Do you often have the feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing despite having done it before?
Do you think it’s just a matter of time before someone will realize you aren’t who they think you are and expose you as a fraud?
Do you feel anxious when you start a new project or learn something new, thinking that you should know things faster or easier than you do?
This feeling is known as the “Impostor Syndrome.” It refers to when we live from our survival self rather than our authentic self. Since first identified in the late 1970s by researchers at the Georgia State University, it is estimated that over 70 percent of the population experiences these and other symptoms of the Syndrome.
If you suffer from Imposter Syndrome, you tend to believe that you and what you achieve are never good enough. You also think that you aren’t as qualified, as smart, or as talented as others believe, and that you’re effectively an “imposter” or a “fake” who hasn’t yet been discovered. You don’t share your authentic self with others for fear that you will be rejected or devalued in some way. Your energy goes into trying to be perfect lest anyone discover your vulnerabilities or the emotions you perceive as weaknesses.
While it is not officially a recognized psychological disorder, the Imposter Syndrome is at the root of other disorders – i.e. anxiety, eating, dissociative disorders, to name a few. Interestingly, the Impostor Syndrome is most common among high performers. To others, it comes as a surprise when they find out that someone they have known for years has suffered in painful silence.
The Imposter Syndrome is a collection of behaviors and negative feelings formed around a pervasive idea and fear that you are not as good as other people think you are. No matter how much praise you receive or what you achieve, this idea does not change.
Many of my clients come into therapy with this Syndrome interfering with the quality of their lives, their happiness and their ambition. Sensitivity to criticism, stories with themselves as the perpetual victim, a feeling of invisibility, and free floating anxiety are all present in these people. Because of the secret shame felt by people who have this Syndrome, they don’t seek help. Admitting to needing help breaks the barrier of pretense that gets in the way of shifting from this very effective coping strategy that was needed to survive but has outlived its usefulness.
Becoming Whole through Self-Actualization – Our Biological Mandate
As human beings, each of us needs to feel whole; to feel that we are “enough” to stand up to the challenges and adventures of life without feeling frightened and overwhelmed. Having the confidence to do this comes from a secure attachment to our caregivers during childhood which allowed us to develop a healthy sense of self. This secure base allows us to be aware of who we are, our strengths, weaknesses, desires and needs and to feel entitled to have them, without apology. This self, our authentic self, is constant, enduring and unaffected by setbacks, disappointments, the behavior of others, or challenging situations we are in. It does not change because of the way we feel or are treated.
When we don’t live from our authentic self because of failures of attachment in childhood, we have a more fragile sense of self and a pervasive, underlying sense of anxiety. We fear others will discover our vulnerabilities or weaknesses and reject us for having them. We judge and compare ourselves to others or what we think others expect of us. With a heightened sensitivity to criticism, we are constantly on the alert to make sure that we are seen as perfect. We adapt to what others want us to be, looking outside of ourselves for validation. Rather than having a self that is secure and constant, our sense of self is regulated by our achievements, how we feel we are being treated by others and our negative self-talk and judgments. This overriding feeling of insecurity which accompanies other self-protective behaviors is called the Imposter Syndrome.
Many with this Syndrome are high achievers, people who have accomplished much in their lives and are considered successful by others. However, because they are perfectionistic and driven, they are unable to rest and enjoy the fruits of their achievements. Whether it is at work or at home, their drive keeps them busy and productive at all times. They have to keep going as they are unable to tolerate how they feel when alone or at rest. They overcompensate in the external world for the feelings of emptiness and inadequacy they feel inside of them.
Developmental Delays Cause the Imposter Syndrome
As human beings, we have a biological mandate to evolve and individuate (become whole). This innate drive to be our authentic self moves us through different stages of emotional\brain development. We go from dependence on our mother (primary caregiver) and other adults through the normal stages of separation through childhood and adolescence, arriving at adulthood where the strengthening of our authentic, independent self is ongoing. Feeling whole or complete within ourselves gives us the confidence to go out into the world and have experiences that allow us to fulfill our potential. When we are living from our authentic self, we remain open to new experiences; seek relationships that satisfy our needs; delay gratification as we work toward our goals; and recover easily from disappointment, failures and frustrations.
During normal development, our energy goes into strengthening neural pathways in the brain that support our emotional maturation. When children are forced to put their energy into protecting themselves from the distress of suboptimal conditions and relationships, frustrated needs and painful experiences, their energy goes into strengthening their adaptive, survival or false self. This ensures their psychological survival. When they are using the survival self, they disconnect from any feelings of vulnerability, pain and anxiety they would otherwise experience. When they live this way for too long, they begin to lose connection to their authentic self and their needs. This means that a false self-responsible for survival takes on a life of their own, belying the needs and feelings of the fragile authentic self within.
Development in childhood can be derailed for many reasons, many of them unintentional. By the demands of parents and society to adapt or conform excessively; by repetitive, ongoing stressors or trauma during childhood; or by failure to recognize the distinct need of the child. These children reach adulthood in a state of incomplete emotional development, only feeling whole when there is someone else with them meeting their needs or through activities that temporarily make them feel whole. In this state of dependency, they look to their relationships, work and substances to regulate their self-esteem. An overriding sense of fragility, anxiety and insecurity lives within them despite looking and being successful in the outer world.
To some extent, we all cultivate a false self for protection and to get us through difficult situations. Most of us are aware of when we are using it. We know we’re putting on a bit of an act or adapting for the sake of the greater good. But those whose survival self is all that they know are not aware of the self hidden deep in protection below the surface.
Symptoms of the Imposter Syndrome
While there are many ways the survival self manifests in daily life, the following are the main symptoms of the Imposter Syndrome.
Unrealistic Expectations When Trying New Things
People with Imposter Syndrome have unrealistic expectations of how quickly they should learn new things. They have difficulty tolerating the anxiety they feel during the learning process. They feel embarrassed when they make a mistake and over apologize for taking up too much of the instructor’s time. They are more likely to learn on their own and gain mastery without embarrassment. Often they will refuse to develop or try new things.
Even when they are recognized for their achievements, these people are unable to accept or to take in the praise they are given. The way they feel inside takes priority over the reality of the level of success they have reached or the external proof of their competence. As a result, they never build confidence or feel whole.
Unable to Say ‘No”
These people feel compelled to agree to every request, and would rather juggle a million jobs than refuse to help or appear limited in any way. Fear of appearing inadequate causes them to say “yes” and take on more than they are able to complete without cost to themselves. Their fear of rejection, being disliked or criticized and the guilt they feel for not being enough for others undermines their lives. They seem to act as though they have no sense of their own value as a human being or know they are entitled to say no when it costs them too much.
Denying the Self
Anxiety and fear of being exposed stops those with the Imposter Syndrome to go after positions or careers they desire. While they may be fully qualified and capable, feelings of inadequacy or not being good enough get in the way of trying. They convince themselves they don’t really want something or wait for someone else to discover them and validate them. They act as though they don’t need anyone or anything, keeping feelings of anxiety that come when depending on others at bay.
These people interfere with their development by telling themselves that they are not as smart, talented or accomplished as others. They feel that they only achieve through their extraordinary effort and because they work harder and longer than everyone else. They believe if they were really smart, they wouldn’t have to work so hard. Imposters will attribute their career success to luck and anyone could achieve what they have. They devalue their achievements, taking away any opportunity to gain confidence.
Imposter Syndrome people suffer from the idea that what they produce is never good enough. They exceed expectations of others and while everyone else is standing in awe of them, they feel they are lacking and inadequate. They also judge their physical attributes, telling themselves they aren’t attractive or thin enough, spending excessive amounts of time on their appearance. This can lead to eating disorders, obsessive working out or compulsive shopping.
Living a Lie
People with the Imposter Syndrome first create their survival self to ward off pain and anxiety caused by what is going on in their childhood. They learn to deny reality to keep the authentic self safe and hidden. This survival self is constructed to help the child gain acceptance, a sense of their place in the family and even a sense of personal power. They rely on it to survive, however, their authentic self can get lost or forgotten. They can hide it so effectively that they can no longer find it. All they know is that they don’t feel authentic and are anxious and afraid much of the time.
Feeling Whole by Ignoring the Self
The Impostor Syndrome gets people to work harder to make sure they achieve success and are seen as having it together. However, it also stops them from taking big risks, to love and be loved fully; and to not be as bold or as adventurous as they might otherwise be. From an evolutionary perspective, this type of survival behavior might have made sense at some point, but now only serves to get in the way.
Messages and lessons learned as children form neural pathways in the brain that shape the way you think about yourself. If you learned to doubt yourself or were devalued or shamed for just being you, you will have issues with your self-worth. Surviving meant that you adapted to what others expected you to be; kept quiet or to yourself; avoided conflict and felt responsible for the feelings of others. The mistaken beliefs of childhood now run the show and continue to get in the way of feeling the joy that comes from living life authentically and on your own terms.
These people don’t feel whole when they are alone and keep working to achieve or to please others to ward off distressing emotions. They are most likely to be co-dependent in relationships and form addictions to work, substances, food, exercise, etc. It is like living life on a treadmill, knowing you want to stop and rest, but not knowing how to get off. Psychotherapy can help you break free of the compulsions of the survival brain. It helps you to consciously consider and define yourself as objectively as possible and redefine and reject the messages you were given and accepted and the beliefs you formed because of your childhood conditioning and environment.
Learning to Live Authentically
Despite delays to our development during childhood, our brain is able to rewire new patterns of thinking and resume development where it left off at any time. Long-standing adaptive patterns of behavior can be changed and new, productive responses and patterns can be put in their place. We can change the way we feel by changing our beliefs. Self-limiting and anxiety producing thought can be replaced with more accurate and supportive self-talk, reducing the amount of fear and anxiety experienced by people with the Imposter Syndrome.
Rewiring the brain so that the authentic self emerges happens when we learn about and understand our Survival Self. This includes becoming aware of the coping strategies left over from childhood that we are still using. During therapy, clients can go through a period of feeling very vulnerable and emotional because they are removing their coping strategy and exposing the pain underneath it. But over time new emotional habits get created and new ways of healthy coping get practiced and adopted. And this person can become much more comfortable “living in their own skin”.
Changing long standing thinking patterns means cultivating, through the practice of mindfulness, the ability to observe and reflect on dysfunctional thinking patterns. It means catching yourself when you are thinking automatic negative thoughts and to assess the validity of the thoughts. Our brain throws up feelings that have to do with the past and nothing to do with the present. Learning to not pay attention to these thoughts and feelings frees you to live your life fully in the present moment, seeing yourself in a realistic light.
Psychotherapy helps you identify automatic negative thoughts and thinking patterns and helps you cultivate your authentic self. Living life thinking that you are only as good as your next achievement or that you will surely be exposed as the fraud you believe you are is no way to live your life. You can break free of this distressing syndrome and change the way you see and relate to yourself. Getting the help you need is the first step in breaking the taboo of the Imposter Syndrome and living life authentically. It is entirely within your control.
Find out more about how you can overcome your own self-limiting beliefs and habits of mind by purchasing a copy of our book, “Power Past the Imposter Syndrome“, on Amazon.
Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations. They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.
As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.
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