Dealing with the inner impostor

Many people, if not most, have what psychologists call the impostor syndrome. The idea was developed by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes who studied it in high achieving women. Impostor syndrome (IS) is found in all groups of high achievers and is based on the fear that others might discover you are a fraud, undeserving of the praise, and rewards you are receiving. Essentially the problem is one of not internalizing your own achievements and success. At a phenomenological, felt level, a person with IS may be feeling phony, fearing exposure. In order to compensate, people work harder, longer, avoid situations that draws attention to their skills and abilities and use relationship skills to manage their fears and gain some approval and recognition. However rather than attributing approval to one’s skills and achievements, it is then often mis-attributed to charm, likability, friendship or the tendency to people-please.

IS is common – roughly 70% of people experience it at some time and 2 out of 5 people in high achieving positions report feeling a fraud. IS is not a mental illness, although its effects may well mirror those of a major mental health problem, or be associated with one (e.g. depression and anxiety). Ironically most people tend to believe others do not feel like impostors. If left unmanaged, IS can reduce confidence and self-esteem, and lead to anxiety and depression. A secondary effects of IS is that potentially capable people leave a career, believing themselves to be incompetent and settle for jobs in which they are less exposed to the feelings generated by IS. There are also questions about how well people are performing who do not believe in their own competence and probably most of us would have second thought if we knew the doctor treating us was doubting their own expertise. It is partly due to its stigmatising effect that people do not own up to having a fear of being labelled a fraud. Our society values confidence and decisiveness so much that anything less than that becomes a sign of incompetence, thereby also setting up a vicious circle for anyone suffering impostor fears.

Ultimately it is unknown how much impostor syndrome impacts on the economy through lost opportunity. But consider professions such as social work, medicine, teaching and others. It takes years to train professionals. Professionals who leave prematurely due to anxiety represent a poor return on investment.

Teacher: £38K

Social worker:£55K

GP £500K (various sources)

To have them under-perform is not making sufficient use of their potential.

So how can you deal with impostor syndrome if this is affecting you? First of all you need to be aware that you may be holding yourself back due to a deep-seated sense of being an impostor. Hopefully reading this has helped you to realize the need to take some action already. So assuming you have decided you suffer from IS, several practical things can help to quell the clamour of your inner impostor agenda:

Make a table with three columns:

  1. Make a list of all achievements you have had in column 1. All jobs you have held, all qualifications and certificates you have achieved. This should help you recognize your accomplishments. Rather than writing out words (e.g. degree) be precise and write down in this format: I, (your name) have successfully completed my bachelors in Psychology. Also  add when people have praised you and commented on you doing something well. Reflect on what you notice as you are writing this down.
  2. In column 2 write down how you felt when you achieved it, and why? This will put you in touch with feelings of relief, excitement, achievement, pride, recognition. If you have negative feelings about your achievement of any of these things then make a note of this but move on.
  3. Once you have a list in your first and second column write in the next column what strengths each of your achievements highlights. (Single words are ok here) If you need a list of strengths you can find it here. Example: BSc in psychology: strengths: perseverance, creativity. What do you notice as you are doing this? How does this relate to your feelings? How important are these strength in your current life?

There is no magic bullet here, but hopefully you will have gained some idea about what achievement means to you, and also what positives it reveals about you. Considering all these positives, how would someone who was not an impostor or a fraud feel about the same achievements?

By focusing on strength and achievements based in reality, we can often challenge impostor fantasies, enough to overcome them interfering with our plans. Where they are more pernicious more work may be required. Judging from my own work with clients as well as work I have done on myself in this area, remaining positive and developing a can-do attitude are really important. A counselor or a life coach can help you with developing the energy needed to push through to the other side.

You are as worthy as others if not more so. You do not have to always walk the extra mile just in order to prove you are not fake. If you really want it, you can achieve it.

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