What is imposter syndrome?
Have you ever found yourself wondering how you got to your current position in work or how you ended up with such a great family? Have you ever thought that if people knew the “real” you, they wouldn’t like you? Have you ever found yourself worrying about being “found out” even though you’re not being deceitful?
If so, you might have a common mental health issue called imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is when a person doubts their abilities, feels like a fraud, and believes their accomplishments are due to luck rather than their own skill, says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist.
Although it’s not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the gold standard for diagnosable psychiatric conditions, experts do recognise it as a deep-seated insecurity that can have a big impact not only on a person’s career but also their personal life and relationships.
They may fear they are unworthy of good things and may worry constantly about being “found out” or unmasked and then losing it all, says A.J. Marsden, PhD, an assistant professor of human services and psychology.
All of this fear can lead to long-term conditions, like depression and anxiety.
The anxiety that comes with imposter syndrome can cause a person to overcompensate or develop obsessive-compulsive behaviours.
Chronic anxiety takes a real toll on physical health as well.
There’s a chance you’re thinking, “Hey, that sounds like me.” Imposter syndrome happens to the best of us.
“It is not uncommon to occasionally experience moments of imposter syndrome,” says Marsden. “In fact, about 70 percent of people experience it at some point in their lives.”
Sometimes these feelings are triggered by an overly critical boss or loved one, but imposter syndrome can also happen on its own in people who are already unsure of themselves.
Your own worst enemy
At its core, imposter syndrome is a form of self-sabotage, says Christine B. L. Adams, MD, psychiatrist and author of Living on Automatic.
It can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: believing you don’t deserve what you have can make you worry excessively about losing it, which in turn can make it harder to function and to achieve your goals.
For instance, people with this syndrome may reject a promising job promotion or turn down a date with a potential love because they think they won’t be good enough.
It’s a sneaky syndrome and can start out with subtle self-doubts that then spiral into obsessive thoughts and deeply painful feelings.
It can be hard to spot this condition in yourself, which is why it’s so important to learn about it. That way, you can take steps to check it before you sabotage your own happiness, says Hafeez.
“People need to know about imposter syndrome to be aware of the common signs and be able to develop strategies to manage their feelings and minimise its impact,” she says.
Who is most at risk
Anyone can develop imposter syndrome; however, people with a strong desire to achieve are at the greatest risk, says Hafeez.
Add the pressure of a society that highly values achievements, often equating them with a person’s worth, and you have the perfect recipe for imposter syndrome.
A big factor in whether you are susceptible to this kind of pressure is how you grew up, says Dr Adams.
“Children who were pushed to accomplish but weren’t praised and were taught that accepting praise was wrong often carry those feelings into adulthood, says Dr Adams.
People who belong to groups who experience increased societal pressure, workplace microaggressions, or have ingrained self-doubt are also at a higher risk. This may include people in the LGBTQ community, women, and people of colour.
“Factors such as stereotypes, discrimination and oppression amplify the imposter syndrome phenomenon in these individuals,” says Hafeez.
Anyone going through a big change, like a divorce or career move, is also at risk, as their self-esteem may already feel unstable from those events, Marsden says.
Signs of imposter syndrome
Feeling like a fraud or a phony in your career, relationship, or generally in your life is the primary symptom of this syndrome but you may not realise that this is what you are feeling.
These questions from our experts can help you identify and name what you’re feeling. Ask yourself:
Do you believe you don’t deserve success or happiness?
Do you have difficulty accepting praise?
Does getting an award or public praise ever make you feel terrified or angry?
Do you constantly question your own skills and abilities?
Do you worry that you only succeeded at something because others felt bad for you?
Do you set very high expectations for yourself?
Are you very sensitive to criticism?
Do you have low self-esteem or self-confidence?
Do you often find yourself ruminating on negative thoughts about yourself, your relationships, your job, or your life?
Do you worry that if people really knew you they wouldn’t like you?
If someone asks you to list five things you are good at, is it hard for you to name your skills?
Have you ever lashed out at someone in anger who was trying to compliment you?
Do you generally deflect compliments?
Do you give others more credit for the success of group endeavours?
It’s normal to feel self-doubt sometimes, but if you answered yes to many of those questions and they are pervasive, not just happening every once in a while, then you may have imposter syndrome, says Hafeez.
These thought patterns may feel entrenched, but you can short-circuit them, stopping the cycle before it drags you down. Read on for some steps for healing.
Talk to a professional
If overcoming imposter syndrome was as simple as just telling yourself to cut out the negative thoughts, then it wouldn’t be a problem. These patterns can run deep, often tracing back to childhood, says Dr Adams.
Speaking to a psychologist or mental health professional is a great first step to help you identify the source of your thoughts and teach you how to reframe them.
Set realistic goals
Overachievers want to shoot for the moon, but that can end in frustration and hurt their self-confidence. Instead, practise setting realistic goals that build up to your grand plan.
Cut out toxic people
Imposter syndrome may live in your mind, but it can be triggered or worsened by others around you who criticise, belittle, or undermine you.
You won’t be able to heal yourself until you remove yourself from that toxic environment or people, says Hafeez.
Write a list of your accomplishments
Seeing it in black and white can help you recognise how much you’ve really done and help you learn to feel a sense of pride in happiness in your accomplishments.
If you’re having a hard time writing the list, ask a trusted friend or mentor to help you, says Hafeez.
Stop comparing yourself to others
People with this syndrome often fall into the trap of comparing their weaknesses with other people’s strengths, which can make their thoughts about being a fraud even more intense, says Marsden.
“Comparisons are counterproductive,” she says. “Instead of focusing on others, take responsibility for your success and recognise that you didn’t get there by accident.”
Keep a “positivity journal”
Get a lovely compliment from a friend? Win an award at work? Receive an accolade from a colleague? Grab a journal and write down every single positive comment, no matter how small.
“Whenever you start to feel like a fraud, break out the positivity journal and remind yourself of your achievements,” says Marsden.
Practise accepting praise
If accepting praise or awards makes you feel intensely uncomfortable, embarrassed, or even angry, try role-playing some scenarios with a friend. This allows you to practise graciously saying thank you and avoid self-deprecating or angry responses, says Dr Adams.
Pretend that you are an outsider looking at your life. What would you think of yourself in that situation? Or, try imagining a friend accomplishing what you have and then ask what you would say to them. Trying to see yourself and your accomplishments from an outside perspective can help you see things more objectively and kindly, says Dr Adams.
Get treatment for mental illness
Imposter syndrome can contribute to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. And those illnesses, in turn, can make imposter syndrome feel worse.
Sometimes it takes professional help, like therapy and/or medication, to break the cycle. Treating these underlying conditions first can be an essential first step, says Dr Adams.
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