Bonn · The degree? Pure luck. Success at work? Just a coincidence. Some people have great abilities but constantly doubt it. What is behind the so-called impostor syndrome? A 35-year-old from Bonn reports on his experiences.
It could all be so simple. If it weren't for that quiet voice in the back of your head. Not high enough, not fast enough, not far enough. Every success is too little, every achievement accompanied by doubts. It already started for him during his studies in Sankt Augustin. Bastian was convinced he would fail with his Master's thesis. "I really thought I would fail," he says. But in the end he got a grade of 1.0. Top mark. The concerns were absolutely unjustified. Bastian, who would like to tell his story here under a different name, now lives in Bonn. He graduated seven years ago. But the gloomy thoughts do not let him go, even in his professional life.
Those who feel that they are never enough for anybody including themselves, those who constantly question their talent - despite much external confirmation - may suffer from the so-called impostor syndrome. Those affected are plagued by self-doubt that goes far beyond a natural level of insecurity. They are convinced that they have faked their degree and career, that they are impostors, actually untalented. "They live in constant fear that their mask could fall and their deception be exposed, that they would be exposed as soon as their supposed incompetence could no longer be hidden," writes Sonja Rohrmann, professor of psychology at the University of Frankfurt. The recognition is not enjoyed. "Rather, the persons suffer from it," Rohrmann continues.
Every day is accompanied by doubt and fear
Rebecca Elizabeth, a student of molecular biotechnology at the University of Heidelberg, has a similar experience. For three years, she has been sharing her thoughts on studying in videos on the YouTube platform. It's about the exciting phase of the first semester, exhausting exams, the (not always pleasant) life in shared flats - and just again and again about those thoughts in her head that tell her that everything she does is not good enough. "The topic accompanies me every single day," she says in one of her videos. She simply cannot shake the feeling that she is not intelligent enough for her studies. "I have the constant, one hundred percent fear that I'm going to ruin everything." But then she goes on relativising what she is saying, by explaining this assumption cannot be true; after all, she has already completed her Bachelor's degree more than successfully.
The impostor phenomenon was first defined in the 1970s. In a study, the US psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes found out that successful women in particular repeatedly question their abilities. From today's perspective, however, it can be stated: The phenomenon affects men and women equally. Psychologist Rohrmann emphasises that it is not a psychological disorder or illness, but a personality trait. But if the thoughts come to a head, they are often accompanied by burnout or depression. Then therapy can be helpful.
Bastian studied in Sankt Augustin - and constantly doubted his performance
There are no reliable figures on the prevalence of the phenomenon. Current studies assume that at least half of all students are affected by impostor thoughts. Performance is then not questioned in individual cases, for example in particularly stressful phases, but in general. A large proportion take these feelings with them into their professional lives. Bastian is no exception.
For the first time in years, the 35-year-old is standing on the sprawling campus in Sankt Augustin and looking at the glassed-in main entrance through which he used to walk so often back then. "Maybe I just put too much pressure on myself," he says hesitantly, thinking back to his studies. "I really wanted to do a good job, to create something great." The performance demand on himself was high, he says. Too high?
According to research, the causes of the impostor syndrome are manifold. In part, it is based on certain character traits and tends to apply to people who are anxious and emotionally unstable. Sometimes, however, there are also external influences, such as a family environment that demands high performance from the youngest members of the family.
However, neither of these apply to Bastian. He radiates self-confidence and would not describe himself as an insecure person. He could and can also rely on his family at any time. He suspects that the origin of his doubts lies in his school days, and talks about how he was initially called an overachiever. But how he gradually fell off at the grammar school, wrote bad grades, did not complete a good Abitur. "My teachers gave me consistently negative feedback back then," Bastian says. At some point, he internalised that he could probably only do badly. No matter how hard he tried.
"My colleagues simply overlook the incompetence"
This feeling has remained until today. And this despite the fact that the 35-year-old holds a managerial position at his workplace. When things go well there, he rates success as a coincidence. As if his colleagues simply overlook his incompetence. The longer he talks, the clearer it becomes that he is always comparing himself upwards. That he only sees the people who are doing even better. He cannot accept that he himself is obviously already doing so well. That he would never have got this far without a certain talent.
For Michaela Muthig, precisely this pattern of thinking is one of the typical characteristics of the impostor phenomenon. The 44-year-old is a specialist in psychosomatic medicine and a behavioural therapist. In her book "Und morgen fliege ich auf: The feeling of not having earned success", she explains that those affected have a distorted perception of reality. They have "an exaggerated idea of what you have to achieve to be really competent“.
This definitely applies to Bastian. It is quite possible that his feelings are the reflection of a society that is spinning faster and faster around its own axis. The speed for the younger generations keeps increasing. Those who don't keep up are supposedly falling through the cracks. The rush hour of self-optimised life demands strong nerves. And for some it may seem as if they have to function every single day, deliver successes, achieve perfection. Even Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States and thus one of the most influential women in the world, said in an interview with the BBC that deep down she thinks she is an impostor. What helps her against that? "Realising that I am my own biggest critic," Obama said. She has to face her fears again and again, she says. "That's the only way I can grow, the only way I can gain confidence in myself.“
Bastian, too, has been trying for some time to tackle his wrecking his head, and now talks more openly about it with those around him. "This makes me realise that I'm not alone," he says. But because the doubts have been with him for so long, it is difficult to get rid of them in the long term. "If you think for years that your performance is not enough, you can't undo that overnight," says Bastian. Whether he can ever stop the mental merry-go-round, he doesn't know. But he at least wants to try. To stop being a false impostor at some point. But simply to be really satisfied.
(Original text: Judith Nikula, Translation: Mareike Graepel)