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Imposter syndrome: what is it and what can you do about it?

Imposter syndrome: what is it and what can you do about it?

Have you ever felt like your abilities have been overestimated? Maybe on your first day of college, when you heard all of the cool things that your classmates did, you thought to yourself “I don’t belong here. I didn’t help write code to get a rocket to the moon, or publish a book on birdsongs, or volunteer 20 hours a week with the National Institutes of Health.” Maybe when you started a new job and all of your coworkers seemed to have more knowledge of the systems and the tasks than you did, you thought “Why was I hired? I can’t do this task.” Maybe when your friend asked you for advice about the person they wanted to date, you thought “I am not an expert at love, I haven’t been in a relationship in over a year.” Or maybe when you consider reaching out for help for your eating disorder or OCD, you think, “I’m not sick enough. I am making this up.”

There’s a word for this phenomenon, and you’re not alone in feeling it! It’s known as Imposter Syndrome. It is the idea that you don’t have the talent, knowledge, or ability you “should”, and that you’re not as capable as other people think you are (even if there’s evidence that, in fact, you are). Impostor syndrome refers to an emotional experience of believing that you are not as competent as others think you are – or that you should be. This can play out in several ways, depending on factors such as your personality, your gender, and your previous mental health experiences. It is a different experience for everyone, and can show up within the same person in multiple ways! Here are some ways that Imposter Syndrome might show up for you:

  • Self doubt
  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
  • Overachieving
  • Sabotaging your own success
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short.

A 2019 review of over 60 studies indicates that up to 89% of people have imposter-like feelings. The numbers are higher for women than for men (we haven’t found any research on imposter syndrome and non binary people), increase for people of color, and often go hand in hand with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

The pandemic is only increasing the way that many of us experience Imposter Syndrome. With the onset of Coronavirus last year, a lot of peoples’ lives changed: they began to work remotely, or started having to take care of their kids while they held down a job, or lost their stable source of income, or any other number of things. Imposter Syndrome seems to increase with new experiences, so it’s no surprise that the number of people feeling these symptoms has gone up. And it’s felt by people at all levels — the front line worker to the CEO to the grocery clerk to the stay-at-home parent and beyond.

The pandemic might also be increasing levels of Imposter Syndrome because of the increased amount of time people spending on social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat show a narrow view of other people’s lives. They allow people to share curated highlights, posting the focaccia they made or their new baby looking well rested and peaceful, but not the sleepless nights or the mediocre feedback they got at work. Social media can make other peoples’ lives seem under control and moving smoothly, which might remind you of all the ways in which you don’t have things under control, thus beginning the imposter syndrome cycle of thoughts of not-good-enough and failure.

In reality, we all are just doing the best we can in challenging times. But it’s a lot easier to pay attention to the one thing you didn’t do as well as you wanted than the 99 things you did do well, especially when most of what you see of other people is what they did right.

Okay – so imposter syndrome is rampant and affects women frequently and intensely. What can you do about it? How can you learn to recognize these feelings of Imposter Syndrome, reality check, and move on toward your goals?

Like anything else, it takes time and looks different for everyone. But there are a few evidence-based interventions you can try to help:

  • Name what you’re feeling. Hear the self doubt start to chatter? Start feeling like you are absolutely not where you should be? Call it out! This is Imposter Syndrome! Acknowledging what you’re feeling can help you understand what is going on, and allows you to begin to interrogate the experience – and remember, thoughts aren’t facts. They’re just thoughts.
  • Validate that feeling. Practice self compassion! It makes sense that you feel this way; Remember, most people do at some point or another.
  • Consider your core beliefs. Do you think people are worthy of love when they make mistakes? Does that apply to you, too? We use a lot of reframing and thought challenging questions like this in CBT because they work. Getting distance from the negative self talk and challenging it is powerful.
  • Reframe your thoughts. Try to remind yourself that, as human beings, none of us are perfect. The goal is not perfection, but progress. Instead of saying to yourself “I’m going to mess up,” try saying to yourself “Look at all this room for growth I have.”
  • Breathe. Sometimes you just need to take a deep breath and slow down, acknowledging the small steps you’re taking and the progress that you’re making over time. Breathing helps regulate your brain and body and NEVER hurts. We are big fans of the box breath!

You might never fully kick these feelings of being out of place, and that’s okay! Hopefully, having a better understanding of what it is you’re experiencing will allow you to have a little more grace with yourself. You are not an imposter, you are a human being making your way through the world as best as you can, just like the rest of us.

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