Imposter Syndrome: It Isn't Just You
Fears Vs. Reality
This may be an unpopular post. There are some uncomfortable opinions to follow. Ones like:
It is not the “unintelligent or ignorant” people who worry about how they are perceived - it is the competent, brilliant and smart people who fear they will be seen as something different, or "less than" those aforementioned traits.
Imposter syndrome may never go away. You may be able to lessen the severity and the frequency with which you feel it.
There is nothing with which you can be 100% certain.
No one else knows what they are doing either. (You’d think we’d feel consolation in the idea that we aren’t alone, but sadly our thoughts lie to us, and we convince ourselves we are, in fact, alone in this.)
Oftentimes with imposter syndrome there are a couple of things that happen. One, we either explain away our success - so good things are not a direct result of us and merely happened because of luck. And two, we fear what others will think or say about us. This is where the fraudulent feeling comes into play. We think that someone will “find out” that we don’t know what we are talking about, that we aren’t that smart or successful, or that we did something wrong. That we were just "lucky". We fear mistakes, perceived failure and incompetence.
Imposter syndrome is one of the more difficult irrational thoughts to justify because it feels so damn accurate. There are many reasons why you may feel like an imposter, and they can be, “you were raised by humans with their expectations and messages, you are a student, you work in a culture that feeds self-doubt, or work alone, or are in the creative field, you feel isolated from peers, you rep your entire social group.” It is not just you. It is also your role and exposure to the uncertainty.
We also know that women in particular are at risk of feeling like imposters, because like above - you may represent an entire social group. Studies have shown that women literally have to work 2.5 times harder than men to receive the same recognition (Wenneras & Wold, 1997). We are literally being held to higher - and different - standards than our male counterparts.
Demonstrating emotion? “Emotional”.
Being decisive? “Impulsive”.
You get the drift.
The hard part is that it is a perpetual cycle of reinforcement. We push the envelope, feel challenged and then feel like imposters. We have since figured out beautiful protective measures or coping skills, to combat these feelings of perceived imposterness (this is now a word). According to Susan Young (2011), they are:
Over prepare and work hard: Also known as perfectionism. If you obsess and ruminate about every small detail, when you do well, it will be because of the extreme effort and hard work you put into it aka being a workaholic. You need to work harder, stronger, longer to achieve the same effects of others - but the feelings of inadequacy never alleviate.
Holding back/low effort syndrome: It would be better if people thought I didn’t care, as opposed to that I was stupid. So I will be “chill”, so that if I fail, I can play it off. Demonstrating care and effort makes me vulnerable. What if I do put energy into it, and others know about it, and it (GASP) fails?! You may also talk down about yourself to avoid spotlight, promotions, challenges or anything that can tickle the vulnerable underbelly.
Stay under the radar: You may spend time in a field where you may be anonymous in your work or where you keep switching jobs, fields, specialties. Trying to be a moving target so that no one else can figure out what a fraud you are.
Use charm or perceptiveness to win approval: This is the equivalent to “you have to say that, because you’re my mom”. You may recognize some awesomeness about you, feel good about it, but then when someone who knows you acknowledges it - you brush it off with a “but you know me, so you have to say that”. You invalidate the external reinforcement because you don’t believe the person saying it. Furthermore, you want a stranger to say it. BUT, when they do, you then use your humour to deflect it and likely engage in self-deprecating humour. “What? This old thing?”
Procrastination: If I don’t do it, I won’t fail. If I put minimal effort into it, it will be okay to be sucky (see number 2). It is a built-in excuse. Have you ever said “I work well under pressure?” Maybe you do, because you’ve got perfectionism on one shoulder and imposter syndrome on the other. Also, procrastination and perfectionism go hand in hand; if I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it.
Just (don’t) do it: Just not finishing is also an option. “I am writing a book.” So, if it is in the process, but I never finish it, no one will ever be able to read it and tell me how bad it is. You protect yourself from criticism by just not doing it.
Self-sabotage: You undermine your own success because the anxiety is too overwhelming.
Keep in mind - I said these were “protective factors” - and they are - they protect you from perceived harm, anxiety and stress. But sadly, they do not make those things go away. They also "protect" you from success.
Only leaning into it, will reduce your imposter syndrome. Gasp.
I have a love-hate relationship with the idea that no one else has any clue what they are doing either. I mean, doctors, lawyers, scientists. They are smart, right? They obviously know exactly what they are doing, talking about, and planning. Nope.
The joy of our work is that we get the honour to work with people, all kinds of humans and know FOR A FACT that those professions, and all professionals, still struggle with imposter syndrome.
Because nothing is certain. Because we all have our own fears. Because we all intrinsically think feeling good about ourselves means being liked and successful. We tend to inherently think that we need the approval of others to feel good and be successful, but you’d be amazed at how liberating it is to actually not need it.
It comes down to being scared and doing the thing anyways. Confidence comes at the end. Success comes at the end. We will not feel confident until we realize that we can do the thing and still be okay. Failure is feedback. Elon Musk literally launched a rocket he knew WOULD FAIL just to see how badly and why it would fail. Why can’t we channel a little of this? Where does this idea of perfection and not failing come from? If we could preface every little scary thing we do or say with “this could fail, and I'm going to do it anyway”, would it lessen the hurt a little bit more? Yes. Yes, it would. (That was supposed to be rhetorical, but I realized we aren’t there yet).
I am going to hop on this soapbox, beat this dead horse, and you can insert any other overused analogy; the way to reduce imposter syndrome is to be authentically you. We put on a facade, an idea of us, who we think others think we should be or even are, and then get stuck in needing to perpetuate that. If we are true to ourselves and our thoughts - expressed them as they are - others would realize we are HUMAN. We are fallible and it is okay.
One thing I never understood about imposter syndrome (which really indicates how messed up it is), is how simultaneously we can feel solely responsible for the shittiness - yet not responsible for the goodness. We believe that if things go bad, or “fail”, it is because we are at fault. However, if things go well, or successfully, it is because of someone else, or luck, or fate. Clearly, we invest in a false or subjective reality.
Claim your success, your accomplishments, your you-ness. YOU are the reason you are so amazing.
So, now that we’ve discussed what it is and how it feels - like we all don’t already know - what do we do with this?
Change our thoughts on “failure”. Remember, failure is feedback. No one actually cares because they are all too busy keeping their eyes on their own lane. Or should be anyways! Failure is not the opposite of success. It is on the road to success. You cannot have success without failure. And, success is relative! I may want to work only enough to pay my bills so I can spend the rest of the time with my family. I feel successful. Whereas another person may want to work a hundred hours a week because financial success is important to them.
Create a Hype file or list. I have both. I have a hard copy paper file; literally labelled “Hype File” with all the warm fuzzy feel good shit in it. Things like emails people have sent me thanking me, cards, well written papers, guest blogs, thank-you cards for presentations and guest speaking, school grades, past performance appraisals, anything I have done well, or that someone has told me I’ve done well, or thanked me for doing well. The Hype List - is more subjective. It is a list on my phone, it used to be handwritten, that praises me for all of the things I am proud of, or consider as my accomplishments. These are things that may seem silly or innocuous to others (and that’s totally okay) but are significant to me. Things like, taking guitar lessons, having my motorcycle license, owning a cottage. They really are just things that I am happy and proud of and make me feel good. They are all of my achievements, large and small. I now keep them on my phone so that I can refer to them when I feel the need to be hyped up - and so I can update them in live time.
Reduce your need or dependency on Perfectionism. My clients will be familiar with this phrase - Live your best “B” life. Don’t strive for A grades - strive for Bs (I even try Cs, but it depends on how uncomfortable that feels for people). Good enough is NOT the enemy. We do NOT need to be giving 100% all the time. We need to reduce and reframe our all-or-nothing thinking. Not getting an A, is not a failure - but some would see it that way. If I don’t have an immaculately clean home, happy children, exercise all the time, increase my mental capacity - all while being a RAY OF SUNSHINE - I suck at this life thing. Nope. You are human and fallible. The house doesn’t have to be clean, it can be half-assed clean. In fact, our version of “complacency” or “laziness” or “messy” is likely not even close in objective reality . Our version of things can be skewed because we are the hardest on ourselves. You know, when someone invites you over and then says “sorry for the mess”? And there is nothing to be found? Like that, but we do it in all areas of our lives. Reframe your okayness. Reframe what you are content with. Check your priorities. Live life, from a good enough, or “B” perspective.
Make mistakes. Screw up. “Give up”. Choose to stop (or quit). Ask questions, or acknowledge you don’t know things. Do this social experiment where you decide to straight up - make an error or mistake. AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS. Does the world fall apart? Crumble? Implode? You get fired? Your partner leaves you? Sometimes those things might happen, but likely not. The experiment will instead assure you that you can feel uncomfortable, and it will be okay.
Ultimately, we can’t make imposter syndrome go away. We can try to rationalize it, use logic and examples, but sometimes it will still get us. And that is okay, it means we are trying new things, experiencing life. Seth Godin talks about imposter syndrome like this: “You can’t get rid of imposter syndrome because you are an imposter - because you can’t be sure. You can’t be certain. You are talking about something, you can’t be sure it will work or guarantee that it’s going to work. You’re acting as if.” I wonder if we all grasped that idea and IT became our new truth, if these uncomfortable feelings would even exist. If we embraced our authentic humanness - and expected others to do the same.
Amanda Hammond, an experienced communicator, psychotherapist, and mother, specializes in individual and couples counselling. As a female entrepreneur, she is passionate about supporting women and women in business. Empowered women empower women. As a psychotherapist, Amanda will help guide you in a practical, nonjudgmental real-life help kinda way. In short, she will help you figure your shit out. As a recovering perfectionist and people-pleaser Amanda can relate to the knot-in-the-stomach feeling you may experience. She is a badass business owner of Hammond Psychotherapy with Darrell Hammond.