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The imposter syndrome generation

Between social media and unstable careers, young people seem to doubt themselves more than ever – but why, and how can we get over it?

“I hate it when old friends say, ‘You’re doing so well, I can’t believe you’re verified’, and I’m like, ‘What does it matter?’”

Paria Farzaneh, a 24-year-old London-based menswear designer from Hull, experiences crippling imposter syndrome. “Something happened for me, and to this day I still don’t believe it was supposed to happen,” as she puts it. Farzaneh won the British Fashion Council’s Ones To Watch award in March 2018. “I just felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Despite recognition from a prestigious organisation, Farzaneh is uncertain about her talents. “I feel there’s so much more I need to do and so much more success that needs to be had to think it’s deserved.”

Farzaneh isn’t alone. Around one third of young people suffer from imposter syndrome, with 70% of people experiencing it at least once in their lives. In recent years, it’s become widely discussed as a millennial issue, blamed on the overuse of social media and “ambition addiction”. But to what extent is the struggle with self-doubt an archetypical “millennial” problem?

First discovered in 1978, and also known as imposter phenomenon, imposter syndrome is an internal dialogue of self-doubt, and the persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. It can manifest as anxiety that you have fooled your way through your career, or been “lucky” in your achievements, despite genuine work and efforts to get there.

“(Sufferers) have a hard time consistently owning and acknowledging their accomplishments and abilities. They dismiss or minimise them, by saying it’s luck or timing,” says Dr Valerie Young, an internationally recognised imposter syndrome expert and author of book on the subject, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.

Though the confidence-sapping form of low self-esteem is not a diagnosable psychological disorder, imposter syndrome can hinder careers, wellbeing and mental health. The constant second-guessing can be exhausting and debilitating. It’s a constant process of seeing a list of your achievements, disregarding them, and disbelieving that you can reach the next. Then comes the fatigue.

The concept may have been around since the 70s, but consciousness of it is at its peak today. In an era of increased awareness about mental health, more people are discussing their experiences: career coach extraordinaire Otegha Uwagba, Facebook COO Sheryl SandbergRookie founder Tavi Gevinson, and everyone’s favourite actor Tom Hanks are just a few to have publicly claimed they suffer with imposter syndrome.

Young people growing up now not only have a heightened awareness of imposter syndrome itself, but also increased social pressures generally. Although social media itself isn’t causing imposter feelings, seeing others’ achievements online can exacerbate them. An intensifying status quo in which people are pressured to both succeed and reach their fullest potential whilst also remaining “authentic” and embracing their imperfections, is providing the ideal setting for imposter syndrome to prevail.

“Girls and women, this is true across cultures, we’re more likely to internalise failure, mistakes and criticisms. We’re more likely to see it as proof we don’t belong” – Dr Valerie Young

The rise of flexible and remote work also plays a role in who’s affected. Rising numbers of workers who are self-employed and freelancing is resulting in more people feeling like imposters, according to Young. “When you’re working alone you’re more apt to have imposter feelings because you don’t have that immediate feedback. It’s easier to get in your head.”

While anyone and everyone can feel the fear, people in particularly unsteady or competitive fields are more prone to it. “In writing, acting and music, you’re being judged by subjective standards,” says Young. “People in medicine and technology, you’re going to find more people in those fields with imposter feelings because the rate of advancement and change is something no human could keep up with, but we feel like we should.”

Historically, imposter syndrome has been considered a “female” trait. But studies have found no differences in imposter feelings between men and women. While the experience doesn’t discriminate based on gender, Young believes chronic self-doubt can hold women back more than men.“(Generally), men are more likely with imposter feelings to use it as a motivating factor, they’re more likely to see imposter feelings as a positive that drives them to work harder. Girls and women, this is true across cultures, we’re more likely to internalise failure, mistakes and criticisms. We’re more likely to see it as proof we don’t belong.”

Social expectations and norms already impact women negatively at work. New research by the London School of Economics found that girls born in 2000 aspired to work in lower paid jobs than boys of the same age. Researchers concluded that this wasn’t due to innate preferences, but a result of girls internalising social norms.

Existing mental health problems can also be exacerbated by imposter syndrome, says Young. But getting better is possible for everyone. “If you are prone to anxiety or depression that will make it trickier… but certainly not impossible.”

According to Young, who spoke about imposter syndrome at more than 14 colleges and universities last year, “getting the word out” about it could change the game for future generations. The internal nature and associated shame makes it harder to overcome, she says. But talking about it, as is the case with many mental health-related issues, can help the process. “Articles like this are very helpful,” says Young. “There’s going to be someone who reads that who goes ‘There’s a name for this?’”

“My experience of imposter syndrome feels like a rising panic,” says Poorna Bell, an author and journalist. “My face gets hot but I feel cold in the rest of my body, and it's like the volume gets turned up in my head.”

For Bell, being promoted from an editor role to a senior manager at a media company was a key moment. Despite years of experience, the 37-year-old suffered from feelings of chronic self-doubt. “It was a big promotion, but looking back, I was fully capable of doing the job,” she says. “It didn't seem like that at the time, however, and I was focussing, as usual, on what I couldn't do, rather than what I could do.”

“It eases off the older and more experienced you get, but I don't think it ever fully goes away” – Poorna Bell

Now 15 years into her career, Bell has worked for a series of impressive news titles including the Huffington Post and is the author of a book, Chase The Rainbow. Although it’s getting easier, she still battles imposter syndrome.

“It eases off the older and more experienced you get, but I don't think it ever fully goes away,” says Bell. For most, it takes time and practice to replace feelings of shame and self-doubt with positive reinforcement.

Getting over imposter syndrome requires rewiring the way we think, says Young. “What I always tell people is the only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter.”

Forgiveness is also crucial. Having greater self-compassion, understanding that nobody is perfect, and owning the right to make a mistake will help, says Young. “You have to change how you think and over time you’ll feel less and less like an imposter.”

Reminders of achievements also work to reduce the spiral of doubt. Bell keeps a “good news diary” of all her accomplishments in her work life that she re-reads when feeling self-critical.

After her big promotion, a significant moment snapped Bell out of her imposter feelings: “Another senior member of staff working in a different part of the business said quite bluntly that if it was his choice, I wouldn't have been his first choice. I remember looking at him and thinking what an unbelievably twattish thing that was to say, and that I was going to prove him wrong.”