There’s a term, coined back in the ’70s, which is becoming increasingly more relevant today. It’s called ‘Imposter Syndrome.” It originated from an article first published in the 1978 Journal of Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice.The authors, American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, published the article, entitled, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” At the time, they thought it was dominant in highly successful women in particular. However, today we realize it’s relevant on a variety of levels in both genders alike.
It’s defined as a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’” Sufferers of this unofficial diagnosis often attribute their success to luck or a result of overwork and over-preparing in these situations that eventually can lead to burn-out. The key here is they don’t feel worthy of their achievements outright, and worry that others will one day realize their grand hoax.
As I learned of this “condition,” I recalled the subject I wrote about in my column “Fear of the future,” in our October 2018 issue. The young man in that particular column about to start college represented a prime example of someone suffering from imposter syndrome, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time I wrote about it. This led me to realize that aside from adults, students can also be susceptible to this condition, perhaps equally. It’s said that parents contribute to this syndrome by alternating praise and criticism over high expectations of their children’s achievements in school and other activities. The children grow up feeling uncertain of their true abilities and inherent skills.
If left undetected, it can lead to the person—or in this case, student—experiencing depression and anxiety along with self-doubt. As parents, we know this can lead to a whole host of other concerns. Much like adults with this experience, our children won’t know it’s happening to them or why. It’s up to us to be aware and understand this phenomenon and help them overcome it—initially, by not contributing to the issue with overt critical analysis of their accomplishments or lack thereof. We also have to remind them that they have the ability on their own, and it’s no secret that hard work and advanced preparation often times lead to achievement both inside and outside the classroom, and yet that doesn’t take away from their accomplishments. If they insist their achievements are just luck, remind them of the expression, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” We can explain further that there will always be someone smarter and more adept at certain things than we are, but that doesn’t exclude us from enjoying our own level of achievement. Take acting, for example; that which makes Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks a success is far different than what makes a Steve Carell or Whoopi Goldberg successful in their own right. There are multiple definitive differences in styles and levels of success at play here, yet one could hardly say each hasn’t made a unique name for themselves in Hollywood and on the international scene.
The point is, we can teach them they must live life with their own unique set of skills, ability, and gifts. And learn not to compare or gauge their accomplishments by what others are doing, but by how it makes them feel about their lives. What makes us happy individually is as different and unique as the leaves in the forest during the fall season. On the surface, many may look the same, but upon closer observation subtle differences can be seen in each that collectively contribute to the overall beauty. Our children’s contributions, be it in school, sports, music, plays or whatever activity they’re involved in, can be seen in much the same way as the leaves’ contribution to the real-life picture of fall’s pristine majesty.
Here’s to teaching our children to shed the costume and learn to relish and be grateful for the talents and gifts they have, and the triumphs they achieve as a result of those talents. And may they pass this message on to their children, as well, in the future.