What is imposter syndrome – and how can professionals deal with it? (infographic)

What does imposter syndrome mean for social media professionals? Hint: it has nothing to do with “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Of course, you can pretend to be who you want on social media. Perhaps you play a version of yourself, or you work hard each day to adopt the voice of the brand for whom you work. Maybe it’s you who developed your brand’s voice using humor, writing, and content skills that are unique to you.

After all, half the point of social media marketing (and social media in general) is what you don’t show. You share the good times, not the bad. You workshop tons of one-liners and just share the best ones. You hint, in just a few characters, of knowledge or research that you couldn’t hope to back up IRL. Within reason and with an element of humility, that’s ok. Indeed, that’s the skill for which you were hired.

But what happens when you lose the distinction between ‘faking it to make it’ and ‘OMG! I’m a phoney and I’m out of my depth!’?

“Impostor Syndrome is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” according to clinical psychologist Dr Ellen Hendriksen, writing for Scientific American. “It strikes smart, successful individuals.”

Indeed success is the issue. More frequently than you might expect, successful people are floored by a sudden, irrational fear that they’ve fluked their way into a position they don’t deserve, for which they will soon get found out.

In any given year, around two out of three women will suffer from the syndrome, and around 56% of men. This disparity is likely due to the “early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping” that the syndrome’s pioneering researchers Dr. Pauline R. Clance with Suzanne Imes identified in 1978 in a paper at Georgia State University.

“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments,” they wrote, “women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. These women find innumerable means of negating any external evidence that contradicts their belief that they are, in reality, unintelligent.”

You can see how this can be a threat for folk who make a living from the thrust and spar of online social media. How do you ever click ‘send’ when you’re terrified to humiliate yourself with a sub-intelligent answer? How do you take risks when you fear looking stupid? A single wrong click could go viral and embarrass you in front of millions of people – some of whom you respect and whose opinions you consider a barometer of your own worth.

And while you might think that social media could be the coveted ‘cause of and solution to’ imposter syndrome, think again: sharing your feelings with others is not always the most effective way through. Think what might happen if you announced, on your personal Twitter, “Guys – I think I have imposter syndrome. Anyone got any experience of this?”

A handful of those same respected online colleagues of yours would undoubtedly put their virtual hands up to say, “yeah, me too!” – but before you get far in the conversation, you would rationalize it to yourself by deciding that those talented friends truly were suffering from imposter syndrome while you, as their inferior, were not suffering from the syndrome at all – because you’re a real imposter.

Sharing your story with your peers or a therapist is a good start because it means acknowledging you have a problem. But it’s such a subjective feeling, that working through it with other people is unlikely to be sufficient in itself.

Dr Valerie Young is a former imposter syndrome sufferer who has since recovered and devoted much of her career to researching and teaching about the issue. According to her, changing the way you think about success and your relationship towards it can be an encouraging way to rediscover your self-confidence.

Dr Young recently wrote an ‘open letter’-style blog post addressed to Zoella, a million-hitting YouTube star who has spoken of her own battle with imposter syndrome.

“I’m constantly doubting everything I’ve achieved,” wrote Zoella in an Instagram post, “everything I’m working on business wise & everything I’m working on in my personal life! (Even down to second guessing if I should have said certain things, or “did I do that properly”...it’s bloody annoying haha).”

“Zoella has not asked for my advice,” wrote back Dr Young. “But if she did, here’s what I’d tell her: […] One way to normalize impostor syndrome is to do less “psychologizing” and more contextualizing.

“As a huge YouTube star, you may not be an actor, but you are playing a role. People in creative fields — acting, writing, music, art — are more susceptible to impostor feelings… It makes perfect sense considering you’re being judged by subjective standards by people whose job title is professional critic.

“Except being an online star means everyone is a critic.”

Dr Young adds, in response to a comment suggesting that Zoella is successful doing what anybody with a computer and a camera could do:

“If anybody with a computer/phone/camera could attract millions of fans, they’d be doing it. But they’re not because they’re unwilling to put in the work.”

According to Dr Young, there are five categories of imposter syndrome-sufferer, and each one has a different way of valuing success – so they require different ways of convincing themselves that they’re not faking it.
  • The ‘Expert’ is somebody who believes that they have to know it all to legitimately hold their position. One of the great things about social media is that it offers a ‘punk’ route to expertise: it’s an autodidact’s paradise. But if you’re not qualified in what you talk about, it’s easy to be made to feel small by academics who may just have a different approach to the same knowledge set.
  • The ‘Soloist’ believes that if they can’t achieve things by themselves, they can’t really be talented. But social media marketing is a creative pursuit, which means collaboration can only make your work stronger.
  • The ‘Natural Genius’ expects things to come easily. While building a following online takes hard work, it does have a tendency to snowball – so once you’re a big success, it’s only natural that you’ll feel like you’ve failed once the numbers stall. Remember that you’re learning all the time – the journey is far more valuable than the destination.
  • The ‘Superwoman/man’ believes that they should be able to excel at everything. Again, this is a creative industry: remind yourself that you have your strengths and your weaknesses, but only you can do You.
  • The perfectionist sets themselves very high standards, so begins to doubt themselves when they fall short. If you’re a perfectionist, learn to love imperfection and the thrill of raw, untamed creativity.
There’s no such thing as perfection anyway – apart, perhaps, from a certain ‘absolute unit’ of that wooly ram who went viral, and that’s already been done now.

On the internet, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a dog – as long as you learn to value yourself, your community, and the process you take every day to get better. Check out this visual guide to imposter syndrome for more ideas on how to do so.

Are you suffering from impostor syndrome? - infographic

Are you suffering from impostor syndrome? - infographic

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