Impostor Syndrome and the Demystification of Greatness


By Rachael Onamusi

A feeling of inadequacy – either at work, at home or at a social gathering – where the individual believes that they are not as competent as others perceive them to be is called Impostor Syndrome. While anyone can suffer with this social anxiety, it usually hits those who are already highly regarded at their workplace, earning salaries commensurate to their positions, and frequently invited to speak and empower the next generation of leaders.

These individuals look around them and see external, visual representations of excellence; their peers effortlessly putting forth achievements and comparing such with outcomes of their daily internal efforts to remain at the top of their professional game. They therefore believe that, at any moment, they will be discovered as frauds, that they only got their status through sheer luck and, soon enough, it will be discovered that the emperor has no clothes on.

Whilst not a crippling anxiety, it could well have a negative impact on business organisations as a director suffering with Impostor Syndrome might well act out his insecurities in a hostile manner that might create a negative working environment. Alternatively, a colleague might take counter-intuitive actions that jeopardise the business because they are focussing on their own lack and not the company’s need.

In Nigeria, where we are given to “packaging” to keep our positions in society or the workplace, or to be regarded as someone worthy of attention, it is particularly easy to blur the lines between effort and output and fall victim to this relentless angst. We are terrified that others might one day discover that we are not as put-together as we appear and are navigating our way through this life like almost everybody else.

There are five types of personalities that are usually prone to this anxiety.

Perfectionists continually sets high goals for themselves, and then negate all of their successes with criticisms when they do not meet the unrealistic goals or agonise over some imperfect minutiae. They view every mistake as a fundamental review of their abilities and believe their errors to be clear to everyone, and of more significance than their successes.

Supermen and women are convinced that they simply got lucky to be employed and believe that their colleagues are genuinely pulling off great achievements, and so they push themselves to work harder and keep longer hours. As a result, they become known as the “go-to” people at work, causing them to work even harder to cover up their insecurities. They feel as though they haven’t truly earned their title, despite numerous degrees and achievements, and are constantly working to prove their worth.

Natural geniuses, people for whom solutions come easily and are lauded wherever they go, are very prone to the Impostor Syndrome. They see others put in an inordinate amount of effort to create the solutions that come easily to them and judge themselves as they believe others will: on their efforts rather than their results.

Soloists are people who are not necessarily independent but who believe that asking for help will expose their knowledge gaps and show them as frauds. This is not to be mistaken for introverts or non-team players – people who prefer to work individually but do ask for help when they need it. That is a perfectly normal trait. The soloists are those who need the help but do not request it for fear of being “found out”.

Finally, we have the experts; those who feel they are not worthy unless they know everything about their chosen field of endeavour. This group of people are usually acting from a place of inadequacy. They live in mortal fear of a reprimand or scorn surrounding a knowledge gap and work extra hard to cover their fears.

In a country where vulnerabilities are seen as a sign of weakness, it is not surprising that Impostor Syndrome is rife, but there is plenty Nigerians can do to work on their own mental stability in the workplace.

The first and most important treatment is to understand that everyone you see, work with or compare yourself to is going through the same effort-and-output disparity. Comparing yourself with others is a futile exercise as you are not equipped with all the facts. Focussing solely on your struggles to attain the achievement without extending the same thought to your colleagues will only make you find fault with yourself; it will fuel thoughts of not being good enough or not belonging.

The second course of the treatment is to employ objectivity and separate feeling from fact. Many are loath to do this, but it is often helpful to literally write down on a piece of paper what you’ve achieved (not what you think you’re good at) and see for yourself that you are good enough to be at the table.

Thirdly, it is important to note that, sometimes, it is natural to feel out of place, but that does not equate to being incompetent or undeserving. For example, being the only female in a male-dominated field or perhaps the only minority ethnic group member at the office might trigger feelings of standing out, but this is a natural feeling of being different; not one of being inadequate.

Finally, it is important to “right the rules” and develop a new script. The magic begins in the mind. If you’ve been operating under misguided rules such as, “I should always know the answer,” or “I should never ask for help” then you must start asserting your rights. Recognise that you have just as much right as the next person to be unsure, wrong, have an off-day, or ask for assistance. Celebrate the successes and learn from the errors.

Because that’s how successful people do.