The Impostor Syndrome

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Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear
For I wear a mask, a thousand masks,
Masks that I’m afraid to take off
And none of them is me.
“Please Hear What I Am Not Saying” – Charles C. Finn

The Imposter Syndrome, or Impostor Phenomenon is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize a sense of themselves as competent and talented. The impostor sees success as a result of being lucky, simply having worked harder than others, or a result of having manipulated other peoples impressions.

The term “impostor syndrome” first appeared in an article written by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes who observed many high-achieving females tended to believe they were not intelligent, and that they were over-valuated by others. It is estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another. Although the phenomenon was first noted among successful women it appears that it crosses gender and cultural lines.

Impostor feelings fall into three broad categories:

  1. Feeling like a fake: the belief that I do not deserve my success or professional position. That somehow or other I have deceived my bosses and peers into thinking I am smarter or better than I am. This goes together with a fear of being, “found out”, discovered or “unmasked”. My inner voice might say: “I give the impression that I am more competent than I really am…”  “I am afraid that others will discover…”
  2. Attributing success to luck: Another aspect of the impostor syndrome is the tendency to attribute success to luck or to other external reasons and not to your own internal abilities. Someone with such feeling would refer to an achievement by saying, “I just got lucky this time” “it was a fluke” and with that internal voice comes the paralyzing fear that I will not be able to succeed the next time.
  3. Discounting Success: The third aspect is a tendency to downplay success and discount it. Having such feelings will lead me to discount an achievement by saying, “it is not a big deal,” “it was not important.” “I did well because it is an easy class, etc.”  When I discount success it means I will have a hard time accepting compliments.

Where do these feelings come from? Research is giving evidence that people who experience impostor feelings are likely to come from families of origin in which support for the individual is lacking, communications and behaviours are controlled by strict and rigid rules, and/or considerable conflict is present. They can come from backgrounds where social standing or parental beliefs are paramount. As well, impostors come from backgrounds where there is such a high need to please others in the family that support for the child’s own feelings and individual development is missing.

The impostor syndrome is also often seen in addicts and alcoholics and in the children of alcoholics. The child who becomes an impostor may have experienced parentification – the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as emotional support to their own parent: “he was the man of the family by 12” or “she was everyone’s mother even as a little girl.” A parentified child discovers early in life that they are required to develop a “false self” in order to receive validation.

Although impostors do not seem to suffer from a general low self-esteem, their self-esteem in the area of achievement is precarious requiring a system of defenses that is taxing and anxiety producing. Impostors’ worry, and are excessively concerned about their impression on others.  This overwhelming need for external validation leaves them vulnerable to feelings of shame and unworthiness.

Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me,
but don’t be fooled,
for God’s sake don’t be fooled.
I give you the impression that I’m secure,
that all is sunny and unruffled with me,
within as well as without,
that confidence is my name and coolness my game,
that the water’s calm and I’m in command
and that I need no one,
but don’t believe me.
“Please Hear What I Am Not Saying” – Charles C. Finn

The central task of therapy with impostors is to lessen the person’s dependence on other’s positive evaluations for his/her’s self esteem and help them come to a more solid internalized sense of self-worth. Without this internalized self-worth the impostor oscillates between grandiosity when praise from others is forthcoming and feelings of shame and worthlessness when others are not fully validating.

If you have impostor feelings this does not mean that you are stuck with them forever. Here are 5 steps that you can take to reduce those feelings and to cope with them when they do come up.

  1. Support: being able to discuss those feelings with others or a therapist in order to understand that you are not alone and to get a reality check.
  2. Identify the impostor feelings: be aware when you engage in thoughts and feelings of being an impostor. Awareness is the first step to change and it is not obvious since many times we are not aware of our automatic thoughts.
  3. Automatic Thoughts: automatic thoughts can be defined as underlying, unquestioned thoughts, which affect how you perceive an event or situation.  These thoughts are often so automatic that they occur very fast and you may not even notice them and yet, they are affecting your perception.
  4. Do your own reality check: question these automatic impostor thoughts and feelings and try to come up with more balanced thoughts.
  5. Understanding the difference between feelings and reality: some people tend to believe that if they feel something strongly it must be right. “If I feel like a fraud, it must be that I am a fraud.” When you catch yourself thinking in this way change it to a coping statement of “the fact that I feel like a fraud does not mean that I really am.”
Do not pass me by.
It will not be easy for you.
A long conviction of worthlessness builds strong walls.
The nearer you approach me
the blinder I may strike back.
It’s irrational, but despite what the books may say about man
often I am irrational.
I fight against the very thing I cry out for.
But I am told that love is stronger than strong walls
and in this lies my hope.
 
Please try to beat down those walls
with firm hands but with gentle hands
for a child is very sensitive.
 
Who am I, you may wonder?
I am someone you know very well.
For I am every man you meet
and I am every woman you meet.

 

 “Please Hear What I Am Not Saying” – Charles C. Finn

Therapy can help those who have impostor feelings.

When choosing a therapist for this issue know that there are three conditions that when provided by a therapist will foster the emergence and strengthening of the impostor’s true inner self:

  • a warm acceptance by the therapist of all aspects of the person,
  • an empathic understanding of the person’s internal world,
  • and an attitude from the therapist of genuineness and emotional honesty.

The therapist you choose must provide an accepting and affirming atmosphere so you can access the feelings underlying the need to perform well, give you the confidence to experiment with new behaviours and risk taking, and alter the thought patterns that are holding you back from living a life free of these feelings.

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