Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
By: Sarah DeSantis, LCSW
Lady Gaga. Tina Fey. Barbara Corcoran. Sheryl Sandberg.
What do each of these powerhouses have in common? They all experienced Imposter Syndrome.
In an interview with NPR, Academy Award-winning actor, Tom Hanks said, “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?”
“Self-Doubt Is ‘A High-Wire Act That We All Walk.”
– Tom Hanks
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Definition: The fear that others will eventually uncover your perceived weaknesses and question your competence the same way you do.
This fear is often associated with the tendency to misattribute hard-won successes to external, random, undeserved factors.
If you ever challenge yourself to accomplish something important, you will experience self-doubt. And if you actually accomplish that thing you set out to do, you will likely have a moment (or several) of feeling like it was a total fluke. Cue perceived fraudulence aka Imposter Syndrome.
Many successful individuals feel unworthy of their accomplishments. They may have just received a well-earned job promotion, but in the back of their mind, they may be saying, “I didn’t deserve that” or “I only got my success because I was in the right place at the right time.” Instead of focusing on their hard work and genuine ability, they attribute their success to external factors and diminish their strengths. Even when there is actual evidence of their abilities, they still feel like a fake or phony. If this is something you struggle with, you are not alone
Why do people struggle with imposter syndrome?
People struggle with imposter syndrome for various reasons.
Individuals who struggle with imposter syndrome have some common traits such as:
- High achieving
- People pleasing and
Imposter syndrome is often the manifestation of perfectionism, although you don’t necessarily have to be a perfectionist to struggle with imposter syndrome. For others, imposter syndrome stems from the efforts to avoid an unwanted identity (e.g., not wanting to appear lazy) or avoidance of the uncomfortable feeling of shame (e.g., “If I don’t work hard enough, people will see how lazy I am.”)
If you want to figure out what may be influencing the struggle with imposter syndrome, ask yourself, do my symptoms have a deeper purpose/function? Do these symptoms protect me from anything?
For example, the imposter syndrome symptom of over-preparing (seen below) may be an attempt to protect yourself from making a mistake or being a ‘perceived’ failure, even when there is no evidence that you need to over-prepare to be successful.
What does Imposter Syndrome look like?
Below are some common ways Imposter Syndrome shows up in our minds, actions, and behaviors.
Discounting compliments. When we are in ‘Imposter Syndrome Mind,’ we will have difficulty attributing success to our own competence. So when someone comments on our talents, abilities, or a desirable outcome, the initial reaction might be to credit external factors.
We might say something like, “Oh, I got lucky” or focus on the one tiny flaw of an accomplishment “Yes, I got an ‘A’ but I got a really easy question wrong. I’m such an idiot.” It can be difficult to recognize the internal strengths that contributed to the accomplishments.
Questioning yourself/self-doubt. Perceived fraudulence can show up in the form of questioning your competence despite objective evidence that you are pretty good at whatever it is that you’re doing.
Despite your accomplishments, you are frequently questioning yourself. “Am I good enough?” “Did I really deserve that recognition?” “Am I a phony?”
The appearance that you have it all together. People may often tell you how proud they are of you or how much they admire your success and hard work. Some may even classify you as an overachiever. It may look like you have it all together on the outside, but internally, you may feel like a fraud and have fear that others will find out that you are not who you appear to be.
Critical self-talk. At times, you may be able to recognize your intelligence but in the back of your mind, there’s a highly self-critical voice that doubts it. It may say, “You’re actually not that smart and others are going to find out.”
Thoughts that may accompany feeling incompetent include “I’m not good enough” or “I’m always doing something wrong.” You might frequently think about what you could’ve done differently. This may be accompanied by feelings of shame or disappointment.
Poor boundaries & people pleasing. Imposter Syndrome can look like not being able to say ‘no’ or putting others’ needs before your own. In order to have relief from self-deprecating thoughts, you may overcompensate in other ways. This could result in doing things based on what you feel like other people want, not considering your own feelings/thoughts.
Reassurance seeking. If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you most likely struggle with loads of self-doubt. In order to gain confidence and combat this feeling, you may seek reassurance or external validation from others. Reassurance seeking, although helpful at first glance, can actually be harmful long term.
Reliance on external reassurance can actually lead to less confidence in yourself and distrusting your own intuition even more, feeding into the imposter syndrome cycle!
Outlandish expectations of yourself (or perfectionism). At the root of Imposter Syndrome is really the rejection of one’s own humanity. This can look like not allowing yourself to make mistakes or when you do, beating yourself up for said mistake. The result is having certain standards for yourself that you wouldn’t have for others. Often, we would extend much more grace and compassion to others.
Overly preparing for things. Since Imposter Syndrome is our mind’s crappy attempt at keeping us humble or avoiding failure, we’re probably convinced that we need much more work on something than we actually do. Also, there’s fear that someone will see our inadequacies so we may overcompensate by spending more time on things than necessary.
How to manage Imposter Syndrome
There are a lot of different ways to manage symptoms of imposter syndrome and find relief from that inner critic.
If you want to stop the constant self-doubt and feel more confident in your abilities, therapy can help. In therapy, you will learn how to challenge those perfectionistic tendencies. It will help you be more compassionate towards yourself. You will be able to recognize your strengths and be more accepting of your mistakes. You will learn evidence-based skills to set boundaries and challenge negative self-talk.
Therapeutic modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help. Below are some ideas on how to find relief from Imposter syndrome..
Some ways to start challenging imposter syndrome
- Set boundaries: When you have people-pleasing tendencies, setting boundaries can be difficult (and a sign of imposter syndrome!).
Try this: Before saying yes to something you are not sure you want to do, ask yourself, “What do I want in this situation?” or “Am I respecting my own needs and wants?”
- Awareness: Be aware of when you are engaging in imposter syndrome self-talk. Start to recognize common cognitive distortions (faulty thought patterns) such as all or nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, or mental filtering.
Try this: Keep a thought log throughout the day to bring awareness to your distortions. Bring this thought log to a therapist who can assist in challenging these thinking patterns.
- Positive Affirmations: Some of my clients think positive affirmations can be corny. BUT THEY WORK. It’s time to start recognizing your strengths. Positive affirmations challenge those negative thoughts that have been ingrained in your mind over time.
Try this: Writing notes with positive affirmations on your mirror.
- Stop reassurance seeking: The constant need for external validation is a sign that you need to practice trusting yourself and building your self-esteem.
Try this: Before you ask someone for feedback or assurance, pause and ask yourself first.
- Self-compassion: Mistakes are a part of life and are needed in order to grow and learn. It’s time you start giving yourself the same love and support you give others.
Try this: Instead of beating yourself up, try asking yourself, what would I say to a friend or loved one at this moment?
- Unconditional permission to make mistakes: Reinstate your humanity by giving yourself unconditional permission to be a human being. This means embracing the fact that you’re imperfect, flawed, and don’t know everything. And that’s okay.
Try this: Instead of hustling to be flawless, impeccable, and worthy, know that you’re already good enough just as you are. You can accept yourself as you are and also get after your goals.
When imposter syndrome makes you feel unhappy or negatively impacts your life, I hope you’ll try some of the suggestions you just read.
If you already know it’s something you could use support, call for a free phone consultation. I’d be happy to help!
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