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What is Imposter Syndrome?

“Imposter Syndrome,” or Imposter Phenomenon, is not an official diagnosis, but it’s a useful term to describe a cluster of associated feelings and behaviors. First used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, Imposter Syndrome refers to the persistent belief that you are “undeserving” of praise or reward for your accomplishments, and that others’ positive judgment of you is mistaken. 

When Imes’s and Clance’s study was initially written it focused on the experiences of women who were still fighting their way to acceptance in the workforce and had internalized society’s perception that women didn’t belong in places of power. It’s since been pointed out that the feeling of being “out of place” associated with Imposter Syndrome can still be accounted for by racism, sexism, and other biases from an employer or colleagues. If your workplace, school, or other institution has a bad track record of creating a supportive and diverse environment, don’t let anyone gaslight you into thinking you just have Imposter Syndrome and other people have nothing to do with it. Pay attention to the moments when you feel triggered and ask yourself whether your feelings are coming from inside or from the people around you. 

If you do have a supportive community and your feelings of inadequacy are definitely rooted in your own perceptions, the following patterns could indicate Imposter Syndrome:

  • You routinely step back to let others speak even though you yourself are well educated in the topic at hand.
  • You feel guilty when others compliment you and deflect praise with phrases like “it was nothing,” “I was only doing my job,” or “anyone could have done this.”
  • You are constantly dissatisfied with your work product and always find ways it could have been better, even if others are happy with it.
  • You often feel anxious or even paranoid that you are overlooking some huge mistake you can’t remember making and that others will find out before you do.
  • You avoid pursuing promotions, taking on big projects, or applying to new opportunities because you don’t feel confident in your abilities, even if you’ve succeeded in similar areas before.
  • You attribute all your success to luck and circumstance rather than your own efforts.
  • You feel out of place, as if you’re the new kid in school, even at places you’ve worked for years.

Imposter Syndrome is most commonly associated with the workplace, but it can also apply to other parts of our lives where we feel our actions are being observed and judged. For the sake of clarity we’ll focus on work but the information and tools presented here can also help with:

  • Relationships: you feel you are not “good enough” for your partner or their family and fear they will leave you when they discover you’re “not who they think you are.”
  • Living situation: you feel out of place in your neighborhood and avoid interacting with your neighbors for fear they will discover you’re not a good homeowner or housekeeper.
  • Community and recreation: you avoid activities or memberships you enjoy - gyms, clubs, churches, etc. - because your worry over how others will perceive you outweighs your enjoyment.

Since the anxiety and depression associated with Imposter Syndrome can negatively affect an individual’s behavior and judgment, believing you will fail can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less you think of your abilities, the less you may find yourself achieving. In the United States, many report that their feelings of self-worth are tethered to their success at work; if their performance suffers, so does their mental health. In addition to performance related anxieties, if we’re concerned that we’re misrepresenting our qualifications or failing our colleagues, we can feel isolated from them and deprive ourselves of networks of support. In the most extreme instances, someone experiencing Imposter Syndrome could turn to dangerous, toxic, or self-harming behavior to cope with the associated stress and low self esteem.

Here are some common cognitive distortions arising from Imposter Syndrome:

  • Perfectionism: Success is never satisfying because you always think you can do better. You constantly review past work to find flaws even when everyone else is happy.
  • Validation Seeking: You pursue work, hobbies, or relationships for the sake of being praised for them, not because you want them in and of themselves.
  • Natural Genius: You judge your success on the ease and speed with which you attain it, particularly in comparison to others. If something takes you a lot of work you feel like you have to hide the effort to make it look easy.
  • Going Solo: You refuse to ask for help even when you’re drowning. You might consider asking for help weak or shameful.

Where does Imposter Syndrome come from?

Clinicians have noticed that Imposter Syndrome tends to manifest very early in a person’s life, often when they start school. It’s commonly associated with family of origin dynamics and cultural environment, particularly the way a culture or family perceives success and failure. If your family raised you to embrace failure as a natural part of learning, it’s less likely you will take it personally later in life when you don’t meet the mark. Conversely, if your family raised you with a constant mindset of “you can do better than this,” mistakes might feel like a detriment to your integrity, even to your identity. 

Over-critical families aren’t the only cause of this persistent self-doubt. Some sufferers share that their families consistently praised them no matter what they did. Upon entering the workforce and encountering the occasional criticism or defeat, this person may start to doubt all the validating feedback from their family, extending this doubt to any positive feedback they receive. In both cases, the issue is looking outward instead of inward for your self worth, and accepting your self-critical inner voices as fact.

Shifting Your Mindset Away From Imposter Syndrome

Persistent Imposter Syndrome comes with a lot of negative self-talk that perpetuates the illusion of your own inadequacy. One of the worst things about this type of thinking is its binary nature; it assumes “if X then Y.” “I’m not confident in myself so I can’t do this.” You have to break the binary by considering that the inverse of the negative thought might also be true. Here are a few phrases to get you started. 

  • “I don’t have enough experience.” vs. “I can use the skills I have to get the job done.”
  • “I can’t make any mistakes.” vs. “When mistakes happen I can fix them.”
  • “I don’t know how to do this.” vs. “I don’t know how to do this yet.
  • “I don’t belong here; I wouldn’t be here if everyone knew who I really was.” vs. “Life brought me here for a reason; this opportunity wouldn’t be here if I didn’t deserve it.”
  • “What I did doesn’t matter and doesn’t deserve praise.” vs. “I can celebrate every accomplishment no matter how small. Anyone could have done this but I took the initiative to do it and that deserves praise.”

Try writing your most common doubts about yourself in this format and find the inverse of each so that you can remind yourself  that you don’t have to rely fully on your own perception of yourself. Give yourself the freedom to allow other more nurturing thoughts in.

Over time negative self-talk can morph into full cognitive distortions - misperceptions that prevent you from seeing the world as it is. Here are some common cognitive distortions associated with Imposter Syndrome and techniques to counter them:

  • Perfectionism: Success is never satisfying because you always think you can do better. You constantly review past work to find flaws even when everyone else is happy.some text
    • This reflex to critique anything that isn’t “perfect” may have developed as a self-protective method to prevent anyone from criticizing you. Perfectionism can be viewed as a necessary evil that creates creative geniuses and CEOs, so some caregivers and teachers promote a mindset that nothing you do will ever be good enough with the goal of pushing you further. This becomes toxic when it prevents you from reaching any satisfaction in work or in life. If you’re constantly dissatisfied with yourself eventually you will reach a wall beyond which you can’t keep developing in the same way - you will burn out. 
    • If you find yourself ruminating on how you could have done something better after the fact, try the following: write down what you wish you had done differently, write a plan for how you will change what you do going forward, and literally turn the page on the previous task. Holding a debrief with yourself can give you some closure and quantify the value and impact of the work you’ve already done. Having a plan in place for the future will give you some additional confidence and security moving forward. Anything is better than letting your train of thought rattle through your head endlessly.
  • Natural Genius: You judge your success on the ease and speed with which you attain it, particularly in comparison to others. If something takes you a lot of work, you feel like you have to hide the effort to make it look easy.some text
    • Everyone learns at their own pace, and even if you push yourself to overtake someone else you could still take longer than others to acquire a new skill. This is completely normal, but if you were shamed for struggling in school or extracurricular activities as a child, you may feel driven to hide any difficulty now. You may feel that you shouldn’t struggle so much, and that other people could get this done better, faster, or more efficiently.
    • If something takes you longer than you think it should to learn or do, don’t get discouraged. Working hard for something actually gives it more value, not less, and you should be proud of whatever result you get from sustained effort in an area that’s unfamiliar to you. Nevertheless, all of us can feel insecure when it takes us a few times to get something right. A good strategy to approach new things with confidence is to identify skills and experiences you’ve already had and find ways to apply them in other situations. Using something you’re comfortable with to tackle something you’re uncomfortable with can give you the extra support you need to stay focused. For example, if you struggle to analyze numbers just by looking at a spreadsheet, find a way to view the data visually through a graph or a chart. Find compassion for yourself and be open to trying different ways of learning. 
  • Going Solo: You refuse to ask for help even when you’re drowning. You might consider asking for help weak or shameful.some text
    • Imposter Syndrome can be tied to shame and secrecy - you’re trying to hide your perceived insufficiency from others, so asking others for help makes you feel vulnerable to discovery. However, knowing when to ask for help is essential in so many areas of life that you must find a way to get comfortable with it. If you broke your arm and didn’t go to a doctor, you might be able to heal ok by yourself. However, it’s far more likely you won’t notice something a trained medical professional could spot right away, and without proper treatment your injury could get worse. Life can be a lot like this; it’s good to be independent but if you don’t know when to ask for help you can get yourself into deep trouble. At work, a good boss will respect you more if you ask for help right away rather than letting the situation get out of hand so that no one can fix it.
    • The best way to get better at asking for help is practicing, so start small and practice often. You don’t even need to tell someone that you don’t know what you’re doing; just tell them what you’re about to try and do and ask how they would go about it. You’re looking for confirmation and validation rather than instructions, and when you come from this direction the other person will appreciate your consulting them and respect that you thought of a solution before asking for help.

Imposter Syndrome can come and go, but taking time to celebrate even your smallest accomplishments, spending time outside of work doing things you enjoy, and finding ways to make peace with yourself when things go awry. Remember you are so much more than just this skill, this task, this job, and you need to keep your whole self in the picture. If all else fails, try to enjoy the fact that you, the Imposter, have fooled everyone, and they haven’t caught onto you yet! If that doesn’t help either, individual and group therapy can help you address feelings of inadequacy and connect with others who struggle with similar experiences. Meeting others who fit into the Imposter Syndrome matrix will give you perspective that many perfectly capable, even brilliant, people doubt themselves despite their incredible work. You are one of them!