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What is imposter syndrome?


In the 1970s, psychologist revealed something called the imposter phenomenon, a psychological pattern that causes a person to doubt their own skills and talents, fearing that they’ll be found out as a fraud. At the time, Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes observed that women in high-ranking positions suffered from feelings of incompetence and fear, thinking that their male peers would outwork or outsmart them.

What they found was that imposter syndrome was not unique to women. Today, many successful people, regardless of gender, including doctors, scientists, athletes and actors, feel as though they’re suffering from imposter syndrome, as if they’re completely undeserving of their success, status, fame or station. Despite their outward success, they feel consistently and constantly inadequate.

Julie, who holds not one, but three degrees, says she’s suffered from imposter syndrome since high school, when she was crowned valedictorian.

“I came from a family of overachievers, and I never quite felt like I was enough,” she shares. “It always felt like I was faking it, that I was just pretending all of this and somehow I’ve gotten away with it.

“To this day,” says the college professor, “I feel like someday someone will ‘out’ me and be like, ‘This woman needs to be stopped. She has no idea what she’s talking about or doing.’”

Some of the symptoms reported by people who suffer from imposter syndrome include the following:

  • Constantly stressed, depressed or anxious
  • Persistent pressure to achieve more than before
  • Fear over not meeting other people’s expectations
  • Feeling incompetent despite proof of stellar performance
  • Feeling disappointed over what has been accomplished, no matter how great
  • Feeling merely lucky, not deserving, of past and present successes
  • Uncomfortable with praise or accolades

In some cases, people who have feelings related to imposter syndrome will also develop other mental health disorders, like depression or anxiety.

Although imposter syndrome is not an officially recognized disorder, it’s still widely accepted as a condition that can be frustrating and debilitating. No one knows exactly what causes imposter syndrome, but certain work environments seem to trigger it, especially those in high-achievement fields, like mathematics, science, engineering, politics and finance.

As with many other mental health conditions, talk therapy is beneficial for anyone suffering from imposter syndrome. At home, though, there are many things an individual can do to assist themselves in moving through some of the symptoms.

“What I’ve found that works for me is saying it out loud: I sometimes battle with imposter syndrome,” says Julie. “What that reminds me, when I say it out loud, is that I’m not actually an imposter – I might feel the feelings that tell me otherwise, but I don’t have to believe those feelings. They’re just feelings, and I actually have accomplished a lot.”

Like Julie, it may help you to question your negative thoughts, replacing them with healthier, more positive ones. It can also help to discuss your feelings with someone close to you. Taking it one day at a time, one thought at a time, you can begin to stop comparing your abilities and successes with those belonging to other people, help others who might come to you advising you that they feel the same way, or simply moving forward, despite what your negative feelings are trying to tell you.

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