Imposter syndrome- what is it and how to control it before it controls you

Have you ever been in a room full of people and wondered how the hell did I end up here? Your forehead threatening to break out in a sweat at any moment because there’s no way you deserve to be sat at the same table as all those other people? Because you’re not as smart, competent or successful as they are? You’re just there because somehow, someway you got lucky, or worse- you’re a fake, a phoney, an imposter…

Imposter syndrome. Also known as imposter phenomenon or imposter experience; it’s a term to describe when a person doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of their mask slipping, revealing them as an imposter. First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s imposter syndrome occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalise and accept their success. Why? Because they’re convinced they’ve been winging life, bs-ing their way and getting by on plain luck. 

The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.

-Albert Einstein

Sound familiar? Sure we all experience some self-doubt every now and then but imposter syndrome is tenfold those thoughts. People who experience imposter syndrome have an internal voice that denotes and denies them of their accomplishments by attributing them to a stroke of luck rather than to their ability. Worse yet, they often suffer in silence because they fear if they talk about it they’ll reveal themselves as a fraud to their colleagues, friends and family.

Though imposter syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of self-doubt and is generally accompanied by its ugly sisters- anxiety and depression.

People who experience imposter syndrome say it’s stronger than just self-doubt but more like an intense, constant feeling that they don’t belong in their situation. Others describe it as having a negative internal dialogue inside their head telling them that they are not capable or deserving of their accomplishments or that they don’t measure up to their counterparts.

So who gets imposter syndrome?

Unfortunately imposter syndrome is not only reserved for high achievers but can actually affect anyone from any walk of life. However, research has found that certain factors can contribute to the more general experience of imposter syndrome like coming from a family that highly valued achievement or parents that went back and forth between offering praise and being critical. Some people recognise their imposter syndrome manifesting itself in their perfectionism or due to a fear of failure.

How can we stop it?

In short, we can’t stop imposter syndrome but we can get ourselves clued up on what it looks like in order to knock it on the head as soon as possible. So how do we do that? Well, like all problems, we look for the red flags- the symptoms that let us know a problem exists. Once you know the symptoms, then you can begin to control it before it controls you.

1) Give the negative talk inside your head a name. You’ve probably heard of the devil on your shoulder, well, imposter syndrome is a little like that! But this devil resides in your head and likes to tell you how much of a fraud you are. A way to deal with your negative inner voice is to give it a name (mine’s called Krystal with a K).

Once you hear and understand that voice, you can do something about it. Giving the villain inside your head a name helps to distance yourself from those thoughts- because remember, you are not your thoughts. Like most supervillains, their arch enemy is the superhero- full of courage, with a great fighting spirit and a deeper point of view. Introduce a superhero inside your head, who calls out the lies and limiting beliefs that your villain tells you. 

2) Challenge negative thoughts. How to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter. Be consciously aware that negative self-doubt talk is a symptom of your imposter syndrome and allow your superhero to call out that voice inside your head by shutting it down with the truth. This isn’t about replacing a negative thought with a positive one but really about challenging the thoughts that enter your mind by considering them from a more objective perspective. 

This technique is a pretty simple one and doesn’t assume that your thoughts are truthful but you can rationalise your thoughts by asking questions such as, do you know if this thought is true or do you have evidence that suggests it’s not? Like an example of how hard you worked for a promotion for example. Ask yourself how might someone else might view the situation if it were happening to them?  Or what experiences have you had that show those negative thoughts to not be true?

3) Remember perfectionism is not possible. Being perfect simply does not exist, there is no such thing as a perfect human being. Perfectionism is an oppressor and assassin of our abilities, values, weaknesses and strengths and if you allow, it has the power to destroy your self-esteem, confidence and overall quality of life. It’s starting to look like perfectionism is actually the fraudulent one, not you. 

Imposter syndrome and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand. Okay, so being a perfectionist means you care a lot and that’s great but when perfectionists set extremely high goals for themselves and they fail to reach that goal, they experience major self-doubt and worry about their capabilities. If this is you then you need to ease any unrealistic standards, and know you can’t have it all and be the best at every aspect in your life- you’ll burn out.

4) Don’t compare yourself to others. Straight up- Comparison is the thief of joy (amen to that Theodore Roosevelt). Think about it, if we compare ourselves to others, like the mum on instagram who appears to have all her shit together or the guy you went to school and his executive job, living in a grandiose apartment. Comparing yourself to that sort of stuff is a fool proof recipe for making you feel like you don’t measure up- so don’t do it. 

5) Make a ‘I AM NOT A FRAUD FILE’. This could be digital or an actual file or even both! Basically it’s purpose is to record your accomplishments and is there during those imposter-caught-in-the-headlight moments when you need some reassurance and a little reminder of your success. It might be an email a colleague or client sent you saying what a great job you did, it could be a picture from your kid with ‘I LOVE YOU’ written across it. It’s basically the little things that make you see the bigger picture. 

6) Talk, talk and then talk some more. TALKING. Quite possibly the most underrated thing us humans have the capability to do and yet why are we not doing it enough? It’s because we’re afraid of what others might think- but you’ll be surprised that your thinking is relatable to a lot more people than you first thought. Talking is not a vulnerability reserved for losers. Not only will talking about how you’re feeling help you by realising that your imposter feelings are normal but irrational, it will also help others because they too will find comfort in knowing they are not alone in feeling how they do.

Last but not least

Imposter syndrome can be isolating and paralysing, but once you know how to recognise and deal with these feelings, you can make efforts to move forward instead of getting stuck in the imposter cycle. By breaking the silence and developing a new script of rationalised, honest and open dialogue with yourself, you’ll be able to separate feelings from facts and recognise that just because you think these things it doesn’t mean they are true. 

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