The Impostor Syndrome – what is it and what can be done?

The Impostor Syndrome refers to the fact that some people, especially those who are really good at what they do, believe about themselves that they are incompetent, that they don’t deserve the success they have achieved, despite the evidence and achievements they have. They perceive themselves as a fraud and a phony, as though they had tricked others to consider them intelligent, capable or worthy of admiration, waiting to be "revealed" as soon as possible, fact that causes them a lot of stress, anxiety and self-doubt.

This syndrome was first described by Dr. Pauline Clance, from her clinical observations. As characteristics of the Impostor Syndrome, Dr. Clance speaks about six of these:

The Impostor Cycle - refers to the "impostor’s" vicious circle from which they have the feeling that they can’t escape and which reinforces their conviction that their successes are not due to their own qualities. This cycle begins when the person has a task to accomplish. Because of his anxiety and fear of failure, the person either immediately begins to work and puts out more effort than necessary, or postpones its realization and then he works very hard to complete it. After task completion, there is a feeling of joy and release, but it will not last long. Despite the praise received, the impostor doesn’t believe that his success is related to his abilities, but is due to excessive work, like in the first situation or luck, as in the second situation. Doubt and anxiety arise again, amplifying themselves with the approach of a new task because the impostor doesn’t trust that he can get that success again, given that in his perception success is not due to him personally. Thus, the cycle repeats itself.

The need to be special, to be the best - impostors secretly want to be the best compared to others. They have often been in the top, the best in what they do.. But when others have better results than their own, they conclude that they are actually stupid and that they aren’t so talented just because they weren’t the very best.

Superwoman/Superman aspects - impostors expect to do everything perfect in every aspect of their life. Exactly because they don’t think they deserve their successes, they feel the need to compensate for these inner "shortfalls" working way too much. They set almost impossible standards and goals and they feel overwhelmed, defeated and disappointed when they fail to reach them, confirming their negative beliefs about themselves.

Fear of failure - when exposed to an achievement-related task, impostors begin to feel more and more anxious because they fear possible failure, and when they make mistakes or don’t perform at the highest standard, they feel ashamed and humiliated. Therefore, to avoid a possible failure, they overwork. This thing can become a problem when the amount of effort and energy invested in a task exceeds the necessary amount to accomplish that task, leading to unnecessary waste of resources and ignoring their priorities.

Denial of their own competence and ignoring praise - impostors attribute their success to external factors to a greater degree than others. They don’t take into account positive feedback or evidence of their success but, on the contrary, they focus on those aspects and seek for arguments to prove that they don’t deserve praise or credit for their achievements.

Fear and guilt about success - these emotions are related to the negative consequences of their success. If they have certain achievements that seem unusual for the closed ones, impostors feel less connected and more distant.  They fear rejection, feeling guilty they are different.  They are also frightened that their success may lead to higher demands and greater expectations from people around them. Because they feel uncertain about their ability to maintain their current level of performance, they hesitate to assume new responsibilities.

What are the factors contributing to the development of this psychological phenomenon?

The environment and family relationships, the way we were raised - lack of support and communication, excessive control, over protection, anger and conflicts, lack of achievement validation, lack of encouragement, family values such as obtaining success by competing, the way we were taught to relate to success and failure, personality traits such as perfectionism - all of these factors contribute to the development of the impostor's syndrome.

What can be done?

People with this syndrome have automatic thoughts such as "I don’t value anything and people will figure it out", "I'm a phony, how have they not yet realized?" What you should keep in mind  is that these thoughts don’t express reality, but only your subjective perception that can be changed. Once you realize this, you take control over your thoughts and you realize that there is a possibility you might have been wrong about yourself. That you can change those distorted thoughts and relate differently to you.

After all, if you allow yourself to accept it, you realize that you had an important contribution to your achievements. Sure, you can say, "I was lucky," or "there were some opportunities that others didn’t have," but what’s important is what you do with the opportunities that were given to you. How hard you work, how persevering you are, how capable you are to accomplish your goals and tasks. In addition, there are people who can be born with a lot of advantages and chances, but they do nothing to benefit from them.

There is a tendency to compare yourself with others, whom you see to be better than you, so that you can start to put yourself down again. But you are not here to live others’ life, but to live your own life. Respect this and respect yourself! Every person has his own way, his own lessons to learn and the important thing is to do those things that help you grow, to choose those experiences that resonate with your inner voice. You are not a worthless person because you aren’t like X or Y, or you don’t have what X or Y have. You are valuable simply by what you are and by what you do with your life.

Set realistic standards - a way of self-sabotage is when we set standards too high precisely in order not to be able to reach them, in order to confirm the negative beliefs that we have about ourselves: "I am not good enough" , "I'm a failure," "I knew I wouldn’t succeed because I am not capable" and so on.

Allow yourself to make mistakes - nobody is perfect, and the mistakes we make are opportunities to grow and evolve. What’s the point of blaming yourself, of putting yourself down or becoming an avoider? What’s the point of quitting just because you are afraid of failing? If your best friend made a mistake, would you criticize him as harsh as you criticize yourself?

Identify and accept your values and qualities - when you know what is important to you, what you have to offer, when you know the value that you have to give to people, you will no longer claim to be someone else than you are. You will not step aside because you know that you have something to give and to leave behind you. You will accept yourself and you will do everything possible to continue your "mission."

And, last but not least, you can start a journal where you can write your achievements, appreciations, and the positive feedback you receive from others, and when you start thinking again that you are not valuable, that you are a fraud who deceives others, read that journal, and remember that all these thoughts are false, they are cognitive distortions.

Dr. Ursula Sandner








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