Understanding Imposter Syndrome: Part I
by: Jim Urban, LPC.
This post is the first in a 3-part series on understanding, examining the roots, and overcoming imposter syndrome. Check back next week for Part II.
“I don’t belong here.” “I just know they’ll figure out I have no idea what I’m doing.” “I’m such an amateur.” “I will probably let these people down.” “I just got lucky to land this position.” With these condemning thoughts swirling about his head, Pastor Smith (alias) anxiously stood up to deliver his first message to the congregation that recently called him to be their pastor. Smith was a recent seminary graduate, was inexperienced and young, and was raised to equate competence with self-worth. Feeling inadequate in the core of his being was a significant struggle for Smith. Under the pressure of leading a congregation of worshippers Smith began to doubt he possessed what it would take to be an excellent leader. Anxiety, self-loathing, and self-berating became a painful thought pattern for Smith.
Smith was dealing with a classic problem dubbed “imposter syndrome;” the belief that one will eventually be exposed as a fraud, a fake, and will be publicly shamed and humiliated. Imposter syndrome can be crippling for leaders, and all those who aspire to do great things. It is even responsible for many people giving up on their dreams in order to prevent that fear from coming true.
I’ve found that the surprising truth for many people is how common imposter syndrome really is.
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out. Maya Angelou
“I think the most creative people veer between ambition and anxiety, self-doubt and confidence. I definitely can relate to that. We all go through that: ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is this what I’m meant to be doing?’’ Daniel Radcliffe
Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, ‘I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.’’ Kate Winslet
“Even though I had sold 70 million albums, there I was feeling like I’m no good at this.” Jennifer Lopez
“I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me.” Mike Myers
Even very successful people have had their bouts of imposter syndrome. In fact, a 2011 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that 70% of all people will experience imposter syndrome in their lifetime. Many of the individuals studied were high-achievers that were respected and admired by their peers.
Common symptoms of this syndrome are:
- A tendency to downplay accomplishments
- A tendency to attribute success to luck
- A belief that that luck is bound to run out soon
- A need to do everything perfectly
- An exaggerated sense of how much others are watching the individual
- Failure to internalize their success
- A tendency to cope by living in two extremes: over-preparing or procrastinating
- A fear of success driven by a belief that one doesn’t deserve it
- A fear of success driven by the belief that one would be unable to sustain it
- A fear of failure driven by the belief that their worst fears might come true
These individuals live their lives believing they have something to prove to others, and themselves. Many of these individuals mistakenly believe that they are the only ones dealing with the depression, anxiety, and self-doubt that imposter syndrome inflicts, and so they even feel bad about feeling bad!
So where does this thought pattern come from?
Next week we will explore more about the origins of imposter syndrome in Part II. Finally, in Part III, we will explore how to break free of the chains of imposter syndrome.
Have you dealt with imposter syndrome? Are you dealing with it now? Leave us a comment or question about this series below!
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