By Christine Barker – LCPC, Angela Sarafin – LMFT, Tory Butterworth – Phd, LPC

How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.”

~ Maya Angelou

It is impossible to live without failing at something J K Rowling Quote
Christine Barker

Have you ever felt like a fraud?

Like you are wearing a mask?  Self-doubt can be a very powerful emotion lurking beneath the surface of our smiling, confident masks.  We wear these masks out of fear.  

Fear that we are not good enough. 

As a therapist, my work often involves helping people discover the story they are telling themselves. 

In the case of imposter syndrome, the story you are telling yourself is one of doubt and disbelief in your capabilities.  That often leads to putting on a mask.  

When you put on a mask, you create a different story for the people who can see it.    

You are the only one who knows the true story, behind the mask.  And that story can lead to Imposter Syndrome, inducing feelings and symptoms of distress, anxiety and depression. 

There are five different types of profiles describing Imposter Syndrome discovered by Valarie Young, who is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.  

She discovered patterns amongst people who experience Imposter Syndrome feelings. 

1. The Perfectionist – they set unreasonably high expectations for themselves.  Anything short of complete success is a failure to them. 

 

2. The Expert – they feel under so much internal pressure to know every single tidbit of information before they start anything.  These people are fearful of appearing stupid, and will do anything to avoid that.

3. The Natural Genius – they are people who don’t have to try very hard at things to be good at them, and when they do, they feel like a failure, or that they aren’t good enough.

4. The Soloists – they feel as if they have to do everything on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they are a fraud. 

5. The Superwomen or Supermen – they pressure themselves to work harder than everyone else to show they aren’t imposters.  They need to be superior in all aspects of life, and if they are not, then it causes distress. 

These are all masks worn by people we all know.  

Underneath the masks are the stories.  

Stories of fear, self-doubt, and inability to feel success, fear of failure, shame, guilt, rejection, and the list can go on and on.  As I mentioned before, this can result in symptoms of distress, anxiety and depression.

How can someone overcome this?  Acknowledge it, process it, accept it, and grow from it. 

  1. Acknowledge it.  

Own your stuff.  Imposter syndrome is a form of cognitive distortion, where your perception and the reality of the situation are not congruent.  

If you can talk with a trusted source, friend, therapist, or family member, you may notice differences in how they view the situation and how you do.  This can help to identify that you have a distorted perception, and admitting is always the first step. 

  1. Processing the deeper rooted feelings will be important in dealing with the imposter syndrome.  

Learn about the syndrome, identify the best fit profile and process how it makes you feel.  I suggest during this stage, to think about the roots of where this could have started.  

Think back to an age where you FIRST remember feeling this way. This can help to have a better understanding of WHY and HOW this manifested.

Perhaps there was a situation as a child where you can remember feeling failure or shame because of something, and it resulted in you trying harder and harder in order to avoid feeling the failure.  This would be a good thing to do with the help of a professional therapist.

  1. Accept it.  

One of the harder stages.  Learning that it is OK to NOT BE PERFECT.  Accepting that perfection is impossible.  Learning to love all of yourself, including your flaws.  Acceptance will lead to a higher self-esteem and healthy self-worth. 

  1. Grow from it.  

The best part!  Challenge your negative thoughts as you notice them come up.  This is important to moving forward in a healthier direction.  

Choose to reframe your negative thoughts and choose the positive path!  You will be amazed when you can formulate this into a habit how much BETTER you will feel about yourself. 

Other suggestions to overcome Imposter Syndrome include:

  • Starting a “brag book”.  Keeping a record of your accomplishments in writing can often help to rewire those negative thought patterns which create the self-doubt.  Don’t forget to read them!!
  • Celebrate your successes, and write down the skills you used that contributed to them.  Pair your progress with a reward!
  • Take in compliments.  Practice saying “thank you” and “I appreciate that” or “I’m so glad you liked it!”  Just receive it. 
  • Keeping postcards, screen shots, positive letters, anything you may have received affirming your positive qualities in a concrete form to help counteract the negative feelings our minds tell us.  Look at these things when you feel the self-doubt.

Imposter Syndrome can happen to anyone and it is a difficult mask to remove.  If you need help, please seek it, through a friend or a professional.

Christine Barker, LCPC – www.innercouragecounselingllc.com
Angela Sarafin

Imposter syndrome is often associated with a specific setting and as such it may be helpful to sort out the anxiety you are absorbing from the environment versus the anxiety you are generating internally.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this just a phase?  

It is common for people to go through phases of imposter syndrome as they develop expertise in a particular area.  It’s important to note that each time you learn a new skill or expand into a new niche within your field you are likely to go through these phases again.   It’s also common to bounce between the phases based on positive or negative feedback from others.  

The phases often look something like this: 

  • I just finished school/training and I don’t really know what I’m doing and yet I’m expected to be competent at my job – what if I screw up? What if I’m actually not cut out for this field?  What if no one has been honest with me and I just skated by and now I’m going to be found out?
  • I have some experience and I feel pretty confident that I know how to do my job, some people still think I don’t know what I’m doing and sometimes I’m afraid they might be right.
  • People are starting to treat me like I know what I’m doing – “OMG, what if I don’t really know what I’m doing?”
  • I think I finally know what I don’t know and I’m okay not being the expert in those areas.  I feel comfortable in my niche (and know how to find the information that I need) and others feel comfortable coming to me for answers and guidance.
  1. What is the culture of my environment?  
  • Does it tend to be supportive, encouraging, and collaborative or does it tend towards aggression, competition, and hostility? 
  • Can you identify one or two people that foster competition and/or chaos or is there just a general sense of being in a cut-throat environment?
  • Look around, is there anyone else who seems to be trying to avoid too much notice?   Ask them how they would describe the culture or atmosphere of the office. 
 
What are the consequences of failure in your office or organization?  
  • What evidence do you have of those consequences?  
  • Are there specific office rules/policies that indicate success versus failure and the consequences?  
  • Have you seen others fail and observed the consequences they received?  
  • Have people disappeared from the company without any clear communication from leadership about how to avoid that same fate?
  1. Consider who is providing feedback.
  • Are you getting any positive feedback regarding your performance?  If so, what makes that feedback believable or not?
  • Who is providing your feedback?  

Is it a client, a colleague, an assigned mentor, a volunteer mentor, a boss or supervisor?  What is that person’s motivation for providing feedback – to encourage, to challenge, to create fear/doubt, to keep you in your place, to hurt you?  Does the person have any experience or perspective that would cause you to give greater weight to their opinion?

  • What is the nature of your relationship with the person providing feedback?  

Is it someone who is feeling threatened by your advancement?  Is it someone who is struggling in their own life or career and is trying to spread the misery?  Is it someone who tends to only see the negative?  Or are you receiving a lot of positive feedback and encouragement but just can’t seem to believe it?

After you have answered these questions, here are a few steps you can take:

  1. If this might just be a phase of your career, look back and see if you can see a pattern of how long you tend to be in each phase, the triggers that tend to set you back, and the things that have helped you move to a higher level of confidence.  

If you can identify a general time frame or some factors that signify the start and end of a phase then you can start monitoring where you are within a phase and feel confident that the next phase is coming.

  1. If you are in a very competitive environment, start rating the level of energy you feel when you arrive at the office.  

Excited energy feels different than stressful or aggressive energy.  Notice how the environments energy changes throughout the day and over weeks or months. Consider what rituals you can use to create a barrier around you so that you don’t absorb the negative energy.  

Dr. Alice Lee has a great energy breaths exercise on her website that can be helpful for recharging your energy.  Other ideas include listening to music, praying for a spirit of peace to enter the office with you, decide not to play the game and instead become an observer of your environment.

  1. If you are in a situation of having to accept feedback from someone who seems to have an agenda against you, practice saying “Thank you for the feedback, I will give that some thought.”  

This allows you to acknowledge the feedback while also giving you some space to consider whether there was anything constructive about the feedback that you can incorporate.  

Alternatively, you can “lead your leader” by adding structure to the feedback sessions and asking for information about what went well and what you should definitely continue to incorporate in your work.  

A third option is to ask for written feedback if you find yourself reacting negatively to feedback conversations (there is more about this in the next segment).

Part 2

Imposter syndrome is a form of anxiety which is accompanied by the fear that you are somehow faking it and in danger of being discovered as a fraud.  

The fears are either not founded in reality or are exaggerations of reality.  Like other forms of anxiety, reality checking is an important part of the recovery process.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself in order to assess what thoughts and beliefs might be feeding your imposter syndrome:

1. When someone wants to offer feedback, what is your first reaction?  

  • Do you tend toward fear or curiosity?   
  • After you receive feedback do you ever walk away feeling encouraged?  
  • Are you aware of ever receiving mixed feedback (ie. Information on both what you are doing well and what needs improvement)?  
  • Do you feel better receiving written feedback versus a face to face meeting?  
  • What deep fears are revealed by negative feedback?

2. What are your experiences of feedback, correction, and punishment?  

  • When you were young, did you ever feel like you, your choices, and your behavior were okay or did you feel like you received criticism most of the time?  
  • Did you receive any feedback from parents or caregivers or did you feel like no one was paying attention and that you had to figure out the world on your own?  
  • Do you feel like anyone had realistic expectations for you?

3. How do you see success?  

  • Is it a black or white matter (ie I’m either a success or failure) or can you accept that you are a work in progress?  
  • Do you ever celebrate your successes or do you tend to discount successes by focusing on slight imperfections?   

4. How do you talk to yourself?  

  • When you have a setback, what is your process for regrouping and trying again?  
  • How often do you talk yourself out of taking risks or trying new things?  
  • When you start a new project do you immediately start thinking about all the things that might go wrong?

5. How do the people who know you best describe you?  

  • Do you know how you are perceived by others in various settings?  
  • Do people from different settings perceive/describe you in similar ways or do you seem to be different in every setting?  
  • Do you have people who believe in you who are starting to feel discouraged because you cannot accept their encouragement?

After answering these questions, here are a few things you can try:

  • Try translating feedback into a form that is easier to digest.  

For example, if you receive face to face feedback, take notes so that you can go back and see what was said, or ask the person to provide the feedback in written form.  

If you feel emotional reading feedback from someone, have a third person read it aloud.  We often impart emotion when we are reading emails and text messages that may or may not match the intention of the sender.

  • Imposter syndrome is often fueled by the misconception that we have nothing special to contribute to the world and so if our performance is not good enough it means that we are worthless.  

If this is true for you, you may need to do some work on your sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy.  

Two of my favorite tools are Strengths Finder 2.0 and Strengths Based Leadership.  

These tools not only help you identify your strengths but also puts into perspective the fact that not everyone shares those strengths and talks about how those strengths can be used in various settings.

  • Sometimes we need to explicitly define success and how we can measure it for ourselves (without expecting perfection).  

Keep an atta-boy/atta-girl file with emails, cards, notes, and any other evidence of success, achievement, and encouragement.  Develop rituals for celebrating success and give yourself a set time frame to enjoy each success before strategizing on what you should do differently the next time.

There are two exercises that work particularly well for identifying and changing negative self-talk. 

  • The first is to start writing down any negative or pessimistic statements that you find yourself thinking.  

Then take the time to create a replacement thought.  The important thing about the replacement thought is that it has to be realistic and believable and preferably action oriented.  

For example, if the negative thought is “this will never work out”, a replacement might be, “I’m doing my best”.

  • The second activity is to start with a clean sheet of paper and two different colored pens.  

Start writing the stream of negative thoughts that are going through your mind.  When you notice that your mind starts to refute one or more of the statements, pick up the other pen and write the positive statements.  Continue back and forth until your mind goes quiet on the topic.

Sometimes we just get in the habit of choosing to give more weight to negative thoughts and minimize positive thoughts.  

There are a few things you might try if your feelings about yourself do not match what others say or perceive about you.

  • Consider doing a workbook such as “Get out of your mind and into your life.” 

One of my favorite statements from that workbook is that you can have a thought without buying the thought. 

  • Consider bringing your spiritual beliefs into the situation.  

This could mean memorizing an encouraging scripture, meditation to let your mind rest, prayer to ask for divine perspective and assistance, or finding a spiritual mentor who can help you put your faith into action.

Angela Sarafin, LMFT – www.angelasarafin.com

Tory Butterworth

I was 29 and had just earned my PhD. I was interviewing for an internship assessing children with learning problems.

The pediatrician conducting the interview wanted to give me the respect of calling me “Doctor,” but obviously couldn’t remember my last name. Every time he addressed me as “Doctor” I looked around the room. It took me a second to realize he was talking to me.

Now, scroll forward 30 years and, as a practicing therapist, I get called “Doctor” by clients every day. I nod, smile, and acknowledge their address without any surprise. I am a doctor because I have studied and practiced a long time in the field and know I can help people improve their mental health.

What’s changed? I have embraced my role as a PhD, a therapist, and a mental health professional.

Roles are something kids begin to learn and practice when they are 3 to 5 years old. Playing house, fireman, and animal trainer are all examples of children trying out a new role and making it their own.

As adults, each of us assumes roles in our day-to-day lives including those of parent, spouse, or employee. The things we say and do are different in each role. The way we talk as a parent disciplining our children is very different from how we talk to a lover in a sexual embrace. Each of these roles represents a different part of who we are and is important to us in different ways.

When you feel like an imposter, you have not learned how to embrace a particular role, whether it is at home, work, with friends or family.

This blog will describe practical ways to learn how to take on a new role, including identifying the roles you currently feel comfortable in, looking for role models, and creating reasonable expectations for practicing these roles in your life.

I think of a role as a sort of a uniform I adopt to get a particular job done.

It provides a signal to the other person about what they can expect from me. For example, the help I ask of a policeman is quite different from that of my dentist. A role also provides me protection in terms of the information I share with that person. What I share with a personal friend is different than what I say to clients.

How do you begin to step out of the “Imposter” role?

  1. Identify a role you feel confident and comfortable in. 

Think about a time or place in your life when you felt confident in what you were doing. What was your role in that situation? Were you an equal to others around you, an expert, or a learner? What skills did you use? What were the personal qualities you embodied in that situation that helped you feel good about yourself?

If you said, “I’m not good at anything,” look further. 

  • How did you end up in your current situation? 
  • Did you apply for a position or say “Yes,” to the right person at the right time? 
  • If so, what did that other person see in you that you might be missing in yourself?

Perhaps you could ask friends, peers, mentors, or parents what they see as your strengths. Bringing a particular time to mind when you handled a situation well can be a great reminder of what you’re capable of.

  1. Transferring your skills from an old role to a new one. 

I remember when I was first practicing as a therapist, and it felt like it took me forever to become confident in that position.

One day I thought, “I wish I could be as good a therapist as I am a folk dancer.” 

I had spent much of high school and college mastering folk dances out of the sheer love of the music and the movement. In time, many dances were encoded in my muscle memory and were second nature for me. I knew I danced very well.

Just this thought helped me in my much newer therapist role. 

I imagined what it would be like to be as confident a therapist as I was a folk dancer. I kept coming back to this as a touchstone, and one day I noticed a session when I felt that same ease with being a therapist. 

While it took me years to get to the point that I felt this confident every day, holding on to this image helped me realize I would someday get there.

  1. Find role models to emulate. 

Look around to find others who you feel do well in the role you are striving to master. 

  • How do they look, act, or behave? 
  • Are there skills you could learn from their playbook? 
  • Perhaps they could tell you stories from their past about what helped them when they were new in the field. Or maybe you could ask them for pointers in areas you feel insecure?
  1. Set realistic goals for roles.

Being able to embody a role doesn’t mean you have to be super human or know everything. Helping someone or accomplishing something only implies that you are one step ahead of others around you. That one step may just be that you are aware of an issue, not that you have a solution totally mapped out. 

Make learning and growing a part of your role definition. 

After all, if mastering a role means you have nothing more to learn, that could lead to years of boredom once you full realize your abilities in that area.

Redefining feeling like an “Imposter” as learning and mastering a new role can provide a path for moving out of this painful situation.

Once you realize gaining confidence in your abilities is a matter of time and practice, you can begin to let go of expectations of needing to be better than you are and embrace your current talents and skills.

Tory Butterworth, PhD, LPC – www.torybutterworth.com

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