Do you ever feel like a fraud? Do you ever think that you may not be as competent as people think? Are you worried that sooner or later, others will find out that they have been overestimating your talents?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you may be suffering from impostor syndrome. This is a psychological condition characterized by an unrealistic and excessive sense of intellectual self-doubt, and exaggerated concerns over the likelihood that others will be disappointed by our work, performance, or potential, to the point of being seen as a fraud.
Dealing with impostor syndrome isn’t pleasant and can often be painful. Studies show that people who have it are also more likely to have lower levels of self-esteem, as well as higher levels of anxiety and depression.
But feeling like a fraud (especially if it’s moderate rather than extreme) can have some benefits. Here are four ways that impostor syndrome can lead to success.
Self-criticism can fuel extraordinary achievements
Many of the world’s outstanding achievers in any field are relentless perfectionists. They see flaws in their work where others don’t and self-medicate against this aspect of impostor syndrome by aiming for perfection. To some degree, any extraordinary achiever suffers from this sort of insecurity. What else is ambition but an inability to be satisfied with one’s accomplishments?
As I illustrate in my latest book, some of the best leaders in the world see themselves in a more negative way than others do, especially their followers and subordinates. It’s precisely this reason that goads them to work hard to close the gap between where they want to be and where they think they are. If you are not your own worst critic, you will probably never be in this category, because you can’t rely on others to be as demanding of your excellence as you should be yourself.
Fear of failure is an important motivator
We often focus on a reward as a key motivational trigger, but for many people, the fear of failure is a stronger motivator. Scientific studies show that people perform at higher levels when they are worried about being (or seeming) incompetent.
If you care about your reputation, and you feel some pressure to impress others–especially those who can determine the trajectory of your career–you will be more incentivized to prepare and perform well than if you don’t. By the same token, thinking that you are better than you actually are may lead to coasting or underperforming.
You won’t fool yourself into thinking you’re better than you are
It’s only impostor syndrome when you are actually competent. But for each of those individuals who feel like a fraud, there are likely just as many people who are unjustifiably pleased with themselves and unaware of their limitations (you can learn more about this in my recent TEDx talk). This opposite of impostor syndrome, if you will, is called the Dunning Kruger effect. There is a paradoxical similarity between the self-views of people who are really competent and the self-views of those who are not.
People who fool themselves into thinking that they are better than they actually are at something are often able to fool others because they often come across as confident. This is the best scientific explanation for the evolution of overconfidence. It helps you deceive or trick others, particularly when talent is hard to judge.
Impressing others is more important than impressing yourself
In a world that nurtures and celebrates high self-esteem–even when it’s disconnected from reality– it is actually useful to remember that we are all hired, promoted, and demoted based on what others think of us. Scientific research indicates that others are better able to predict and understand our strengths and weaknesses than we are. So, regardless of what you think of yourself, if you have managed to impress others, you are probably doing something right.
Feeling like a fraud when you shouldn’t is probably not as bad as not feeling like a fraud when you should. You may succeed if you fake it till you make it, but the world is always better off when more people have higher standards and are making an effort to deliver and not disappoint.