The Imposter Syndrome doesn’t just go away. Here’s what you need to know.

Karolina Fotyga Psychotherapy online
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Imposter Syndrome – it is a huge topic, indeed. If you’re reading this – chances are you might have some experience with it too. In this article, I’ll talk about WHAT it is, WHO can have it, and you find a TEST to check it out. There will be a part about HOW it manifests, HOW we recognize it, and WHAT are some best ways to deal with it. I’ll also talk about the Imposter Syndrome Cycle that you see among people who struggle with it.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

Let me ask you this: Do you often find yourself thinking:
 
  • I’m a fraud, and it’s a matter of time when they find out.
  • Other people are doing so much better than me.
  • I somehow fooled them.
  • Why is she asking me for advice?
  • I don’t have enough skills/talent/knowledge/experience, and naturally – other people do.
  • Why would anyone be interested in what I have to say?
  • I don’t deserve this raise/praise/success.
  • I shouldn’t be here.
  • I didn’t do anything, really – it’s pure luck.
     
Or maybe you:
 
  • consider yourself a perfectionist?
  • often compare yourself to your peers, coworkers, friends?
  • procrastinate – out of fear that you will not meet the standards expected of you?
  • hold back your ideas?
  • brush it off quickly when somebody compliments you, because *seriously? me?*
  • don’t apply for the job you’d be perfect for?
  • give up when challenged with an opportunity?

Sounds familiar?
 
Imposter syndrome is a form of SELF DOUBT – (on STEROIDS!) – it’s not an illness or a disorder, and you will find neither in ICD (International Classification of Disease) nor in DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Nevertheless – it’s often associated with anxiety and depression
 
To have an Imposter Syndrome means to have a very harmful mindset – a system of thoughts about your own self-worth and capabilities that makes it impossible for you to thrive. The tendency to conceal it rather than openly talk about it makes it a psychological nightmare. It is partly a result of a psychological phenomenon effect called pluralistic ignorance. (A situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but go along with it because they assume, incorrectly, that most others accept it. It’s also described as “no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes”.) 


An actual Fraud vs. a person with Imposter Syndrome

There’s one crucial remark before we go further. It is natural to doubt ourselves. At times. As Seth Godin famously said – we’re all imposters. In our new roles, positions – we have no idea how things will work out, not since we try it for the very first time! Something worth remembering is that a *fraud* will deceive people on purpose.
 
From a psychological point of view – it’s healthy to feel the discomfort of the fresh start of the new situation to acknowledge the areas for improvement and growth. We don’t want to be arrogant or hide behind a narcissistic facade. But when despite the clear evidence of success, you feel you don’t belong, when shame and constant self-criticism is involved, when you constantly put yourself down, feel the overwhelm of perfectionistic expectations, and, in turn, procrastinate – well – then we have a problem.


How exactly does it translate into your life?

You may notice things like:

  • perfectionism (tendency to believe anything short of perfection is unacceptable, expecting yourself to meet your highest standards),
  • the feeling of inadequacy,
  • difficulty in accepting that there are some things you cannot control,
  • fear of failure (being exposed, and therefore of not being accepted, of not being good enough, of being humiliated), 
  • overworking – working too much, too hard, too long
  • disregarding praise focusing on the flaws,
  • ignoring your successes and focusing on other people’s achievements ( – feeling of inferiority),
  • procrastination – because of all the anxiety, one might do what they can to not even start and not take responsibility for whatever they’re doing,
  • anxiety,
  • burnout,
  • shame, guilt, and/or humiliation.
Of course, not everyone will experience all of the above symptoms.


Is it about ME at all?

When thinking about Imposter’s Syndrome, we often forget that when we feel what we feel – it’s not only steaming from who we are. It has more to do with how we see others. Imposter Syndrome thrives on inaccurate comparison of us and the others. And the truth is – we don’t really know what other people are struggling with – and we tend to idealize those we look up to. We don’t acknowledge they most likely go through the same roller-coaster that we do – remember the pluralistic ignorance?


Who does it happen to?

First – take a look at the paragraph above again – It’s about the way our minds work, it’s a kind of illusion we’re often experiencing. And as long as we don’t recognize it – we’re stuck in the cycle.
 
One of the common beliefs used to be that the Imposter Syndrome affected mainly women, especially the high achievers. That’s because the original research by dr Pauline Clance and dr Suzanne Imes was first conducted on women. We now know it’s pretty commonly observed across genders, race, age, and occupation.
 
There is, in fact, a higher chance for IS among people pioneering in something new, students, members of minorities, and women. It may come as a bonus to your success.
 
Curiously enough, as some studies claim – nearly 70-80% of the people experience the Imposter Syndrome or Imposter Phenomenon at one point of our lives, so to call it a “syndrome” would be downplaying it a bit.


Does experience have anything to do with it?

I haven’t found any decent research confirming it, but I have my own observation from my private practice, discussions with colleagues, and obviously my personal experience. Most people struggling with Imposter Syndrome are highly talented,  creative, very well educated, and experienced people. There’s a curious paradox about the experience here. The more you have it, the more you realize how much there still is to learn. And that may be a way to slide into thinking others somehow have it all figured out – especially if they act this way.

So on one hand – experience gives you more vulnerability, BUT – thankfully – it also gives you a headstart to battling the Syndrome. When you have a jar of success just waiting to be filled out with ready material, when you have people willing to give you precious feedback – you’re almost there. 

The big names

Some of the people you might know that at one point discussed their problems with Imposter Syndrome. Amongst others, you’ll find: Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou, Agatha Christie, Michelle Obama:

Mike Cannon-Brookes:

Neil Gaiman:

That’s a pretty cool crowd if you ask me.


How do I know if I have it?

I’m pretty sure you’re pretty sure whether you experience it or not, but in case you have your doubts – here’s a handy tool.
 
So what if you find that most of the above very much describes what you’re going through? How about we understand it a little bit better:


Imposter Syndrome Cycle

Imposter Syndrome Cycle

 

  • So we have a project – or a task, sure we all might react differently. Most of IS people get anxious, though.

  • Some will procrastinate, some – on the contrary – will work tirelessly and overwork themselves.

  • When we’re done with the project or said task, we might get a brief sense of accomplishment and relief. BUT here’s where it starts for good:

  • rationalizations – the success is because we were lucky, or “they don’t know it was the last minute”, or how not serious we were about it, or how overly serious. Somebody else would have done SUCH better job than we did. 

It is a vicious cycle, and as many people who experience the Imposter Syndrome say – no amount of success can heal it. New projects and new accomplishments reinforce the syndrome rather than brake it. 


WHEN are you more likely to experience the IS?

It can happen with whatever you do really, but most likely:

  • in an academic setting,
  • at work – especially a new work environment,
  • in a relationship.


HOW to deal with Imposter Syndrome?

  • First and foremost – it’s not about CONQUERING it straight away. With our psychology, most of the important stuff begins with awareness. Try and become aware of your thoughts first, and don’t fight them. Just notice them, when, and how they appear. Listen to that inner voice that’s criticizing you ruthlessly. You can pay special attention to any “always” and “never” that occur because they will happen if you’re going through the Imposter Syndrome.

  • The sense of guilt and shame will be there too, so it’s important to acknowledge it and then shift it.

  • Easier said than done, but try and focus on YOU, not other people. The comparisonitis is the number one reason for you to feel inadequate.

  • Talk about your feelings in a safe environment. With the closest friends or a family member. When you ask people what they recognize as your strong suit, what they value about you – LISTEN CLOSELY. Write it down, come back to that. Until you believe there’s some truth to it.

    When talking to other people, you will normalize the feelings around Imposter Syndrome. What’s more – you will find out that most people have it – in certain circumstances – and you are not alone in this. If anything – you belong to the majority of the population. When you have this kind of support system – you can be your “imposter buddies” ;). Whenever someone is in crisis – the other can serve as a memory bank with all the valuable feedback you can’t get any access to at the moment. Step by step, you will learn to be able to build your own resources. For most people, though – a mere thought that other people go through the same – will bring enormous relief and decrease the tension. 

  • Another idea around a safe environment and the *memory bank* of sorts is to keep a *success/feedback/self-worth* jar. Each time you believe something good about your competencies, the value you bring to the table, knowledge, input – write it down and put it in the jar (it could be a notebook or a journal, not necessarily the literal mayonnaise jar 😉

  • You may want to rethink your attitude toward failure. Failure and mistakes are simply priceless opportunities to learn and then grow. We all make mistakes – it’s impossible to grow without them – we can’t gain experience through merely reading about something. We need to practice, and when we do – we make mistakes – both smaller and more substantial. That’s part of the process. Ideas are more like experiments – some will be successful, and some, sadly – won’t. The more you try – the more you know.

    Some will say – it’s through your failures that we grow and mature.

  • Identify your biggest triggers. Some people will usually experience the Imposter Syndrome Syndrome at work, some – in a relationship with their friends, or as a parent. It’s essential to realize what makes us tick and possibly why. Then we can try and change that unconscious self-defeating strategy.

  • Try doing a SWOT analysis in the area where you experience the worst case of Imposter Syndrome. SWOT stands for:

    Strength (List your strengths, even those you don’t use every day. How are you different, unique, special? What are your talents, gifts, skills you mastered, what other people see as your strengths?)

    Weaknesses (Do you lack any skills, education? Is there something you can plan to improve? What is the negative feedback you’ve received from others?)

    Opportunities (External circumstances you can leverage. Maybe you live next to the city where someone with your set of skills is needed, or you can signup for the course that will increase your education level in a short amount of time. Maybe there are networking events you can attend to work on your professional network?)

    Threats (Something that can negatively impact your situation – like the changing economy, the virus, your level of education being not enough for you to be promoted, and so on.)

    In short, SWOT is for you to then leverage your strengths to be able to use the opportunities that arise or work on your weaknesses to change them into strengths.

  • Learn about self-compassion. Without accepting that your value doesn’t come from your successes, you will be a harsh critic for yourself. You need YOU to hold your hand too.

  • Practice gratitude. Combined with self-compassion, it’s the most gentle and loving way for you to accept who you are and grow in a direction you consciously choose.

  • And last but not least – try therapy or coaching. We can only do so much by ourselves – when mental health is involved. Sometimes the Imposter Syndrome goes hand in hand with a personality disorder, depression, or severe case of anxiety. There’s no point in trying to do it alone, that’s why we’re here for – the mental health professionals.

Imposter Syndrome is a phenomenon that happens when on a journey “up your hill” you encounter success.

Oftentimes, we don’t give ourselves enough credit. The fact that we don’t know EVERYTHING somehow casts this shadow on the knowledge and experience we already have.

Or when it feels EASY for us – so easy in fact that it feels like anyone could do it. Well not anyone has YOUR experience and knowledge, but it’s somehow not easy to realize at times.

The more you know about it, the more conscious you are about it – the better your chances are of beating it. IS is something that thrives on silence and assumptions. Most of us have been there – most likely, even the people you admire. Talk to your people, keep an inner dialog open, and you soon you’ll see you can feel better in your own skin:)

If you’d like some more information – this one is a great short video by my favorite, The School of Life that I highly recommend it:

Imposter Syndrome

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