My husband worked for many years as an undercover cop. He made a good gang-banger when needed. He talked the talk with the street lingo, he had the dirty and unkempt appearance, he carried all the cool street weapons, made all the right deals, and had all the right street friends. But despite a lifetime of literally having to be an imposter, everyday he’d fear being found out for what he was: an impostor. He truly endured Impostor Syndrome every single day he put on his vest, badge, and weapon.
The good news for you is two-fold. One, if you live in our big city, you are well-protected as he and his team are very good at their jobs. And two, if you’re reading this there might be some inkling inside you that you also have feelings of being an imposter. This article is meant to help you deal with those feelings.
Impostor syndrome introduced
But first, let’s do some background work on Impostor Syndrome. It was first discussed in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes at Georgia State University (Psychotherapy Theory, Research, and Practice, 1978). The authors looked at the feelings of 152 women in various fields, all of whom possessed undergraduate degrees all the way up to PhDs. Clance and Imes (1978) found that almost all of the women expressed feelings of being found out, expressing they didn’t deserve their position, their degree, the recognition they were experiencing, or anything else. The participants shared that they believed someone along the way had misread their qualifications and they were not as good as others portrayed them to be and would fail at any moment.
Later, in 1993, Clance came back to her research, teamed up with Joe Langford, and continued her previous research on women with imposter syndrome (Psychotherapy, 1993). This time, she took her ideas and thoughts a step further, basing it on her previous research, and looking at the “why” of impostor syndrome. What they found is a sense of needing to prove oneself comes from family dynamics and a complicated intertwining of personality traits (that, if we want to go down that rabbit hole, some researchers say come from family dynamics). Here’s a quiz to see what level of impostor syndrome you may be experiencing: https://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf
The root of impostor syndrome
In other words, the root of imposter syndrome can be very complicated but that’s something for you and your therapist to work out. I’m just here to give you an overview and some tips.
The research (Clance and Imes, 1978; Clance and Langford, 1993) shows impostor syndrome to be related to:
- Being an introvert
- Lacking in trust of others
- Family dynamics
This all sounds so bleak and dark, but it’s not really. Lots of people deal with impostor syndrome every day (my husband, professionals, CEOs, athletes, actors, government leaders, even the leaders at Google, Amazon, and other giant companies). It’s actually pretty common. But do you see a theme in that small list of people who deal daily with it? Yeah, exactly. They all have some degree of success. So let’s turn “I can’t, I’m going to be found out” into, “Oh yeah, I got this.”
Impostor thought: Oh yeah, I got this thought:
I am not smart enough to do this. I have Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees!
I am not as good as these other people. Wow, I cannot believe I’m surrounded by so many people on my thinking level!
I will never get this done. Okay, one chunk at a time. I got this.
How did I land my butt here? There’s no way… I worked hard to get here. There’s going to be a learning curve, but I got this.
People are going to think I’m a know-it-all. I know a lot about my field, but I don’t know everything about everything.
I’m going to get fired because I faked my way in. I am going to do everything I can to learn this role, and then I’ll do my best.
I will never finish this document/dissertation. This is hard work. I can do this.
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Another great activity is to write your resume. When you feel incompetent or like an imposter, take it out and read it. It’s amazing what a good feeling it can bring. Beyond that, sometimes in that moment when you’re really feeling like you don’t belong, take a minute to look objectively at all your accomplishments. List them out if you need to make them tangible. And hey, if possible, since your family could be the reason you’re having these feelings, why not call them and have them tell you about all the accomplishments you’ve had over the course of your life. A little productive pay-back can be a good thing!
In closing, while your feelings of being found out most likely will not get you killed like my husband’s job (yeah, that was an extreme example, but it made my point), they are very valid feelings and can cause some serious setbacks. You can sit and wallow in your thoughts, soaking up all the negativity your psyche is feeding you, or you can channel that energy into positive thoughts and actions. Use that negative reinforcement to do something positive. Take those moments of self-doubt and turn them into motivation. I mean, look at you! You are strong, successful, determined, and exactly where you’re supposed to in this moment in time.
You are truly no imposter.
Clance, P., and Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high-achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(3).
Clance, P., and Langford, J. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality, and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy, 30(3).
This article was written by Dr. Tracie from our team.