WellNest psychotherapist Sana Imran provides insight into Imposter Syndrome and ways to manage it.
Imposter syndrome is a term that has risen in popularity over recent years. Once people hear the term, most recall learning about it before and many feel as though they might have it or some symptoms of it. For those people that can relate and think of themselves as “imposters,” almost every single one thinks they are the only one feeling this way – as was the case for myself.
Do I have Imposter Syndrome?
- Do you ever feel that you are not as good as people think you are?
- Do you believe you that the level of success you have earned is a result of luck, timing, or other external factors?
- Do you ever believe other people will find out that you are not as competent or capable as they think you are?
- Do you feel that you must work extra hard to keep up the pretense that you know what you are doing?
- Do you ever feel as though, any moment now, you are going to be found out?
If you can relate, you might be struggling with imposter syndrome.
You are not alone – and it does not have to be this way.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
To put it very simply, imposter syndrome is the result of beliefs we have carried over time. According to Dr. Jessamy Hibberd, a psychologist in the UK, someone struggling with imposter syndrome believes that they lack the skills, ability, and competence required to accomplish something. This could be related to anything – starting a new project, mastering a new skill, trying a new recipe, preparing for a tough conversation, or even providing help to someone.
Imposter syndrome affects everyone – it is present among all genders, across racial backgrounds, and in all professions. People struggling with imposter syndrome feel they are not worthy of success and will credit their achievements to external factors such as luck or timing. They experience feelings of self doubt, fear, and shame, making it hard to enjoy life, or live in the moment.
I remember being in university and landing my first research assistant position. I was the only undergraduate on a team of graduate students, working on a high-profile study at one of the biggest universities in Canada.
Every day I felt confused why I was there, assumed I must have talked my way into the job, thought there must have been a mistake that I got hired and wondered when everyone would figure out that I had no clue what I was doing!
What happens when we experience imposter syndrome?
My feeling like I was an imposter during my first research position meant I was always nervous around my colleagues, hesitated to speak up during team meetings, and isolated myself while working, all out of fear that I would get caught!
This meant that any time new opportunities came up to collaborate, or praise was being shared, my name would be at the bottom of that list. I couldn’t be mad at anyone else over it; I had trapped myself.
It took me years to better understand what imposter syndrome is, that I was not alone in feeling this way (in fact my professor actually confessed to still feeling like an imposter sometimes!), and that there was something that could be done about it.
“I am an imposter” - A Mind Trap
As I said before, imposter syndrome is the result of a belief. And beliefs influence our thoughts. They have an immense amount of power over us.
In this case, the thought is telling you that anything that has gone wrong in or around your life, is your fault. And anything that has gone well in or around your life, is not connected to your efforts.
The reality is that we all feel uncertain when faced with a new task. We all experience thoughts of wanting to do well but not feeling sure we can do it, and will always feel a certain level of discomfort when doing something difficult or trying something new.
The difference between people who struggle with imposter syndrome and those that do not, is how they interpret that discomfort.
People who see themselves as “imposters” interpret this feeling of discomfort as them not being good enough and frauds. Whereas people that do not struggle with imposter syndrome, interpret the discomfort as a natural response to trying something new, and part of being human.
How did I develop Imposter Syndrome?
Let us repeat this one more time: imposter syndrome is the result of a belief.
This is a faulty belief.
Our beliefs are formed by our interactions with the world around us. What we see, hear, and learn, influences us and over time, it also shapes how we view ourselves and others. This can be a difficult journey to embark on alone, and the suggestions provided here may be just the tip of the iceberg. I encourage everyone to think about these and consult with a mental health professional if it would be helpful.
This is one way someone may have developed symptoms of imposter syndrome. To understand the beliefs we hold about ourselves, it is necessary to understand what shaped them.
Think about the following:
- What messages did you receive as a child about your intelligence, ability, importance, or value, and how have they influenced you?
- What was your family’s definition of success?
- What is your definition of success?
- Who were your role models?
- What reaction did you receive when you did well, and when you struggled?
Examining what shaped our beliefs is not about finding who to blame. Rather, it is about understanding ourselves better.
We want to question whether our beliefs are accurate, and if they are helping or hindering us. With a better understanding of the beliefs that have been informing our actions, we are able to question them, challenge them, and decide whether we want to continue carrying them.
What can I do about my imposter syndrome?
Breaking free from imposter syndrome takes time, effort, and a lot of work. As we said earlier, these are beliefs you have been carrying for a very long time, and part of the work is in separating these beliefs and recognizing that they are not a part of you.
If the symptoms described here resonated with you, then being able to see that and acknowledging it is incredibly valuable in and of itself. So often, people feel as though they are alone with these feelings, and the voice of imposter syndrome convinces us that this must be true.
The first step is thinking of the voice of the imposter syndrome as outside of ourselves. Clinically speaking, this is a form of externalizing. The voice of the imposter syndrome is a bully - it is not your voice and it does not have your best interest in mind – just because your mind tells you that you are an imposter, it does not mean you are one.
Thoughts are not facts.
What would you name that voice?
What if you could talk back to that voice?
What would you want to say?
Another strategy is building your portfolio. This is incredibly important in helping you see a different message to one you have been believing for so long. Consider which areas of your life the voice of imposter syndrome speaks up – School? Work? Relationships?
Reflecting on that specific area of your life, create a list of all your achievements and accomplishments – where have you done well, what recognitions have you received, which personal difficulties have you overcome? You are gathering evidence, which shows you a different view. Take your time with it, and have your loved ones contribute to it. When you are ready, look back at everything you have written down, and ask yourself:
a. If I read this about someone else, what might I think of them?
b. If I showed this to someone else, what might they think of me?
c. If you could speak to your younger self, and tell that person what you are doing now, what might they think?
Remember, you are not alone in feeling this way. Everyone struggles with feelings of self doubt. As we said before, the interpretation of this feeling is the key.
Interpreting it as a new challenge and being open to making a few mistakes means you not only get to try new things; you also get to build up your idea about what you can do well at.
The messages you send yourself everyday will make the biggest difference. It took me a long time to see that fear and failure are not separate from success – they are part of it. And the more we remember that every day, the more room we give ourselves to grow.
What are some things you have said to the voice of imposter syndrome?
Sana Imran is a psychotherapist at WellNest psychotherapy services in Toronto and advises on public policy for mental health and addictions. Sana believes in approaching clients and their loved ones through an emotion-focused and trauma-informed lens and is passionate about reducing stigma around mental health.