What is Imposter syndrome?
Contrary to the label, Imposter syndrome (IS) is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather it is a loose term used to describe an ego problem, in which individuals hold fast to the self-judgment that they are frauds in life. In most cases this sense of failure is felt in the workplace, although it can also be experienced at university, in creative work, in relationships, and in the community at large.
Imposter syndrome is an over-used term which is often confused with self-doubt. Thus a celebrity will admit to having ‘imposter syndrome’ in her first movie role, when she really means nervousness over her first big career challenge.
One study (based on American college students) claims that over 70% of people have suffered imposter syndrome at least once. This is likely an exaggeration in which the syndrome has been confused with self-doubt. True IS is something that develops over time, and is much more serious.
Self-doubt, is grounded in facts and context. For example, someone in a new and challenging job might doubt they can master it. However, as they grow in to the work and initial successes come their way, they grow more comfortable and doubts vanish. With Imposter syndrome those doubts never vanish.
Many actors – Tom Hanks for example, claim they have suffered from imposter syndrome. Well aware that they are only as good as their last film, and the fickle support of Hollywood and the media-watching public, actors can experience intense self-doubt, which is then confused with IS.
The same applies to professionals working in fields in which it is impossible to know everything. It is claimed that medical doctors in the US have a high prevalence of imposter syndrome. What this really means is that many intelligent doctors question their credentials when treating patients outside their area of specialism. The problem is made worse by the fact that some patients remain seriously ill or die, despite the best doctors can do.
A similar problem relates to lawyers, academics, scientists – and psychotherapists. All of these working in complex fields where complete knowledge is impossible. At the end of his life Albert Einstein made this observation:
“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Imposter syndrome? Or a realistic assessment? Einstein recognised his genuine scientific discoveries, while also questioning the ‘supermind’ myth that had grown up around him.
By contrast, people with Imposter syndrome no amount of genuine success removes the basic perception that they are inadequate. Indeed, IS sufferers will wilfully dismiss their real achievements as due to ‘luck’ or circumstance.
Deep down people with IS believe themselves to be inadequate as people. Typically, they carry this self-judgment around with them wherever they go: at college, at university, to the first job, then to the first promotion and beyond. All the while thinking they are frauds who are about to be exposed.
Signs of Imposter syndrome
- Pessimism over personal abilities
- Feeling unworthy of praise
- Worry over pending failure
- Anxiety over being found out
- Feeling that you are always putting on an act
- Attributing success to luck or circumstances, rather than personal ability
- Dismissing real achievements
- Overworking to compensate for ‘low ability’
- Worry over the expectations of others
- ‘Mind reading’ that other people have ‘seen through’ you
- Feeling isolated and unwanted
- Avoiding challenges as too risky
- Temptation to give up rather than carry on with torture
- Panic attacks related to fear of being ‘found out’
- Depression over personal failure
- Burnout syndrome
Causes of Imposter syndrome
The immediate psychological cause of IS is a cognitive distortion: the self-judgment that no matter what has been achieved the person is still a fraud. As such it is a belief that is impervious to evidence. For that reason it can be hard to treat.
The deeper cause relates to insecurity. which may come from multiple sources. For example: the family of origin and racial/class backgrounds. Added to this are personal factors, such as anxiety, over-thinking and perfectionism; traits which may be genetic in origin. Finally, there is what one might call the universal problem of existential dread.
Family of origin
Research shows that many people with the disorder come from parental neglect, or from families in which there was high conflict and low support for the child. This creates a conditioned ego in which the person feels isolated, unwanted and unvalued.
By contrast, other research indicates that children with over-protective parents may be vulnerable to imposter syndrome, leading to a different type of ego conditioning. As they move into competitive college/career environments parental expectations may be unrealistically high, yet the child is ill-prepared for life in the modern jungle.
Members of ethnic minority groups are also more likely to suffer. The reasons for this are complex. Individuals may be the only ones in the family to go on to higher education and a high-status career, thus bearing higher expectations on achievement alone. At the same time they may encounter discriminatory reactions that lead to exclusion. When these racist judgments are internalised in the ego they may lead to long-standing doubts over self-worth.
Research indicates that a high percentage of IS sufferers also have an anxiety disorder. More specifically, the trait of perfectionism is linked to it. However, it is not clear whether perfectionism is a cause, or an effect of Imposter Syndrome. It is possible that it is both: IS leads to worry about performance, leading to over-work and perfectionism. At the same time the perfectionistic trait fuels the idea that one is inadequate.
The deep basis for Imposter syndrome
The problem rests on an existential insight which is partly true: that we all of us repeatedly fail, and much of our success is based either on chance, or through the help and influence of others. Moreover, that we have far less influence over our fate than we think. This truth is obscured by the ego and its delusions of control and will-power. However, people with IS take this insight to the extreme and assume they are completely helpless.
Imposter syndrome seems ‘real’ to those who suffer from it, because it is partially true that we are all imposters. In the accents and manners we adopt, the clothes we wear, the thoughts we take over from others, the in-groups we join, and the way we imagine that success is solely down to individual effort. Now and then setbacks come along that remind us that we are not as smart as we think. If we are fortunate enough to have some mental health, we learn the lesson and start over. All the while accepting that success and failure are relative terms.
People with Imposter syndrome react to this existential insight with anxiety. To them it is unbearable that they are not in control of their destiny. The main reason for that is their egos are based on the all-or-nothing pursuit of success and recognition.
On this view success and failure are absolutes rather than relative terms (for example, one can fail an exam yet still graduate with honours). Closely tied to this is the idea that the self is defined by either: failure means self-annihilation, while success is for others.
Combatting Imposter syndrome
The first step, in therapy or outside it, is to trace the origin of this self-judgment. Childhood experiences? Unrealistic expectations gathered from parents and teachers? Peer group pressure? Discrimination and exclusion? Insight enables the client to contextualise the belief in earlier conditioning, and thereby to separate away from it. This also fosters self-compassion.
The next step, which follows closely from the first, is to normalise the problem. Showing the client that she is not alone in her beliefs, and that her anxiety arises naturally from the effects of earlier conditioning. While also demonstrating that this conditioning can be reversed, and healthier judgments are possible.
The third step is to move from the global to the specific. Instead of listening to thoughts about imposture to look instead at the facts in the here and now. To borrow from the examples given above: Hattie can focus on sharing her love for Jerome; Martin on the painting in front of him; Laura can address the job she can do to today; Daniel his next piece of course-work.
The fourth step, taken side-by-side with the third, is to focus on values rather than judgments. What is really important to Hattie is love; to Martin it is the act of creation; to Laura it is work; to Daniel it is knowledge. Thoughts connected to doing what one loves gradually eclipse thoughts about whether one is a success or a failure in arbitrary terms.
While all these steps are in progress the client learns the art of thought defusion. Accepting that thoughts (including thoughts that come from the ego) come and go, and it is not necessary to fuse with them. Learning instead to fuse with thoughts (and the actions that flow from them) that connect to deeper values. This step may (or may not) be taken with a critical examination of thoughts about imposture. For example, the client can ask: Is it really true that my exam grades are solely due to luck? Could it be that I played some part in that, too?
Finally it can help the client to build a wider context. In most cases Imposture syndrome (so-called) arises in specific contexts: work and study being the most common. Outside of these narrow domains clients engage with families, friendships, communities, sport, creative pursuits and many other things besides. The key here is to get the client thinking about areas of life where success and failure are relatively unimportant. Also to direct their attention to activities that ground them in the moment. In that way connecting them to the body and its reality, rather than to the abstract judgments of the mind.