Imposter Syndrome

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Wednesday, September 25, 2019
By Dr. Anne Rothenberg, Psy.D, contributor


Who among us hasn’t felt like an imposter from time to time? It’s common to feel insecure when we’re embarking on a new endeavor such as a new job, new city, or learning a new skill. Moreover, it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others and find we come up wanting. While this doesn’t feel great, healthy comparison and competition pushes us to learn, innovate and improve. Think about it – if we didn’t look around and try to do better than our neighbors, we’d probably still live in caves!

But, as with everything else, there is a healthy amount of humility and an unhealthy amount. Constant comparison can lead to us feeling like complete failures despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. These feelings plague even the most successful among us; CEO’s, famous actors and authors – many live in constant fear of being discovered or exposed as complete frauds!

As an adolescent psychologist I hear this fear a lot, particularly with my highest achieving clients as they prepare to go to college. Typically, these young people earn fantastic grades, ace their standardized tests, and gain acceptance into the colleges of their dreams. With these clients I can bet money that around July, at least some will tell me that their admission must have been either a mistake or a stroke of dumb luck.

This nagging fear that one is going to be exposed as a fraud has an actual name, it’s called Imposter Syndrome. It’s what happens when an individual cannot integrate their outward achievements with their internal experience of themselves.

So why do we experience this, and what can we do about it?

We live in an extremely achievement oriented, ostentatious culture. People feel as though all accomplishments must be boasted about either in person, or more often, on social media. It’s very easy to feel as though you don’t measure up when you are comparing your inner experience with someone’s instagram feed.

In my clinical work I have found a few tools that seem to help my clients identify and combat the frequent thinking errors that come with imposter syndrome:

1. Name it and Call it out!

Sounds obvious but when you feel your insecurity triggered, name it, and test the reality of your fears.

2. Dig deep and Reframe:

If we’re feeling not good enough, take a step back and try to identify the desire or emotion that’s underneath. Often times we desire the external validation that comes from being recognized as being competent or successful. The trouble is that seeking validation can become highly addictive and lead to a vicious cycle of always needing to be reassured. Try to isolate if it’s the pat on the back you’re after, and try to find ways to validate yourself without chasing it from others. Once you understand the feelings or experience you are truly after you can work towards reframing it. For example, think of a college student that is so critical of themselves as they try to write a paper that they become paralyzed by writers block and procrastination. This student would benefit from viewing their fear not as evidence of their incompetence, but rather a deep desire to get their thoughts across clearly and to give the professor an accurate representation of their current writing skills. This small reframe is what is called a growth mindset, meaning one accepts the fact that they will always be a work-in-progress. From this perspective, one can remain open to experiences and be easier on themselves for perceived short comings.

3. Keep a Record of Your Achievements

It may feel unnatural or even icky to list out ones achievements but having an indisputable record of your competence can give you a reality check when you need it the most.

4.Confide in someone you trust

For those of us who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, this can be the hardest thing. The last thing an “imposter” wants is to expose themselves for the fraud they are. However, it is very likely that other high achieving colleagues and peers have felt the same way at some point. It is enormously healing to hear that people you trust and respect struggle with the same insecurities as you.

5. Do not talk S* about others.

Oftentimes, Imposter syndrome can be triggered by certain environments. Some work place cultures can be more competitive than others, and if you find yourself in a particularly cut throat office it is really tempting to put others down to make yourself feel more competent. The problem is, while a lunch hour gossip session may give you a temporary boost of confidence, you never know when you will be the topic of conversation. Put a boundary down about how you speak about others in the work place, and don’t contribute to a toxic work space!

6. Know When to Seek Help

If you’re someone who continually fears being found out as a fraud, assess whether your expectations for yourself are realistic. Having goals and ambition is wonderful, but intense perfectionism can lead to self-sabotage and keep you from taking on new challenges and opportunities. Individual therapy is a wonderful way to chip away at the cycle of Imposter Syndrome. Remember, you should not be feeling anxious and fearful all the time.