You’re a Fraud: Impostor Syndrome

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” - Bertrand Russell

Kate Winslet, Mike Meyers and Maya Angelou have all publicly spoken about their struggle with Impostor Syndrome. It’s often a curse high-achievers in society face when they cannot internalize and accept their success. As Maya Angelou said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.”

According to the American Psychological Association, Impostor Syndrome can also contribute to high-functioning anxiety and depression. As such, it can be a lesser known source of stuckness. Its sufferers are high achievers in one area, but doubt and fear can keep them from channeling their success into, say, a successful pursuit of their personal bliss.

The Catch 22 is that these successful Impostor Syndrome sufferers seek approval/success to feel worthy, but never believe anyone’s approval is genuine (how could it be? They are worthless). Therefore, they fear their achievements must have come from trickery, luck or other falsehood.  It’s a never ending loop of self-loathing, fear and dissatisfaction.

Another Catch 22 is that those with Impostor Syndrome will resist seeking help because, as psychologist, Dr. Suzanne Imes, who first labeled and defined the syndrome says, “Part of the experience is that they're afraid they're going to be found out.” So they suffer in silence.

A recent Behavioral Science Research Institute Paper, by Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander, found that the our culture and upbringing play a large role in this phenomenon.

People who feel like impostors often were raised by families that emphasized achievement and may have unwittingly sent mixed messages -- either over praising when achievements were made, and/or criticizing (subtle or implied) when achievements didn’t measure up.  

If this is you, don’t worry, we won’t call you out on it.  But here are some ways to face down the lies you tell yourself:

Talk to Someone

We know this seems obvious, but you’re not doing it.  Realize that this is a condition, a real thing, and you can go see a therapist about these feelings and they can help you find a way through it and break the cycle of impostor thinking.  

In her original research on Impostor syndrome, with Pauline Rose Clance, Dr. Imes discusses some of the tactics for helping a patient shift their thoughts including:

  • Approach achievement with positive motivation instead of using anxiety to motivate.
  • Imagine responses from people you “tricked” into praising you or giving you accolades, raises, awards, etc. What would they say if you told them you had tricked them and they were wrong?
  • Keep a journal on all the positive feedback you receive about competence and stop deflecting praise.  

Honestly Regard Your Abilities

You have genuine abilities that made you successful. Many Impostor Syndrome suffers give "success credit" to luck and "failure credit" to themselves. You either get all the credit or none of it. You can’t just take credit for the bad stuff.

Dr. Imes identifies another interesting issue at play with these high achievers. They’re consistently disappointed in their intellect.  She says, "Most high achievers are pretty smart people, and many really smart people wish they were geniuses. But most of us aren't," she says. "We have areas where we're quite smart and areas where we're not so smart."

This, however, is not cause for all-out self loathing. It’s okay to be good or better than average at something without being the best or a genius.

Be Authentic

You think if people see the “Real” you, they won’t like you. So you put forth a false self, that self has friends, loved ones, achievements and you, authentic you, never gets to feel joy because you didn’t take part. Once you let yourself be vulnerable and reveal your authentic self (and then see that your fears are baseless), you can break the Impostor Syndrome cycle. As Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness.”

Shift Your Thinking

Let go of perfectionism. You may not be a genius, but you’re doing well out in the world and there’s room on the planet for your gifts and achievements. Those achievements are valid and valuable, but (like your failures) they do not solely define your personal worth.  

Rocky Lewis
Rocky Lewis