Why You Struggle With Imposter Syndrome: Part II
by: Jim Urban, LPC.
This post is the second in a 3-part series on understanding, examining the roots, and overcoming imposter syndrome. Check back next week for Part III.
What makes imposter syndrome so common? Why do so many leaders, entrepreneurs, high-achievers, and creatives doubt their abilities and struggle with crippling anxiety about being exposed as a fraud, despite receiving positive feedback from others? In my clinical and leadership work I’ve seen three main factors that contribute to the prevalence of imposter syndrome.
Try telling the average person that achievement doesn’t equate to self-worth, and they may agree with you intellectually, but struggle to disagree emotionally. Most people I’ve met would never dream of intentionally raising their children to believe they must achieve to be worthwhile and lovable people; and they certainly wouldn’t want to convey that to one of their friends! However, what many people experience in their formative years through school, families, society, and religious communities often teaches or reinforces this very belief. The corporate world is certainly no different. Many employees tell me that their only feedback (which many rarely receive) is focused on what’s lacking or in need of improvement, without any acknowledgement of what they’re doing well. This pattern mirrors, for many, how they experienced family, academic, and athletic feedback throughout their childhood and adolescence.
Here are some ways people learn to equate achievement with self-worth:
- Growing up in a family high on criticism and low on praise
- Growing up in a family that focused on weaknesses and deficits, not strengths
- A society that over-promotes academic/career development more without equal attention to character and personal development
- A society that pressures everyone to go to college when it clearly isn’t meant for everyone
- A society that subliminally teaches young people that their career is their identity, thus setting them up to measure self-worth through success
- A society that shames and stigmatizes those who would prefer to live “the simple life”
The societal pressure to achieve teaches many people a faulty barometer for measuring their self-worth. Without adequate praise, nurture, and patient teaching many children grow up anxious and constantly awaiting the next criticism or reminder that they’re not good enough. These messages lay the foundation for mistaken or unhelpful thinking patterns.
Growing up worried about one’s next evaluation/report card, especially if it’s delivered in a devastating way, sets up many people to doubt themselves. If one’s efforts just weren’t ever good enough for the significant people in their life they learn to think in ways that are often opposed to their success. Such common thinking errors and faulty assumptions might be:
- Everyone else seems to effortlessly succeed while I struggle.
- I just know the bad news is coming, just like it always does; and I dread my “day of reckoning.” Maybe there are some painful memories of how devastating these types of conversations were.
- My efforts really will never be good enough.
- I can’t keep up this act forever.
- Failure is not an option, and would be the end of me.
- My shortcomings are glaringly obvious to others.
- I deserve punishment.
- I don’t deserve success.
- I won’t be able to sustain success.
For many with imposter syndrome they are trapped between the behaviors of a perfectionist and the feelings of a failure. It can be an exhausting and painful cycle to endure. What I will focus on last is how we tend to hide behind our masks, thus perpetuating this vicious cycle.
Joining in on the Masquerade
Want to know a big secret? If you read last week’s post you know that research has shown 70% of high achievers to struggle with imposter syndrome. But here’s the problem: few acknowledge this to others. This lack of awareness of how common imposter syndrome really is promotes a culture where we aren’t vulnerable. We usually hide our insecurities, mistakenly conclude others have it easier, and double-down on our perfectionistic tendencies.
Reader, part of the answer is staring you in the face. It takes opening up and being honesty with trustworthy people about your fears and anxieties. This courageous act can help you “normalize” your fears and unshackle yourself from the illusion that you’re alone.
This is where the value of mentoring new or young leaders is so critical for better equipping those who follow your leadership. It is in these types of relationships where you can teach your mentee that it’s normal to be afraid sometimes. In that safe environment they can also experience affirmation of their strengths, and feedback from a mentor that counters their mistaken assumptions. If you’re the one needing mentorship perhaps the first step is to begin building relationships with emotionally intelligent leaders that could become a mentor.
Check back next week for Part III where I will discuss how to overcome the paralyzing and emotionally-exhausting cycle of imposter syndrome.