Have you ever felt like a fraud in your work or relationships? If so, you’re not alone. Research suggests that nearly 70% of people report feeling like a fraud at some point in their lives while as many as 40% routinely struggle with this sentiment.
Needless to say, this is unfortunate news. Besides the fact that no one likes feeling like a fraud, this nagging sentiment can be detrimental to our work, relationships, and self-esteem.
If we are to have any hope of slaying this albatross, we must first understand its psychological and cultural underpinnings. This will comprise our objective in this post.
Some of you may already be familiar with the notion of “impostor syndrome,” which refers to the experience of feeling unqualified or like a fraud. According to Wikipedia, it is marked by “an inability to internalize one’s accomplishments and having a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.” Here’s a quick overview of its hallmark features:
- Feeling like and fearing exposure as a fraud / fake
- Fear of failure
- Routinely downplaying your strengths / achievements and seeing them as over-estimated / exaggerated by others
- Attributing your accomplishments to circumstantial factors (e.g., “I just got lucky.”)
- Over-working / perfecting in attempt to compensate for perceived deficits
In light of the surprising prevalence of impostor syndrome, we might reconsider whether instances of “false modesty” are really false at all. The data seem to suggest that many people genuinely approach their abilities or accomplishments in a humble or self-deprecating way.
Why Introverts May Feel Like a Fraud
As outlined in my book, My True Type, introverts, especially those of an intuitive persuasion (INFJ, INFP, INTJ and INTP types) commonly exhibit a penchant for personal authenticity. They strive to “know themselves”—their beliefs, values, strengths, interests, etc.—and to live in accordance with that self-understanding. In the words of Elaine Schallock, they take an “inside-out” approach to life, looking for ways of meaningfully expressing their elaborate inner life.
Extraverts, by contrast, particularly sensing extraverts (ES types), typically employ an “outside-in” approach. Functioning as veritable mirrors of the outside world, they pattern their self-image around meaningful externalities. While authenticity is less of a buzzword among extraverts, one could argue that it actually has a different meaning for these types. For the extravert, authenticity means remaining loyal and true to certain external realities (e.g., popular ideas or trends)—the precise opposite of the introverted version.
Extraverts are also apt to grant more credence to outside opinions or feedback. If praised for doing a good job, they are more likely to accept and internalize this feedback than the introvert is. Might extraverts therefore be less susceptible to impostor syndrome?
Introverts, on the other hand, tend to be their own worst critics. Inclined to distrust externalities, they often downplay or ignore external feedback, regardless of how positive or effusive, in favor of their own self-critiques. With that said, it may be the case that introverts are more sensitive to, and prone to internalize, negative feedback, which only serves to augment their already stringent self-standards. Consequently, introverts are often reluctant to put themselves out there, fearing they may collapse under the combined weight of internal and external critiques.
Unfortunately, this fear and hesitancy does little to allay introverts’ sense of impostorship. While concealing their true selves may provide some relief from the fear of failure and judgment, it cannot alleviate the guilt or frustration of inauthenticity. While the closet artist may manage to eschew the risk of external rejection, she must continue to bear the burden of working a job she hates and, even worse, of having to pretend she enjoys it and seeing others mistake it for her true self.
Introverts can thus be seen as having two basic choices:
- To self-conceal in order to avoid the risk of rejection / failure
- To reveal one’s true self in attempt to reconcile one’s inner and outer identities
The problem is that even if introverts choose the second option, they may still struggle with feeling like a fraud. This is because most introverts are rather cautious in their self-appraisals, usually erring on the side of underestimating their talents and creations. Thus, even those who are by ordinary standards clearly successful may nonetheless see themselves as undeserving of any praise or recognition.
“Show Me Your Qualifications”
As evaluating creatures, human beings are naturally attuned to different levels of talent and excellence. When consensus is reached regarding what constitutes excellence, as well as who is thought to embody it, the notion of expertise becomes relevant.
By and large, our typical approach to expertise is essentially extraverted (i.e., collective) in nature. Recognizing the individual’s potential for self-delusion (e.g., the tone-deaf vocal contestant who thinks he’s the next superstar), we have largely opted to place our bets on majority opinion. In many instances, we have decided to regulate expertise by establishing collective rules and criteria for who can legally practice various professions (e.g., medicine) and employ their attendant titles.
Of course, collective approaches to expertise are far from foolproof. Schooling in a certain profession by no means guarantees expertise, nor does it expunge the potential for individual deviance. Moreover, we can never be sure that conventional methods or sanctioned wisdom will prove optimal in a particular circumstance.
Issues surrounding the notion of expertise are germane to our topic of impostorhood. This question, in particular, is of central concern:
Who / what determines whether someone is qualified or not?
Another pertinent question:
When something new is created or discovered, how does it become collectively sanctioned as true or good?
This latter question is important because it points to the fact that our evaluative criteria can never be fully crystallized or canonized, but must always remain open to the novel and unprecedented. Without this flexibility, our collective standards would never change or evolve. This is actually welcomed news for introverts (and creative extraverts), since they are the most apt to bring something new or unforeseen to the public forum. However, it is also the case that some ideas are simply too far ahead of the times and thus fall on rocky ground until the cultural soil is ready for them to take root.
Introverts who are more self-assured seem largely immune to these concerns. Rather than fretting over how they or their work will be received, they stick to their guns and remain allegiant to their convictions. For them, truth / value is adjudicated inwardly and stands independent of outside opinion.
With that said, if something is in fact true or valuable, it is only natural to assume that this will become evident to others as well. So even if introverts operate as their own judge and jury, they still expect their insights to find some measure of verification in, or reconciliation with, the outside world.
In this light, it is hard to know what to make of self-assured introverts who proclaim indifference toward their social reception. Perhaps their self-assurance is a defense mechanism, an attempt to inoculate themselves against the threat of potential pain of rejection. And maybe this is a good thing, especially if the introvert’s efforts are apt to be met with misunderstanding.
Doubt, Openness & Intuition
Less self-assured introverts (the majority?) are more prone to doubt and more willing to consider that they might be wrong, misguided, or lacking sufficient skill or ability. They are thus open to the possibility that a cool external reception might actually reflect reality, however difficult to swallow. Could it be that impostor syndrome is simply a manifestation of the introvert’s propensity for doubt, openness, and self-honesty?
Perhaps, but an open mind can work both ways. While it can certainly be used in the service of self-doubt, it can also be employed to expand or reformulate our understanding of expertise, such as incorporating an “I’ll know it when I see it” approach. This sort of informal approach is highlighted in Robert Pirsig’s classic book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which determinations of quality are shown to be largely intuitive and self-evident. However, in cultures predominated by sensing (S) personality types and empirical / quantitative methodologies, those claiming intuition as their authority can feel like impostors or outcasts. Although intuitive methods may be sanctioned and celebrated in the arts, those using intuition to ascertain truth or knowledge are typically met with deep skepticism.
In light of the predominance of sensing types in the general population, intuitives are probably wise to anticipate some measure of push back against their ideas and methods. While this may at times leave them feeling like impostors or outsiders, it doesn’t mean they are on the wrong track. Indeed, such sentiments often signify they are fulfilling their rightful role as creatives and change agents.
Learn more about introverts, intuitives, and more in Personality Junkie’s best-selling book, My True Type: Clarifying Your Personality Type, Preferences & Functions.
Why INFJ, INFP, INTJ, & INTP Types Struggle in Modern Life
The Introvert’s Quest for Identity & Vocation
Anxiety & Self-Awareness: How Introverts & Extraverts Differ
The title is a bit geared at INFx more than INTx it seems.
I think the intensity of feelings varies between Fs who tend to be deeply affected by negative feedback, while Ts will often attempt to override the negativity with problem-solving.
Ignoring a feeling is a very doable task for INTx, but for F, it is a much easier thing to dwell on the feeling.
That said, the Impostor syndrome affects mostly people who take exclusive pride in some of their traits at the expense of others. An INTx who goes on about her/his plans for scoring the crowd will feel like it is the end of the world when things don’t fall into place because s/he has been ignoring social input all along.
The balancing act is the key, yet this doesn’t mean that all traits have the same weighing in the person’s mind/psyche.
Lydia Glenn says
This is the quandary of those who think for themselves. Most social change and new trends start when the S population finally catches on to what the N’s were talking about. The creative ideas aren’t always received because most S people don’t have the ability to picture things the way imaginative N types do. However, they will be all about implementing it once they get it. Of course, by then, the N that started it has already moved on to the next insight or invention.???? Catalysts.
Nora Devlin says
What role might gendered socialization also play in the experience of impostor syndrome?
This really rings true for me, and helps me understand what is happening in my worplace where I often feel dissed for my opinions and contributions. (INFJ, working in Quality Management.)
I’m an INFP and that article described me completely. Especially having recently been in a relationship with an ESFP, and struggling with changing careers, i do feel like a fraud. In fact, i feel like i always have to put up this mask or screen to create the person people expect me to be in order to fit in coz I feel like i don’t know myself. I hate interviews and having to talk myself up and to validate my worth and usually have to backtrack to compliments I’ve received from friends and workmates to do this, yet still feeling like an impostor who’ll be discovered right there.
Sometimes we can express different facets of ourselves to different people. It’s something I do. I’m an INFP and a trauma survivor. Sharing in intimate relationships is a tough one, though. I’ve been with someone for years now, who is an ISFJ, through many hardships and it’s still a challenge. The inner world feels different from the outer. Perhaps, the solution isn’t to merge the two completely (I do wish it though!! Ultimate INFP dream!), but to merge selections when they match. My spouse and understand each other well in key parts of our life/lives, but no everything. And if the important things aren’t able to merge (like in a romantic relationship), perhaps you may be looking for another. Best of luck and keep at it. Don’t despair; find what brings you hope and keep it alive.
Ciku – I, too, am an INFP and agree with everything you’ve said except the “coz I feel like I don’t know myself”, bc while I DO know myself, as well as anyone can know themselves – I mean it’s not an absolute, and we all change and evolve – I feel like what I know of myself is always going to be subjective, and no one else can either know or (let’s face it) CARE about the internal truths and subtleties that comprise what we know ourselves to be. That said, I think blowing our own horns is very difficult for us, esp knowing that less sensitive types only value what is clearly out there to be seen. Which, ironically, requires blowing our own horns, which we can’t do. It’s one reason social media like Facebook have never held any appeal for me: it feels as unpleasant as a job interview, only applied to your private life!
Jeff F. says
A teacher once said to me, “Fake it ’til you make it.” I’d imagine everyone feels a little put-off in the face of inauthenticity, but what if that face is your own? This can be an overwhelming dilemma exacerbated by conflict-avoidant tendencies. It can become a perpetual state of anxiety since the introvert’s few social interactions aren’t “real”. The false frequencies become a ringing feedback-loop of social-tinnitis condemning future encounters. It isn’t just lonely feeling that dissonance, it’s torment. And it’s why solitude is preferable.
It’s strange: a perfectionist might perform job duties in such a way as to be perceived as “a natural” when they are anything but. In part, this is why praise and recognition sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. But the main reason is that, inside, we’re trying to negotiate feasibility with grand vision and trying to divide our consciousness between diagonally-opposed cognitive functions. The impossible task is trying to fully and competently inhabit our executive abilities while remaining in touch and in tune with our authentic intentions. If it feels like we’re tearing our mind apart in the process, it’s because that’s pretty much what we’re doing.
How many of us have heard something like, “Jeff is a bright kid if he’d just stop daydreaming and apply himself.”? This is one of the reasons MBTI seems so important to me. From a very young age we’re (INFPs at least) being taught to animate our unconscious and thus fake our way through life. We’re admonished for the very essence of our constitution (Fi). We’re literally taught to be ashamed of, reject, and deny our deepest, truest, and most natural authentic core. This is not an ideal foundation to build one’s life upon. But we recognize early on that if we’re to have the slightest chance of survival in our competition-based society, we’ve got to abandon our true flow and struggle against our own current. Hide our feelings — even to ourselves if necessary. Don’t daydream; stay present — even as that requires us to live in our unconscious inferior.
We’re already hypersensitive and queasy around the inauthentic. It’s a recipe for disaster then to expect us to embody inauthenticity. While the intuitive introvert can succeed at school or work, the cost could range from exhaustion to suicidal anxiety and depression.
Jeff F. says
I also want to comment on Pirsig’s philosophy as it’s similar to my own. Only recently have I found relative peace with the concept of evil. Initially, in trying to define what it even is, I searched for examples in nature. But it was only within the human species* that I was able to identify anything resembling it. I never saw the need to invoke the supernatural, because if something exists, it’s simply natural. It doesn’t matter if it never existed prior as nature’s bounds are dynamic and all-encompassing. But to square that with the concept of evil meant accepting that nature itself could be, and was in part, evil. This was a crisis-level quandary for most of my life. I did not feel comfortable living in an evil world.
* Further confined to the psychological domain of humans in societies resembling my own.
I recall Pirsig’s “ratchet” metaphor and how the concept of quality provides direction for evolution. What I’ve realized is that, things that were once virtuous and selected for survival and progress can become exactly opposite once their function no longer serves but instead retards. This seems to be the underlying tension between conservatives and progressives on the societal level, but I think it also exists within each of us as we grow and resist growth. I understand that it’s a dynamic and that we’re all parts of very complex systems, so I’m not saying conservatives are evil or that we’re evil if we’re not as mature as someone else our age. But I’m grateful for nature’s inherent ratcheting system which, in spite of the burning of books or bridges, will never allow regressive momentum to hold sway.
tl;dr: good and evil are shifting directions with respect to quality / progress / evolution. Another analogy might be the nutrition vs. toxicity of a fruit depending on its stage of development or decay.
Mark E says
I have often felt like a fraud in my job, but I somehow seem to give the impression that I know what I am talking about. When I get complimented on my technical expertise, I feel like: I’m glad they think that; it must mean my deception is working! And I compliment myself for my creativity in convincing people that I am a competent employee.
I suppose it could be that I am actually a competent employee. But where’s the fun in that?