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The Illusion of Imposter Syndrome; Who's perfect anyway?

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

So... how long have you been living with your trickster? You know, that annoying voice inside your head that throws the dark veil of self-doubt over your achievements without a second thought? The same inner critic that makes you think that your accomplishments in life were in fact only down to pure luck and that you don't really deserve what you have worked so hard for? I'm guessing that the little niggling voice has lived so long, chattering away in your mind that you don't even know it's there anymore? So who's voice are you really listening to when self doubt creeps in: your own...or the trickster's? Why is it even there in the first place?

It is estimated that at least 70% of people will experience Imposter syndrome at least once in their lives (Gravois, 2007, as cited in Sakulku and Alexander, p. 75-76 ). Now that's a lot of self doubt going on! So what actually is Imposter Syndrome?

The term "Imposter Syndrome" was first introduced in 1978 by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes in an article they had written about high-achieving women. They found that despite the consistent evidence of external validation, these women lacked the internal acknowledgement of their accomplishments. In other words, they felt like they were intellectual frauds non-deserving of their own achievements. Dr Abraham Low, neuropsychiatrist in the 1930's and 40's explained that those with imposter syndrome had high levels of inner perfectionism expectations and often felt lesser than average to those around them. He explained that it makes people live with a deep fear of making any kind of mistake in life and any threat to their unnaturally high expectation of self will uncover them to be a lesser than average human being. In essence, they fear they will be found out to be a fraud and incompetent of their achievements in life. When in reality, most people are "average" and not "perfect" all, or at indeed the majority of the time. But this thought of not deserving where you are in life, or the partner you have, the job, family life, car, holiday, happiness (you get what I'm saying- the list is endless!) can really have a detrimental effect on our mental health.

How can Imposter Syndrome effect our lives?

It can have many effects on our psychological well-being. We can find ourselves avoiding new challenges or having new experiences. It can stop us going for promotions that would help us in financial growth and confidence and it can waste our precious time with constant never ending cycles of stress and worry. The endless chatter of self-sabotage can lock us into procrastination all because we have told ourselves that we are not good enough to move forward. Feeling safe within our comfort zones we have created halts us from getting out there, just because we feel we may be found out that we are not that perfect person we have portrayed ourselves to be in the first place. Result: true potential is not achieved.

teddy in bed
Are you stuck in your comfort zone?

There are two parts of imposter syndrome. The first is more of an internal process where by we feel we don't actually deserve the success of an accomplishment even if there is adequate evidence of it. The second, which is more externally driven, makes us feel that others are more worthy and competent than ourselves and that we will be found out to be a fraud within their company if we do not measure up to expectations or make a mistake. Both parts are laced with self-doubt and fear. But where does this come from?

Why do I feel like this?

You may feel that you have always felt this way or even that it is a relatively new feeling that has started to overtake your life in more recent days. Maybe a new environment such as a change in job role, house move or relationship circle has triggered these feelings.

There is evidence to show that messages we internalise as children and as adults could be behind the underlying feeling of imposter syndrome. One could be that we feel our caregivers or authoriity figures in our lives (parents, grandparents, teachers, employers etc.) or even our siblings and surrounding family members give us very little acknowledgement of our achievements and we have learnt to work harder to try to gain this external validation. We may have internalised things like "I'm not good enough..." or "I am not as good as ___, else I would have the same praise as they are getting". This need for such external validation also comes from social media more and more so in recent years and also peers, colleagues, friends and family. If you really step back and look at the reality of it, we are surrounded by pressures to be "good enough".

There is also a flip side to this perspective where by as children (or now even as adults) we are held in such high regards as being "smart" or "clever" that our performance standards are set for us. The messages we internalise as a blueprint for success, of always having to be an over-achiever, puts heavy pressure on those to consistently meet those standards (even for things that you may not even enjoy doing anymore!). So what is the resulting feeling if we don't achieve those standards time and time again? We feel like a failure, a fraud and not as clever as we've been told by ourselves or others and back into the cycle of self-sabotage we go. Now is there any surprise that we avoid facing these feelings to move forward if we feel so crappy way to begin with? I'm guessing I'm hearing a big fat "no" right now!

How can we ditch the imposter if its not paying the rent?

Make sure you surround yourself with honest and non-judgemental people. People that will allow you to be who you are and not put conditions on your relationship (be it friends or family). Be able to talk about your feelings so that you are open about how you feel. This can help take pressure off yourself and for others to understand what their expectations are doing to you and your performance. If you are unable to talk about your feelings for any reason, because it's a work situation and where a level of performance expectation is required, then give yourself space to really separate the facts from feelings. By this I mean, really look at what is real and what is not. Your achievements are real because you worked hard for them (unless you cheated of course!). Your feelings, although valid, can sometimes be triggered by past and out-dated experiences such as those mentioned before from childhood and or peer pressure. By knowing and understanding where these feelings originate from, you can be more aware of what situations trigger you and consequently learn what to do to if and when these arise in the future. This would allow you to dissipate the fear and try new things to get you out of your comfort zone. This is so important because action kills fear. Procrastination and stuckness allows fear to fester and inaction to keep you in your comfort zone where nothing fresh can grow.

Become more self aware and stop comparing yourself to others. They are doing their own thing, in their own lives, in their own way and outcomes will (mostly) always be different. You get out of life what you put in so the more you focus on your own life in a healthy and more positive way, the more you will get out of it. Set your own goals, reward yourself more and dont wait for others to validate you. Be proud of yourself!

Last but not least, if you are still struggling to understand why your imposter voice keeps breaking into your mind without permission and you want to evict them with a bit of help, reach out to a therapist to get an objective and non-judgmental opinion. This can help you work through your internal and external expectations laid on you (by yourself or others) in order to move forward and out of the comfort zone around that is now holding you back. A therapist will help you be more aware of any fixed mind set and help you with tools to move into a more fluid 'growth' mind set. This can help you start to begin to tackle your fears of putting yourself out there. Because after all, none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes. But asking yourself "what can I learn from this?" instead of "I'm not going to even bother", opens up whole new and exciting possibilities that you deserve to experience.

Go for it!

About the Author: Kat Quinn ~ BSc. (Hons.), Fd. Couns. MNCS is a qualified and experienced Person Centred counsellor and is an accredited member of The National Counselling Society with her private practice based at Tardebigge Court, Redditch, Worcestershire, England. Please visit her website for more information and to contact her to arrange counselling sessions.


The Impostor Phenomenon

Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander International Journal of Behavioral Science 2011, Vol. 6, No.1, 75-97 Gravois, 2007

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