, when we start a new job, or take on bigger responsibilities at home, at work, or studying. It’s natural to feel a little anxious about whether we’ll be able to live up to other people’s expectations.

But for some people, this anxiety just doesn’t go away, no matter how well they seem to be managing on the surface, how much external success they achieve. Imposter syndrome is a pervasive feeling that you are somehow a fraud, that you don’t belong, and are about to be found out.

What is the best response to imposter syndrome? There are plenty of tips for sufferers out there on the web. One suggestion is to talk to others about your anxieties. You may be surprised how many of the people around you also feel this way. Another is to keep a note of your successes and compliments received so that you can consult this when you’re feeling down. Both of these are certainly worth trying.

But other tips fall into the ‘easier said than done’ category: let go of your inner perfectionist, learn to live with feeling this way, try to internalize your success and achievements. These are fine aspirations but for most us, if we knew how to get rid of our inner perfectionist, we’d have done so long ago.

It’s time for a different approach, one which involves everybody, not just those people who suffer from imposter syndrome. Instead of just looking at individuals, and wondering how they can learn to feel better, we should look at the environment we live and work in, for clues as to why some people feel like they’re about to be ‘found out’.

Imposter syndrome is often associated with women, but research shows that men can suffer too; a key predictor is minority status within your environment, whether that’s because of your gender, your race or ethnicity, or perhaps your socio-economic background.

And perhaps that’s not surprising. People who feel like ‘token’ minorities, for whatever reason, have a huge amount at stake, dependent on achieving success in study or work. This may be because they don’t have comfortable backup options, whether that’s family money or alternative job opportunities. But it may also be because they feel responsible for showing that ‘someone like me’ really can succeed in this environment: failure no longer seems just personal, but to be letting the side down. This feeling can be enhanced by remembering all the people who helped get you where you are today, or indeed some of the people who doubted your capacity.

How can these high stakes trigger imposter syndrome? They may or may not have some impact on how likely a person is to achieve true success: some people may be daunted by the situation, others spurred on to excel. But either way, they make it rational to worry more about even a small possibility of failure. It’s easier to relax and let go of your inner perfectionist when you don’t feel like others’ hopes are vested in you.

Imposter syndrome is often thought of as a psychological failing or irrationality on the part of the sufferer. But we should remember that for many people, their situation makes it quite rational to feel this way. The solution to imposter syndrome doesn’t always lie within the sufferer; the rest of us have a responsibility to help out too.

Copyright Katherine Hawley, Ph.D

Originally published at Psychology Today