Impostor Syndrome: The Silent Struggle

What is It?

The idea was first researched in 1978 by two psychologists Dr Pauline R Clance and Dr Suzanne A Imes.  Based on their research they found it to be more common in women.  More recent research has found it to be equally spread between the sexes; up to 70% of us will feel it at some time in some situations. 

It’s a feeling that if we’ve achieved something it couldn’t have been that hard and we must have had good luck or help. We tend to discount the hard work we’ve done.  It can wax and wane depending on our life circumstances.

What does it feel like?

Sometimes, when we take on something new, maybe at work. Maybe, our first thought is ‘who me? I can’t do that, what do I know?’ We may feel slightly sick and anxious and have  thoughts like ‘oh no, if I do this everyone will see me as a fraud and think I’m getting above my station.’

How can we recognise it? Are there triggers?

When we start to compare ourselves with others and start to look at taking more qualifications in our chosen field, even though it doesn’t make us better at our jobs. Although this is not always a bad thing we need to ask ourselves why we are doing it? Is it fear of not knowing everything; maybe doubt that the talents and qualifications we already have are not enough? Then we hear the negative inner voice that starts telling us, ‘you don’t deserve this, you don’t belong here, wait until people find out who you really are.’

External Influences, where does it originate?

 In counselling we talk about ‘conditions of worth’ which we all pick up from the day we are born. These ‘conditions of worth’ are things we are told such as, ‘be good, do well at school, make us proud, work hard.’ Our parents might unintentionally compare us to other children who are on a higher reading book or are doing better in their spelling or maths tests. This can lead us to think that we are only worthy if we achieve, and that we are not worthy if we fail, or don’t know everything. We tend to hold success as a value and if we aren’t ‘on top of our game’ imposter syndrome can start to creep in and undermine us.

Social media can also impact us, if we start comparing ourselves to others who are in the same field and feel that they are doing better than us, this can bring about lack of self belief, and confidence.

Might be better to wish them well and remember there is room enough for us all.

Who is more susceptible to Imposter Syndrome

Those of us with perfectionist tendencies seem to be more susceptible because we tend to pressure ourselves to do everything perfectly . Those with IS tend to be very successful, well qualified  and well thought of but often feel that they aren’t as good as others think and that it’s only a matter of time before they are found out, any failure can feel crushing.

How limiting can this be if left unchecked?

This can limit our lives, as we may feel scared to be visible in case we are criticised or that others think we have ideas ‘above our station.’ There is also the fear that if we are successful we won't be able to cope with the extra responsibility, that we may get overwhelmed or that we just aren’t good enough; impostor syndrome might tell you that you have no right to put yourself out there. That you don’t belong in that job, or with that group of people.  All of this can lead to perfectionism and procrastination.

We need to be aware of how the pressure to succeed can affect our physical and mental health. There is a link between imposter syndrome and burnout, as those with imposter syndrome try to do everything perfectly; we book ourselves on more courses, buy more books that we never get the chance to read, in order to be the expert on what we are doing, incase someone asks us something we don’t know and uncovers us as the fraud we ‘know’ we are.

 Personal boundaries are very important, making time for work and your personal life is important so that we don’t burn out. This can mean simple things like not answering work related emails, messages before or after a certain time. Taking regular time off and not using it to do work. 

Don’t ignore feelings of being overwhelmed, it’s a sign that you are taking on too much, and that’s when imposter syndrome can really start to get a grip, by telling you how useless, lazy, inept you are, and that others can cope, so what is wrong with you?

What can we do about it? How do we get over the fact that everything doesn’t have to be perfect? Can we change our mindset regarding imposter syndrome?

I’m not sure we can ever completely rid ourselves of imposter but we can change our mindset on how we feel about it.  The first step is recognising when we are having the thoughts of being a fraud, and to remember that almost everyone will have those moments of self doubt. It’s part of being human.  

How do we know when the need to continually learn is problematic?

There is a term known as ‘shiny object syndrome’ where we go off track because we are attracted by something that looks new and exciting and we just have to find out more about it, regardless of all the other shiny things we have on the go, resulting in lots of unfinished projects which can then lead to feeling unworthy because we start to feel overwhelmed, lazy and inept again.

Although self development is important we need to make sure it doesn’t get mixed up with our self-worth; that we are not doing it just to feel better about ourselves.

A good way to decide whether you really need to do this new thing is to note it (ideas notebook etc) and then ponder it for a few days, or even a week. Think about why you want to do this new thing, what benefit will it give to you and your life?  Choose one thing at a time, try not to overwhelm yourself with lots of shiny objects. Have a look at your old unfinished stuff and choose one to complete.  Decide whether it’s worth your time, and if not put it away and focus on something that is worth your time, or maybe even put all the shiny objects away for a set time to put some  perspective and balance back into your life. Learning is wonderful, but always have a look at your reasons for doing it.

Supporting and helping others and self

Notice when you or others are taking on too many things.  Leaving things unfinished, talking themselves and their achievements down. Remember to validate your own and others’ achievements. Remind each other of the successes of the past.  Remember to sit back, take some time to congratulate yourself, accept yourself as human and remember how hard you’ve worked and that you are deserving of your success.

A counsellor can work with you on these thoughts. To see it for what it is, that nagging critical inner voice from childhood telling us we’re not good enough. Imposter syndrome can cripple us and stop us from reaching our potential.

If you would like more information about counselling, please click on the contact link at the top of the page. I will reply to you as soon as I can.

© Mary Watkins

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