Imagine you’ve just started a new job that you worked really hard to get, gotten into a new rigorous program in graduate school, or taken on a new task in your life. Any of these situations has happened to us at least once in our lives and we have some degree of nervousness that comes with this new adventure. Think back to the scenario and you think to yourself, “How in the world did I get here?” or “Do these people know who they just picked to be in this position?” You might also be attending a meeting at your new job and your boss asks you a super technical question that only someone who is in your position would know. While you knew the answer to the question, you almost always feel like you got lucky or are just “faking it until you make it.” The whole time you are waiting for someone to find out that you really are not that smart or you somehow slipped through the cracks and got lucky.
This phenomenon is known as Imposter Syndrome. Not actually a medical diagnosis, the term “Imposter Phenomenon” was coined in 1978 by Drs Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance. It refers simply to the inability for someone to internalize their success (give themselves credit) and be in constant fear that they will be discovered as a fraud. The original research by the aforementioned psychologists primarily focused on high-achieving women and found that this phenomenon affects how this demographic moves through a professional space. In my practice, I have noticed that this phenomenon not only occurs with high achieving women, but high achievers in general, no matter what demographic they belong to.
So why does this matter? It is important to recognize how the belief that one’s successes are not his or her own can lead to overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and low self-esteem. It has been written that imposter syndrome affects people in the work environment because they fear speaking up in meetings because they do not trust their technical knowledge. They may skip promotion opportunities because they feel like others may be more qualified. They may choose to forego that research project in school because they feel like they simply do not know enough to give any notable opinion or add to the body of knowledge. Typically, the individual’s advancement in a role would be seen as something that happened because of luck or happenstance, not because they were simply a high achiever and deserved the promotion of placement in a graduate program.
So what do you do about it? Chat with your therapist for sure. This is important. They will be able to help you better understand how to internalize your success and appreciate what you’ve done. They will also be able to help you get a good grasp on recognizing when you’re feeling truly stuck or having another instance of self-doubt. With my clients, I recommend for them to take stock of their accomplishments. Make a list of everything you have accomplished for the last several years and see how your successes have led you to where you are now. Take a complete stock of hard evidence that disproves your negative opinion of yourself. For example, did you get a raise recently at work or have an exceptionally good performance review? Did you get a good grade on a project? Did your friends and family wonder at an amazing job you did on cooking dinner? These are all examples of how you have earned any praise or results that you have achieved.
You’ve worked hard, built your networks, have a good grasp on what you’ve learned so far professionally and in your education, it’s time to realize that you have earned exactly what you have achieved. Perhaps imposter syndrome makes you work harder. In that case, it is a good thing. Always be looking out for yourself to make sure that you enjoy your successes and keep striving for the best!
Author: Kenneth Edwards, LCPC