Shutting the door on imposter syndrome
Updated: Aug 31
This article was adapted for a piece in Yahoo.
"Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments [those] who experience Imposter Phenomenon believe they are not bright and that they have fooled everyone who thinks otherwise." (Clance & Imes, 1978)
This along with an absolute terror of failure, a feeling of guilt surrounding success (as if you didn't deserve it), and almost always overestimating others while under-estimating yourself...and you could be experiencing IP.
What causes Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome or therapeutically "Imposter phenomenon"(IP) - is a psychological thought pattern where we doubt it find it difficult to accept our achievements and successes. Somewhat counter intuitively it tends to affect 'high achievers' more BUT that could be because accumulation of certificates, medals or goals is a symptomatic outcome of feeling inadequate in some way eg: "You can't argue with qualifications"!
Unfortunately this can lead to a vicious cycle where the individual, as if in a hamster wheel simply keeps working to achieve more and more without feeling the actual satisfaction, pride or success in what they have done. Worse still, should they make a mistake - which can happen through no fault of their own this can consume them with anxiety or defensiveness and they struggle to grow beyond this negative spiral.
IP can be caused by a conditioned response, for example, a focus on achievements from parents and caregivers (not done for malicious or Machiavellian reasons, but perhaps because their own parents and caregivers valued achievements). If you are (were) always told “You’re so smart”, or received the greatest praise (which as a child we may perceive as love) when we achieved something, it follows that we may then seek the same sense of reward through achievements, even if that strategy or “learning” is no longer relevant.
It is important to note that bringing up the role of social learning and reinforcement from parents or caregivers is not to apportion blame, but rather to emphasise, if we have learned it once, we can-unlearn it too!
Try the IP scale devised by Dr Pauline Clance here
Are we more likely to be suffering from it during the pandemic?
IP is not necessarily something which is “brought on” by the pandemic, but as with many “cracks” – while the pandemic, or a global crisis hasn’t always created them, it might have revealed them. Areas in which IP may be getting worse is in our interpretation of reports on the vaccine, or social distancing, or other debates “the science” has thrown up. We read, we assimilate the knowledge and we might form opinions – but depending on what you read, your view may come into conflict with others. This can exacerbate feelings of inferiority. (But the reality is, even the scientists don’t agree fully sometimes).
Similarly, in having to learn to use new technology such as online meeting platforms, there’s been a “learning curve” we’ve all had to undertake…and for those with IP, it’s simply another example of how you can be “better than” or “worse than” others!
What can we do?
A tip here is to focus on self compassion rather than self esteem.
1. Reassure yourself through self-compassion rather than self-esteem statements
When something doesn’t go your way, or if you have said or done something you regret try:
I’m proud of xxx elements because I worked hard on them/I contributed creatively/I pushed my boundaries
I did xxx better than everyone else
I’m sad that I lost my temper, but I realise what triggered me and I can watch for that sort of comment in future
I’m sad I lost my temper – but x provoked me
There is a very subtle difference, but self-compassion focuses on you and your response – it is quite empowering; self-esteem focuses on praise and even acceptance, but in the context of comparison with others.
1a. AND even more effective is: "I feel bad for really sucking at that, and this feeling sucks too". It's OK to feel bad...and this is often something that people who have grown up as a "high achiever" has not always been allowed to feel - their focus has been on "pick yourself up and keep going." Now, while picking oneself up is important, it's also ok to know that you can stop and sit and feel thoroughly awful for a moment when you are winded...and in doing so, you are less likely to do yourself more injury - physical or psychological!!
Tips on how to overcome IP if you’re feeling like a fraud.
2. Recognise that you are affected by IP. Recognise IP as imply a thought pattern and that you can choose to think differently. It can help you to reflect on the consequences of the actions that Ip drives you to do eg. When you are focusing on little quick wins, are you really heading towards your goal or is it just a 'feel good fix'.
A. Reflect on what thoughts of insecurity drive you to do.
B. Explore some of the consequences of the actions you have taken and decide whether they serve you or not
C. Choose a different response (anything at all) next time you recognise those thoughts
3. Manage your anxiety at others perceived success (a simple tip is to come off social media unless for brand purposes and cultivate the relationships that make you feel great Off line). If you choose to remain on social media, reframe the anxiety you feel at someone's success with gratitude
Say to yourself 'I'm grateful I got to see x' s happiness.' then use that feeling of gratitude to inspire you to move towards your goal.
3a. (and on that previous point) Always KNOW your goal and have that list of things you know well help you achieve it, even when you feel like reaching for the 'quick fix certificate'
Draw a circle and divide it into 8 segments.
1. State your goal
2. In each segment list the things you need to achieve to reach that goal
3. Using 0 in the centre and 10 on the outside, mark a line as to where you are with achieving that goal
4. Not only will the visual help you manage feelings of being overwhelmed, but it will also show you the areas to direct your focus AND it serves as a planner for when you want to reach for the next certification because you already know (in the segments) – what will be of greatest and most effective benefit to you.
4. Recognise and appreciate praise!
Screenshot or photograph the times when you have done well, for example when clients have thanked you or the actual product that you have achieved. This reminds you to hold that moment a little while before rushing into the next, and in doing this, you remind yourself, subconsciously, that you are doing ok!! Related to this, try to hold and appreciate thanks that you receive from others, rather than shrugging it off with a “Oh it’s nothing/It was everyone else.” People want to give you praise, and rejecting it as IP can drive you to do, can feel to others like the rejection of a gift they prepared nicely for you. Even if you can’t quite hold the praise yet, simply say “Thank you so much for saying that – I really appreciate it.” And try to hold that thought for a moment too.
5. Make your inner-critic work for you and listen to it when you actually need it!
You actually don't have to always “be kind” to yourself – sometimes we do need a bit of discipline. One piece of chocolate when on a weight loss plan may be an “OK, never mind, start again now”…but when it’s a habit a little more authority may be in order...but if your inner critic is beating you up internally about a-tiny-mistake-you-made-at-work-which-no-one even-noticed-and-you-got-sorted-anyway OF COURSE you are going to have that extra glass of wine or slice of cake because it's going to make you feel better immediately!!
So try this:
- Identify the purpose of your inner critic (is it to help you achieve, is it to keep you focused, is to for you to break toxic habits?)
- Reflect on how it does its job (and what it might get distracted by)
- Give it some training – as you would any employee who needs support – but remember to do so in a motivating, supportive, but clearly defined manner. If you catch yourself in a worry spiral ask yourself:
a) What is the root of the worry
b) Can I do anything about it?
c)then do it and you've no need to worry
...and when you've freed up the head space, you have more opportunity to apply your critical voice in a healthy way by asking yourself "is this moving me towards my goal or away from it" (and choose to act accordingly), if you catch yourself over indulging in something you know won't help you long term.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt