Author: Kari Kagan, Psy.D.
When a close friend of mine was accepted to one of the top law schools in the country, his initial reaction was, “they must have let me in by mistake.” Sure, he had worked hard and always been a good student, but he just could not wrap his mind around that it would have been enough to attend a top law school. Even after successfully completing his first semester, he could not shake the feeling that he would be “found out” and revealed as a phony that did not belong there. Any time he got a good grade, it was because he got “lucky”, while his less than average performances were just further evidence that he was a fraud. This state of mind only served to reinforce his feelings of being a fraud. Why was it so difficult for him to accept that he deserved to be there?
If you have ever felt like my friend, and studies show that up to 70% have felt that way at some point in their lives, then you have suffered from “impostor syndrome.” According to Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., the first researchers to study this phenomenon, impostor syndrome can be defined as a an inability to internalize accomplishments despite evidence of success coupled with a persistent fear of being found out as a “fraud.” A consequence of this is feeling undeserving of success or that success is the result of external sources, such as “luck”, rather than personal abilities. It is normal to have self-doubts from time to time, especially when starting something new or when in a competitive environment. However, impostor syndrome is more severe and persistent. It is a strongly held belief that a person does not belong and that they are just “fooling” those around them, and no amount of evidence to the contrary seems to change this belief.
People suffering from impostor syndrome will go to great lengths in order to prevent others from discovering “the truth” about who they really are. Unfortunately, their efforts often serve to enhance their fraudulent feelings. For example, one strategy is to compensate by over-working and over-preparing in order to ensure that they get positive feedback and acknowledgements from others. However, the more recognition they get, the more they worry about being discovered and the harder they feel they have to work. This pattern can quickly lead to burn out and dissatisfaction. Another strategy used to prevent being “discovered” is to under-prepare and adopt an “indifferent” attitude. People who use this strategy believe that if they don’t try, they can’t fail. While this strategy might protect people from disappointment, it also limits growth and exposure to experiences that can help to build confidence and reduce fraudulent feelings.
Impostor syndrome is associated with several symptoms that can take a toll on emotional well-being. As a consequence of feeling like a phony, people easily dismiss any praise and are particularly hard on themselves following criticism. Over time, this leads to the internalization of self-critical beliefs and feelings of depression and low worth. The most common clinical symptoms associated with impostor syndrome are anxiety and chronic worry, depression, lack of self-confidence, and frustration and disappointment related to falling short of unreasonably high standards of achievement. These feelings can interfere with performance and ultimately strengthen feelings of not belonging. As such, it is important to manage impostor feelings and develop strategies for more realistically assessing your worth in order to break the cycle and build the confidence you deserve to have.
STRATEGIES FOR OVERCOMING IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
Acknowledge your own expertise
Especially when people are just getting started in a career, they feel like they do not have any knowledge or expertise to offer others. However, offering help to others, such as tutoring younger students or supervising new employees, for example, can help you realize that you have come a long way and have valuable knowledge to impart.
Realistically assess your abilities
Overcoming impostor syndrome does not involve completely transforming your views of self to thinking you are flawless, but rather, it involves realistically assessing your abilities. Think about what you are good at, big or small, and write it down. Remember, it is important to count all skills, even if they seem insignificant, such as arriving to work on time. Then, make a list of areas for improvement. Be careful to not look at that list in a judgmental light (i.e., what is wrong with me that I haven’t figured that out by now?!), but rather, as an honest assessment of where there is room to grow. It is actually a good thing to be continually learning and growing.
Challenge your thinking
When you have those impostor thoughts (“I am not good enough to be here”) take a step back and think about what you might tell a friend in a similar situation. For example, you got the job for a reason and you deserve to be there. It may even be a helpful exercise to write out all the reasons you think you got the job. If this is a challenge, ask a trusted friend why they think you got the job to get an outside perspective. After doing this, you will probably realize that your thoughts related to your abilities can be inaccurate and distorted.
Another strategy for challenging distorted thinking is to look at the evidence for and against that thought. Sometimes examining the evidence can help you recognize that you are ignoring certain facts that might lead to a more balanced or optimistic view. It is important to catch these unhelpful thoughts that perpetuate impostor syndrome and challenge them so that they don’t run wild.
Celebrate your successes
When you do well, own it! Humility can be a virtue, but it can also be a vice. If you “brush off” your successes and call them a result of luck rather than personal abilities, it negatively impacts beliefs about self-efficacy and competence. Allowing yourself to embrace your achievements – by telling a friend about a promotion or rewarding yourself with a massage, for example – will help to build confidence in your abilities.
People who suffer from impostor syndrome also tend to hold themselves to perfectionistic standards. With such high standards and no room for mistakes, people fall victim to “all-or-nothing” thinking – if I am not perfect, then I am not good enough – which increases feelings of being a fraud. Instead of beating yourself up when you fall short of perfect, creating space for mistakes can allow you to realize that it is normal and not a sign that you do not belong. Further, acknowledging imperfections opens up opportunities to get help, learn, and grow.
Share Your Feelings
People with impostor syndrome can feel alone, isolated, and different than their peers. But if you start talking about your feelings with close colleagues and friends, you will realize that other people feel the same way. You are definitely not the only one experiencing the symptoms of impostor syndrome. Sharing with others can help you realize that you are not alone and that just because you feel like an impostor, does not mean you are one.
Distinguish between subjective and objective evaluations
When we evaluate our own skills through the lens of impostor, we will almost always come up short. Anything you do somehow never seems to be good enough when it is coming from a place of feeling like a fraud. Instead of solely relying on your own self-evaluation, consider objective assessments of your skills (i.e., promotions, supervisor evaluations, etc.) to get a realistic assessment of your abilities.
Consider working with a therapist
If you’ve tried some of these strategies and are still experiencing feelings of anxiety, sadness, or other difficult emotions, working with a therapist might help. A therapist trained in CBT can teach you additional cognitive and behavioral strategies to help you overcome impostor syndrome and the difficult feelings that come along with it. Feel free to contact us for additional information about using CBT to help you overcome these difficulties.
Diana Gordon, Psy.D., Kari Kagan Psy.D., and Katie Leoni, Psy.D.
Drs. Gordon, Kagan, and Leoni practice psychotherapy in downtown San Francisco and Oakland. Their areas of expertise include anxiety, sleep, stress, depression, and addiction. They blog about these topics to provide research-based information about common problems and strategies to help manage them.