Imposter Syndrome manifests as an inability to own and enjoy our success and achievements. But there are ways to save yourself from this phantom fear.
American Comedian Groucho Marx was probably describing Imposter Syndrome when he said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
One of my patients confided in me about how she had experienced feeling like an imposter in her corporate job. She used to berate herself often as she felt undeserving of her place in the organization. She felt she was cheating the company by taking home the salary but not putting in enough effort for the same. This led her to question her past academic laurels as well. Though she was a rank-holder among millions of students in examinations at the national level, she still thought all her academic achievements were just a stroke of good luck.
People suffering from Imposter Syndrome experience an inability to own and enjoy their success and their achievements. Their feelings of incompetence occur despite external evidence to the contrary. They feel inadequate though a credible degree adorns their walls and salary hikes are remitted to their bank account. They themselves take the wind out of their sails and become their own worst enemy.
They just suffer in silence and don’t share these thoughts with anyone for fear of giving fodder to their bosses that they really are imposters. Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou describes the feeling aptly, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out’.” No profession is immune from this malaise including actors, playwrights, doctors, lawyers, scientists and other such high achievers.
A fellow professional went into denial about all her spiritual learnings. Her feeling of being a fraud emerged under unfortunate circumstances when her spiritual teacher was found to be a questionable character. This triggered the imposter feelings in her. She started poking fun every time her clients or peers tried to broach the topic of spirituality to glean from her insights.
Parents might feel they are totally inept to handle the responsibility of their children. The fear of messing up their children’s lives paralyzes them while deciding for their ward’s future. Ekta Sheth-Balyan, a Mental Health Counselor and Creative Arts Therapist, talks about a mother of an adopted child. This lady had faced enormous rejection by her family when she failed to conceive. Hence, she always felt incapable and constantly reached out to other biological mothers for advice in her new-found motherhood.
Some people sabotage their relationships because they feel unworthy of affection. They fear that their partner will discover that they are not good enough. In a story called ‘Reluctant Lover’ by the celebrated journalist Mark Tully, the protagonist ends up letting go of a very dynamic girl who loves him wholeheartedly. He just cannot believe that she can love someone as average as him. He has discounted that he makes for great company and is very intelligent and talented. This is a classic example of Imposter Syndrome.
Make a ‘reverse bucket list’- List all the things you have achieved which are noteworthy. When we separate facts from feelings, this helps us to anchor ourselves in the true merit of our worth and capabilities.
Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome
- Each time they get commended for their achievements, they respond with, “Oh it’s nothing” or “I just got lucky” or “It was not me but rather a team effort”.
- Fear of being seen as a failure – Students avoid participating in class for fear that they might come across as stupid or clueless.
- They feel compelled to overwork to fulfill expectations.
- They short-change themselves of their own success by refraining from attempting even goals which are well within their reach.
Causes of Imposter syndrome
Often the roots of Imposter Syndrome lie in one’s childhood.
- Some parents believe in keeping children grounded. Thus, children are encouraged to diminish the value of all praise and compliments that they receive.
- Another set of parents might insist on straight ‘As’ in academics or standing first year on year. This fosters unrealistic expectations of perfection in children. As adults, this can often result in burn-out. Such people aim to know everything under the sun in their chosen field. They forget that even experts need to keep in touch with new updates from time to time.
How to overcome Imposter Syndrome
- Sharing thoughts of inadequacy with colleagues or professionals can start the process of healing. Just knowing that we are not alone in our suffering helps.
- Valerie Young, co-founder of Imposter Syndrome Institute, says, “Do you want to stop feeling like an imposter? Then you have to stop thinking like an imposter. People who don’t feel like imposters are not more capable or efficient than we are, but rather think differently than we do.”
She advises her clients to just reframe their self-talk. That way instead of ending up with an imposter life, we can limit it to just an
imposter moment. Charles Bukowski, American poet and novelist, says it best, “If you have the ability to love, love yourself first.”
- Avoid comparisons with colleagues or peers. Remember success is being better today than what you were yesterday.
- Professionals need to rein in unrealistic expectations about their career growth. One must remember that success cannot be a continuous upward graph. Continued growth indicates cancer which is unhealthy. In the normal course, life is always made up of ebbs and flows.
- Make a ‘reverse bucket list’- List all the things you have achieved which are noteworthy. When we separate facts from feelings, this helps us to anchor ourselves in the true merit of our worth and capabilities.
American Motivational Speaker, Denis Waitley sums it up the best, “It is not what you are that holds you back, it’s what you think you are not.”
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