Do you feel like a fraud, phony or impostor in your own life?
This is not as unusual as you may think. Have you ever heard of the Impostor Syndrome?
Dr. Valerie Young's specialty is working with people who have Impostor Syndrome. She says it can affect anyone: police, priests, doctors, nurses, lawyers, artists, engineers, teachers, students, therapists, and actors to name a few.
Early studies by Dr. Gail Matthews suggest that up to 70% of all people have experienced these feelings at one time or another, especially when starting a new job or pioneering in a field.
So if you feel like this - you are not alone. You are part of a big club.
I see it arise most often in women - smart and accomplished women. This is someone you would least expect to feel like a phony or fraud.
Why would an accomplished woman feel like a fraud?
It can come from early messages you receive in childhood or at school. Or from the media who imply that you must be a certain way.
Dr. Young found that people most at risk tend to fall into one or more of these groups:
Success came quickly. You believe: I don’t know how I did it the first time. How could I possibly repeat that success?
They have high-achieving parents. You wonder: Did I succeed because of my ability or because my family is so well known?
They are the first or in a minority in their field or workplace – there is more pressure to perform because you feel like a representative of your entire group. You believe: Average is not good enough.
You work alone – there are no performance reviews or documented standards. The measurements of competence are internally driven. You tend to set unrealistically high expectations for yourself.
You’re a student – you’re under constant evaluation and this increases anxiety. You ask: Am I good enough...will I make it?
You work in a job considered atypical for your sex (thankfully this is becoming less and less of an issue).
You work in a creative field – in this field of work (artist, actor, writer) each new endeavor calls for a new and different performance. You wonder: Maybe that was a lucky break.
Actor Mike Meyers shared: “I still believe that any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me.”
When you feel like a phony, it feels like you’re fooling people. You got away with something and this will be discovered eventually. Positive feelings about yourself are likely short-lived. Doubtful and negative feelings quickly take over – this is the default way of thinking. It’s automatic and comes with little effort.
The fear of being exposed as a fraud causes a lot of tension and anxiety.
"People who feel like Impostors aren’t Impostors at all – they just THINK they are. Without exception…they really are intelligent, thoughtful, and capable. They just don’t believe it…yet!” - Dr. Valerie Young
So the first step is to increase awareness of the negative thinking that leads to feeling like an Impostor. Basically, you need to expose the lies you’ve been telling yourself! You've been far too hard on yourself.
Let’s look at common types of negative self-talk that make you feel like an Impostor:
Overgeneralizations - You see things as a never-ending pattern of defeat. You’ll hear the words always or never:
Always – Others are always smarter than me. I always mess things up.
Never - It's never okay to make a mistake. I'll never feel confident.
All-or-nothing thinking – If my performance is short of perfect, it’s not good enough. I'm not good enough.
Disqualifying the positive – Sure there’s evidence that I’m intelligent, but maybe I just got lucky. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time. If I can do it, anyone can. If they let me in, they must have low standards.
Jumping to conclusions – They’ll find out I’m a fake. Good things won’t last. My success was a fluke and I won’t be able to repeat it again.
Shoulds – I should not make mistakes. I should do it perfectly. Or should not – I should do it all on my own. It’s not okay to ask for help.
Catastrophizing – I made a mistake. I’ll be discovered as a fraud and my career will be over.
Minimization – You inappropriately shrink your strengths, accomplishments and achievements until they appear tiny. You think: That isn’t really anything at all. Anyone could do that.
Emotional reasoning – You feel like you don’t know what you’re doing so that must mean you don’t measure up and that makes you a fraud.
The key to moving away from these negative feelings is to identify the negative thoughts (the lies) and reframe to a more realistic or compassionate thought.
You begin to question your automatic thoughts rather than accept them at face value. This may sound like:
Are there some times when I don’t mess things up?
Do I know someone who made a mistake and it was okay?
What is perfect anyway? Do I know anyone who is perfect? Is that expectation even realistic?
Am I looking at the whole picture - the positives, my strengths, my abilities?
Would I say what I say to myself to someone else who was in my situation?
Would I speak more realistically or compassionately to them if they did what I did?
What is the evidence that my thought is true?
Are there other ways of looking at myself or my situation?
When reframing your thoughts becomes a habit, you will see yourself the way others see you.
When you can see yourself as competent and capable, you will no longer be held hostage by the Impostor Syndrome.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Can you relate to this? Please share your comments below and I will reply to all comments.
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Note: I have officially relocated my private practice to Stony Plain, Alberta. It was a stressful few months, but I am now settling in. The change has been well worth it and I'm looking forward to accepting new clients and working in this community.
Hi! I'm Beth Matthews. I'm a Registered Psychologist who is driven to helping people feel better about themselves. I help people who are struggling in their lives gain awareness of how they can cope with anything that comes their way. With my easy-to-use strategies, you can feel better and be your best you!