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Writing for Psychology Today, Carlin Flora says that everyone suffers from what’s commonly known as Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives. First, though, she corrects the popular notion that it’s actually a psychological problem. “There’s no disorder, no diagnosis, no cure,” she writes. “Impostor phenomenon, or IP, [is]a term coined in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. In a study of 150 highly-accomplished women, they noticed that the women frequently confessed to feeling unintelligent and unworthy of their success, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Researchers Clance and Imes estimated that about 70 percent of people feel like imposters at some point in their lives. The feeling may come and go during different phases of your life. You may feel like an imposter when you take on a new, challenging role in your career, for example, then grow out of it as you become more confident that you know what you’re doing.
When you feel like an imposter, Flora writes, “compliments have a short half-life and achievements feel unearned, criticism cuts deeply and failures linger.” Many of us can identify with this. It’s much easier to believe criticism than compliments; the critique feels more real, more objective, than any praise could. Perhaps it’s a self-defense mechanism; we worry about becoming narcissistic or appearing to be boastful, so we absorb criticism as a means of keeping ourselves humble.
When you feel like an impostor, you adopt behaviors that eventually reinforce your feelings. Frederik Anseel, a professor of organizational behavior at Ghent University in Belgium, calls this the “impostor cycle.” When taking on a challenging task, you either invest an enormous amount of effort (probably more than was necessary) or procrastinate.
When you succeed, you can then credit the unsustainable, enormous effort for the victory. If you procrastinated, you can attribute the win to luck or circumstances, playing down your talent. Either way, you find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. You don’t learn from experience that you are competent and deserving of success and praise. So your Impostor Phenomenon becomes delusional, and like other delusional beliefs, it is counterproductive at best and truly damaging at its worst.
“The persistent fear and self-doubt it engenders, as well as the inability to savor achievements, can result in “a persistent state of physical and emotional depletion,” Anseel says, which can lead to full-fledged depression.” Flora writes, “And the negative effects aren’t necessarily experienced by the sufferer alone. Supporting a loved one who’s convinced of his or her own charlatanism can be draining on partners, children, and friends.”
You’re more prone to Impostor Phenomenon, experts say, if you have a tendency toward neuroticism or perfectionism. You may be setting almost impossibly high standards for yourself, which is a losing game. If you meet your standards, you’re squeaking by with what you consider to be “adequate” performance; if you fail to meet your standards, you confirm your feelings of not deserving praise or credit.
Your background, ethnicity and gender can all play a role in whether you feel like an impostor (men tend to be better at suppressing the feeling and more comfortable with “faking it until they make it.”) Tiffany McClain is a therapist in San Francisco who has treated many people struggling with Impostor Phenomenon. “It’s important to acknowledge that impostorism is associated with a sense of shame,” McLain says. “Shame leads you to pull out, put your head down, and avoid others.”
Is there help for self-described imposters? Therapists say that company and personal support systems can play a big role in tamping down the feelings of inadequacy. A trusted manager, associate, or friend needs to sit down with you, look you in the eye, and provide objective feedback on how others see you. And you have to be willing to let go of behavior and beliefs that are simply no longer useful, even if they were at another point in your life.
I know what I’m talking about. Deciding to write a blog offering expert advice is in equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. After all, who am I to tell you what to do? Every week, I muster up my courage to hit the “publish” button. Your being here to read these words is an act of generosity that helps me keep going. Lifesaving therapy, in fact. And I thank you for it.