Coping with Imposter Syndrome
Have you ever felt like a fraud or that you just don't belong? Have you ever felt as if you're holding your breath waiting to be found out or called out for your incompetence? If so, you're certainly not alone. Keep reading to find out what you can do about the all-too-common phenomenon called imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome and how is it different from occasional self-doubt?
The all-consuming feeling that you are an imposter.
Imposter syndrome is an overwhelming feeling that you're a fraud or not good enough to do or be where you are despite objective evidence of your success. If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you may find it difficult to internalize your own success, while also holding onto the rigid belief that you're incompetent or destined for failure in certain areas of your life.
Imposter syndrome is not simply self-doubt.
Self-doubt is a natural and expected experience for most people at some point in life. Doubt is particularly common as you navigate changes and new endeavours that are unfamiliar to you. It's quite normal to experience heightened anxiety, self-doubt, uncertainty, and stress at the beginning of a learning curve. The difference between unproblematic self-doubt and imposter syndrome is that the latter is a persistent nagging feeling/belief that you are failing or failure is right around the corner. Imposter syndrome doubt and anxiety do not seem to be tied to one incident and it may continue to emerge at different times throughout your life. People who have experienced imposter syndrome report that it doesn't go away, but it can get quieter and less disruptive over time.
One practice for dealing with imposter syndrome is to listen for the kernel of truth in the fear. For example, if there is an area that you truthfully could improve your knowledge or competency level in, then attending to this by focusing on approaching learning and seeking knowledge with realistic expectations can help mitigate the anxiety. However, if it turns out that you actually do know how to handle a specific situation in the moment, then chances are it's the irrational nature of imposter syndrome that has you feeling unsettled. In moments like these, it can be helpful to simply name and acknowledge it for what it is and refocus on whatever was in front of you in the present.
Imposter syndrome can be a vicious cycle.
If you struggle with imposter syndrome, then it can impact your mental health and decision making. You might feel afraid that others will discover you as a fraud. Consequently, you may ruminate over thoughts about carrying out a task "perfectly", so others don't see your inadequacy. When you can't sustain the impossible standard of perfection - when you inevitably make mistakes - this can serve to reinforce the belief that you're a fraud. For example, let's say that you give a speech to an audience and receive mostly positive reviews with the exception of one negative review: someone struggling with imposter syndrome might take the person who wrote the negative review to have been the only one that saw through their act and take their negative feedback as the absolute truth.
The extreme discomfort that it tends to elicit can motivate people to leave their careers or job hop frequently. It's possible that the specific job or career was part of the issue, such that moving jobs resolves the problem. However, if you've experienced imposter syndrome in most endeavours where performance is involved, then it could follow you wherever you go. While this sounds daunting, it really can get better when it's approached with curiosity, compassion, and objectivity rather than avoidance.
You're in good company.
Most of us at some point in our lifetime (i.e., up to 70%) will experience feeling like a fraud, imposter, or simply that we just don't belong. In fact, feeling like an imposter can impact different people regardless of social status, gender, skill level, or expertise.
If imposter syndrome is common, how do you know if it's problematic?
Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Does your imposter syndrome make it difficult to enjoy positive aspects of your life?
- Does your imposter syndrome result in chronic dissatisfaction with yourself?
- Does your impost syndrome negatively impact your physical health (i.e., sleep, exercise, eating, panic attacks, substance misuse)?
- Is your imposter syndrome associated with frequent and strong thoughts of escape?
- Does your imposter syndrome negatively impact your ability to do work, school, relationships, or your daily routine effectively?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, please find out how to get help below.
Step 1 - Recognize the signs of imposter syndrome
5 Signs of Imposter Syndrome
- You feel highly anxious in regard to a certain performance-related area of your life. It is often related to pervasive self-doubt.
- You experience a persistent, recurring fear that you're going to be 'discovered' as a fraud or called out by others for not belonging or poor competency despite objective successes.
- When you achieve success you often attribute it to chance, luck, or just flying under the radar.
- When you experience a moment of success you feel relief [or even distress] instead of pride, happiness, or satisfaction.
- You look for constant validation from perceived authority figures (i.e., manager, teacher, peers, highly regarded others) that easily influence your perception of whether you're successful or not.
"Acknowledge your fear, understand it, and then get comfortable existing in a space with it." - Allie Dattilio
Step 2 - Assess whether you're struggling with imposter syndrome
Quick Screening Tool: Find out if you are suffering with imposter syndrome
It's possible to experience imposter syndrome, but not be distressed or negatively impacted by it. Like most behaviours in life, we don't seek to change things that aren't problematic.
Assess your level of suffering by answering the four questions below as you consider your experience with imposter syndrome over the last month:
- Does your imposter syndrome prevent you from doing things you care about?
- Does your imposter syndrome negatively impact your physical health in ways that cause you concern (i.e., eating, sleeping, exercise, substance misuse, stress)?
- Does your imposter syndrome negatively impact your relationship with yourself or others in ways that concern you?
- Do you have difficulties being present and enjoying activities you value because of your imposter syndrome?
Results: If you answered “Yes,” to any of the questions above, you may have an issue with imposter syndrome and you could benefit from speaking with a licensed mental health professional to learn about what you can do.
Step 3 - Tips to help you live with imposter syndrome
Tip 1: Acknowledge your own successes.
It can seem impossible to internalize your successes. 'Internalize your success', means that you feel accomplished, proud, or satisfied with achievements and your successes compound to build a sense of confidence or trust in yourself for future challenges. If you struggle to internalize your success, then you might logically know you've accomplished a lot, but you do not feel a sense of personal satisfaction.
One way to start training your brain to more readily recognize wins [no matter how small or big] is to actively write down a list of your past accomplishments. Such accomplishments might include: graduation, passing an exam, getting a job, becoming a parent, etc. It is even better when you can include even the small daily accomplishments, such as 'got out of bed on time', 'made my bed', 'attended my exercise class', etc. Including all of your wins and not only the most obvious ones can help you understand success/failure as being more nuanced than black and white.
Writing down your accomplishments can be a one-time exercise or a daily/weekly habit to track what you're telling yourself and highlight the wins. Taking mental note of the objective evidence is an important step in changing the way you see yourself.
Tip 2: Appreciate that no one is perfect.
People who struggle with imposter syndrome can overvalue others' skillsets and undervalue their own. They are often very forgiving of others' imperfections and shortcomings without giving themselves the same permission to make mistakes. Recognize that although many of us strive for perfection, it does not exist. Try dropping the struggle with being perfect by accepting your imperfections and 'messiness' for a day or two. See what happens. You might find that when you stop focusing so much on your imperfections and it frees up mental and emotional space to live your life. This could mean that you actually have more capacity to make improvements in important areas of self-development.
Tip 3: Be cognizant of social media traps.
It's no secret that frequent upward comparisons can increase our sense of inferiority. If you already feel inadequate and largely think of yourself as 'not good enough', then engaging in comparisons will likely worsen your negative self-image.
Tip 4: Get professional help.
Sharing your thoughts and feelings with someone you trust is often a first step in healing. A registered psychotherapist will have training and strategies for helping you reduce the hold that imposter syndrome has on you.
Step 4 - Find a psychotherapist to help you quiet imposter syndrome
If you're seeking answers on how imposter syndrome is impacting your life and what to do about it, then speaking with a licensed mental health professional is a good place to start.
Once you're connected with one of our therapists, you'll start with an initial session. During the first session, your therapist will listen to your concerns and collaborate with you to clarify your best hopes for therapy. Your psychotherapist will take a brief psychosocial history to get to know what's most important to you and how you want things to change. You'll work collaboratively with your psychotherapist to form a treatment plan that's best suited for your needs over the first 1-3 sessions. Throughout the entire process you have the opportunity to ask questions and provide your feedback as you continue to progress.
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