Impostor Syndrome: When Gifted and Talented People Believe They’re Not Enough

By Rachel Puryear

What do a great many gifted, talented, and accomplished people in the world have in common?

Well, for one thing, impostor syndrome.

What is impostor syndrome?

A young woman standing at a mirror with her hand on the mirror, and staring at her distorted mirror reflection.

Impostor syndrome is the notion that one is not really as qualified, talented, knowledgeable, skilled, or good as they’ve led others to believe. People with impostor syndrome feel inferior to their peers. They often worry that others will find out sooner or later that they’re frauds.

However, a key aspect of impostor syndrome is that these beliefs about inferiority and being a fraud are false – and that the person therefore has an unduly negative view of their actual knowledge and capabilities. So, it’s not just that they feel that they’re not that good – it’s that they needlessly feel that they’re not that good, when in fact that’s not true.

Anyone can fall prey to impostor syndrome. It’s a common problem that holds people from all walks of life back, and diminishes the confidence they need to improve their lives and – ironically – even better develop their skill set.

At the same time, some people are more prone to impostor syndrome than others – including women, minorities, young people, and anyone else subject to stereotypes that they are less capable and skilled than their counterparts just because of what they are. Undoubtedly, prejudice and systemic lack of validation are at the root of such disparities. Therefore, it is important to be careful not to blame people individually for impostor syndrome – and to also recognize the need to still acknowledge prejudice and check one’s own unchecked stereotypes.

Highly empathic people, as well as highly gifted and talented and intelligent people (and I believe there’s a lot of overlap between those two), are also especially prone to struggling with impostor syndrome. People with strong knowledge and skills and capabilities often assume that others are as capable as they are, and therefore tend to not realize how good they actually are. This population also tends to have many other people not understand them well, and therefore assume that they are unintelligent or incapable, when in reality the opposite is actually true.

In a way, impostor syndrome is the reverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect – the latter referring to the tendency of people with below-average skills and knowledge to overestimate their abilities, and believe that they have strong expertise about a subject matter when they are actually know little. They don’t know enough to be able to realize how little they in fact know, and they lack the skills to be able to recognize how deficient their skill level is.

While people beholden to the Dunning-Kruger effect often speak up unabashed, people struggling with impostor syndrome are often reluctant to speak up in group discussions about their areas of expertise. They are worried that doing so might reveal what they do not know (or what they think they don’t know). In the moment, this can deprive them of valuable feedback and commentary from others. In the longer term, this can reinforce their belief that they don’t know nearly as much as they actually do – because of the lack of feedback, and also because people with less knowledge but lots of confidence will often speak up instead, and thereby get the accolades.

Young man looking uncertain, scratching his head, and wearing a red and white striped t-shirt.

Furthermore, where you have a group discussion, most other people – with impostor syndrome or not – are reluctant to openly acknowledge not knowing something, and to ask for any kind of clarification. This tends to reinforce the impression that everyone else knows what is going on, while someone is thinking to themselves that since others aren’t asking many questions, they must be understanding everything perfectly – even though that is most likely far from the truth.

Remember – whatever question you might have, someone else likely has it too, and asking questions helps embolden other people to also ask questions. Realizing that you are not the only one who doesn’t understand everything takes some pressure off.

So, if you’re doubting your skills at something you’ve studied and worked at for years, and you’re a highly intelligent or gifted or empathic person; there’s a good chance you might not actually be a fraud, that you’re underestimating yourself, and that you’re more skilled and knowledgeable than you believe. Just something to keep in mind.

Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to recognizing our abilities, viewing them realistically, and asking more questions. If you enjoyed this content and want to see more of it, please hit “like” and subscribe, if you have not done so already. xoxo

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