Dear Therapist: How can you combat imposter syndrome? As someone who runs their own business, I can run into this a lot and I want to be able to feel proud of my accomplishments rather than question if I deserve them. Any tips!?
Frame Community Therapist Suzette Bray weighs in...
Yup, sounds like you are among the group of folks (me included!) who sometimes doubt our abilities and are just waiting for everyone to realize we have no idea what we are doing and absolutely no right to be doing it.
High achieving folks are most likely to be impacted by imposter syndrome, originally called “imposter phenomenon” by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Clance and Imes originally thought this feeling of being unqualified, incompetent and waiting to be caught out by others despite having achieved accolades and success was largely only experienced by women, but more recent research indicates that 7 out of 10 people – men and women- feel like imposters at some point in their careers.
Here are some tips to deal:
Work the Buddy System. Since so many folks struggle with accepting their competence, I bet you can find colleagues and friends who feel the same way sometimes. Seeking out a fellow “imposter” can remind you, that despite your respect for them, this person feels like a fraud sometimes, too. It can help you challenge your own unhelpful beliefs when you someone else you know isn’t incompetent or unqualified has struggled with the same irrational thoughts and unjustified feelings and can validate and normalize these feelings.
Stop Comparing Yourself with Others. Comparing your insides (your thoughts, feelings and beliefs about yourself) to someone else’s outsides (the face they present to the world) often dooms you to feel like you are the only one who ever makes mistakes, fails occasionally or has difficulty getting things done. Just because something looks effortless from afar does not mean it was easy. We all struggle at times.
Take Ownership of Accomplishments and Accolades. Most of us therapists have begun encouraging clients to jump off the hedonic treadmill of seeking self-esteem through perfectionism, people pleasing and achievement and have instead started to focus on self-compassion: the idea that we are all human and deserving of compassion no matter our accomplishments or failures. But in the case of imposter syndrome, having some tangible reminders of our successes and people who approve and respect us can go a long way toward reminding us that we are “in the club” and have earned our place in the worlds we inhabit.
It's a Systemic Thing. Especially for folks who are LGBTQ+, people of color, identify as female or are otherwise members of groups who have not been in the majority or who have been oppressed, imposter syndrome can be created by systems that treat you like an imposter, someone who lacks the ability or right to be there. Fight the system and don’t believe the hype!
Is that a Feeling or a Fact? Imposter syndrome by its very definition is based on feelings of anxiety and shame, not the facts of competence, qualification, achievement and belonging. Dialectical Behavior Therapy gives us a great tool for figuring out whether we are in an emotional mind or in wise mind when assessing thoughts we might have about ourselves that lead to uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and shame.
It is called "Check the Facts". Here’s how you do it:
Practicing Check the Facts
- What is the emotion I feel that I want to change? In the case of importer syndrome, it is usually anxiety and/or shame.
- Describe the situation that brought about this emotion using facts only. No judgments!
- What are your assumptions and interpretations about the situation? Would someone completely impartial agree with your interpretations?
- Are you assuming a threat to your life, your way of life, or your livelihood? What is that threat? How likely is it really to occur? What else could happen?
- Is this a catastrophe? If it is (when you really think about it, it almost never is), imagine the catastrophe occurring, and you coping well with it. Remember that the catastrophe is based on the facts, not the feelings associated with the event or thoughts. It is super unlikely that everyone will point and laugh (like that kid on the Simpsons, Nelson. Ha Ha!) or put you up on a stage and pour pigs blood all over you (like that movie Carrie). Keep the catastrophe within the realm of reality.
- Ask Wise Mind (that part of your mind from where you make your best decisions – a blend of emotion, reason and intuition and wisdom): Does my emotion or its intensity fit the facts now that I’ve looked at them?
I hope these suggestions have been helpful. Remember not to judge yourself for the judging of yourself involved in imposter syndrome. A little self-doubt can keep us humble. Good luck to you!
About the therapist: Suzette Bray is a licensed marriage and family therapist who sees clients from her virtual private practice in California, Arizona and Florida. She is the founder of Village Counseling and Wellness, a DBT program in Burbank, California and Wellspring Family Therapy, an online therapy center serving clients throughout California. She is the author of Your Emotions and You and DBT Explained. She likes to joke that she is recovering from a particularly nasty case of imposter syndrome, but it’s kinda not a joke. Learn more and connect with Suzette by viewing her Frame profile here.
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