Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome (IS) is a phenomenon typically experienced by high-achieving, highly-driven professionals and students who feel inadequate or undeserving of their success. It is about the struggle to feel truly okay, to be truly worthy of being accepted by others. IS is often fueled by a subconscious sense of outsider-ness and marginality that is maintained deep inside the psyche. People who experience Imposter Syndrome often:

A confident businessman

  • Fear exposure or being found out as a fraud
  • Rationalize their success as “luck” or “a mistake”
  • Feel they don’t deserve praise and have difficulty accepting credit
  • Do not let positive feedback sink in or last long
  • Hold themselves to lofty, almost impossible standards
  • Self -sabotage opportunities for professional growth
  • Work long hours to make something perfect
  • Are intolerant of own mistakes or small failures
  • Are over-reactive to negative feedback
  • Are unable to take satisfaction in work well-done
  • Have an unhealthy work-life balance, suffer from workaholism

If you are like many professionals who are dealing with Imposter Syndrome, the overwhelming fear of failure—or the fear of success—can be immobilizing. Success is a limited point in a vast plane of possibilities. There is only one way of succeeding and many outcomes which are felt to be failures. The standard for success is set so high that the sheer difficulty of attaining it can lead to a sense of futility or paralysis.

What Behaviors And Thoughts Are Associated With Imposter Syndrome?

  • The perceived impossibility of attaining success
  • Self-criticism, self-blame, and self-defeating thoughts
  • A punishing attitude toward the self, negative self-image
  • A sense of being a phony, a fraud, unworthy, or inadequate
  • Shame, self-doubt, anxiety, and fear

Who Suffers From Imposter Syndrome?

Also known as Fraud Syndrome, Imposter Syndrome primarily relates to career and achievement. SI affects individuals in every walk of life, ranging from Nobel and Oscar-winning celebrities, like John Steinbeck and Meryl Streep, to successful, high-ranking CEOs. Even high school and college students can run into this issue. Surveys conducted on students and alumni from universities and professional schools, as well as the general public, report that as much as 70-80% of individuals have endorsed symptoms associated with IS.

Why Does Imposter Syndrome Occur In The First Place?

Troubled office worker

IS taps into the powerful human need for agency.  We are profoundly wired to seek mastery and control, and Imposter Syndrome feeds the fantasy of perfectionism.  The desire for self-improvement and prosperity is a fundamental human quality and right. But in the modern context, we have become indentured to performance, achievement, and success. Under this weight, we struggle to define what truly makes us happy and what we are realistically capable of doing.  Imposter Syndrome makes people lose perspective of what it takes to feel good about oneself.

One factor that particularly affects millennials, a growing segment of the US population, is social media and the all-encompassing nature of technology. Shakespeare once wrote that “all the world is a stage.” And today, it is. Social media and technology create a platform to relentlessly portray yourself as happy, successful, and prosperous even if behind the scenes you feel dissatisfied and afraid for the future. Therefore, there is tremendous pressure to always be on top of things, look good, and be confident, which, in itself, creates a sense of being fraudulent.

Blurry reflection of a person in a pool of waterImposter Syndrome was first researched in the 1970s as a prevalent problem among female academics.  This was largely because women had traditionally been raised to believe that they were incapable of succeeding in school and work.  (In fact, women still labor under the burden of lowered expectations.)  This mentality inevitably bled into the collective societal subconscious and became internalized, where it continues to create unique challenges for women in academia and the workplace.

How Would Therapy Help With Overcoming Imposter Syndrome?

As a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, I would want to help you understand how you think, what you believe, and how you perceive yourself. This self-appraisal looks at how the emotions you have experienced and your past relationships shape your attitude now. By tuning into underlying drivers for your thoughts and behaviors, you can learn how to regulate intense emotions that can undermine you.  The goal is to help you be able to recognize when your beliefs and actions are being hijacked by subconscious emotions and beliefs.

Dealing with the stress of navigating work or managing success is difficult enough without being your own worst enemy.  How might you best learn to turn to yourself as a trusted ally who believes in your abilities?  Or cast off old beliefs about yourself so that you can feel deserving of your achievements and enjoy the fruits of your labor?

Therapy requires a close look at how the way you think about yourself is powerfully affected by emotions rooted in early attachment relationships. These unconscious forces may distort self-appraisal, so it is important to help you recognize what is realistic in your view of yourself and what is distorted.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome involves embracing self-compassion over punitive self-judgment. Challenging negative thought patterns and beliefs about yourself allows you to separate feelings from facts. It can help you discover new ways of relating to self and others.  It is also important to develop strategies for regulating powerful emotions, such as fear, self-blame, and panic around loss of control.

What Happens in Imposter Syndrome Therapy?

Therapy may help you access deeper layers of your psyche to lessen its emotional power and its impact on present-day behavior. There is no magical formula for overcoming imposter syndrome overnight. However, I use an experientially-focused strategy that blends a theoretical and science-based approach to identify the root of your suffering. In some sessions, we may spend time exploring your past in order to understand where you learned the deeply-conditioned behavioral repertoire that is holding you back. In others, we will work on understanding how the problem shows up in your life, relationships, or workplace.

Hands of a person working with clay

A key aspect of therapy is looking at which behaviors can be tweaked to interrupt the vicious cycle of overwork or paralysis. If you are suffering with IS, you are likely letting negative emotions and thoughts cloud your judgment and influence your decisions. However, the curiosity and compassion that you can experience in counseling are qualities that can open up new vistas and perspectives.

I am considering Imposter Syndrome Counseling, but I still have a few questions and concerns…

I am incredibly busy and can’t afford the time.

Any kind of internal exploration or search for personal growth has to be timed right. If you believe that you have room for growth but that now just isn’t the time, it’s important to honor that instinct. Moreover, some of the introspection that leads to positive change can indeed start with you. However, if you find the time, working with a therapist may help you truly make sense of your challenges and accelerate the opportunities to make positive changes.

I understand the dynamics of an imposter complex, but what can therapy do that I can’t?

People who are accomplished often value their intellect and naturally rely on their own instinct to fix themselves. However, gaining a true understanding of the self involves aspects of exploration that go beyond thinking and intellect. Everyone has blind spots which is often where the most critical information about yourself can be found. Working with a neutral 3rd party may help you to see those blind spots.

My drive and intensity have gotten me this far. I can’t afford to slow down now.

This is a common concern—the idea that the stick is more effective in motivating people than the carrot. And I agree that we all need a little of both. However, most people who suffer from IS work too hard and too intensely just to prove themselves. Although intensity can be a valuable tool for attaining goals, having a reality-based assessment of your capabilities, needs, and odds for succeeding can be extremely beneficial.

You Are Greater Than Your Thoughts

If you question your abilities despite your achievements, I can help you get to a place where you can enjoy all you have worked for. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about my practice or approach to overcoming imposter syndrome.

Contact Dr. Wu

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