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My client, M, relayed to me that when she addresses a board room full of people, there is at least one moment in which she feels certain that people are bored, skeptical, and judging. They’re finally onto me, she fears, with a sinking stomach, until – phew! – she realises that she’s still in the game, for now.

Be you a writer or lawyer; yoga instructor or CEO, you might be well acquainted with that inner voice shrieking, I’d better deliver, or the gig is up!

Back in 1978 psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes observed that many women in successful careers dismissed their own talent, intelligence and ability. Instead, they attributed their success to such external qualities such as knowing the right people, luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise having “fooled” others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than these women “knew” themselves to be. Clance & Imes authored a study based on their research called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women (1978).

I experienced this, too, in my early years practising psychotherapy. While sitting with clients in counselling sessions, I felt present and engaged. Later on, though, I would dissect these sessions in a granular, scrutinising post-mortem that usually found me culpable of some egregious error. I spent many spare hours pouring over psychology literature in the hopes of showing my clients and colleagues how smart and competent I was. It took a kindly clinical supervisor commenting that I was “working like a little horsie” to make me realise that I wasn’t exactly buying into my own marketing (plus, I was a stress case).

Nearly forty years have passed since Clance & Imes identified this concept, and ‘The Imposter Phenomenon’ has evolved into a “Syndrome” (Big Pharma, you stay away!). And it’s not just for women anymore! All grown up with its own hashtag, Imposter Syndrome is trending in a big way.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter moments are normal, but many people experience Imposter Syndrome as more than a careerist rite of passage. Their work life is fraught with anxiety and perfectionism, and respite comes only when they receive recognition for delivering, provoking visceral – but temporary – relief.

The popularity of the term has led it to become a humblebrag of sorts – as though it is shorthand for saying “I’m successful, but still modest.” Still, as hackneyed as the concept is, Imposter Syndrome has a bona fide set of symptoms

  • You appear confident and competent, but are besieged by self-doubt (What was I thinking? Am I cut out for this?)
  • You attribute your success to good luck or charm, rather than intelligence or creativity (if only they knew the truth…)
  • You live in fear of being ‘discovered’ – which is just one setback away (I’m a fraud! I’m fooling everyone into thinking I’m special, but this lucky streak will run out – and then people will know the real truth about me).
  • You question your belonging  (Do I deserve to be here?)

What triggers an imposter “flare up”?

Those who struggle with this modern malaise can often eke out a pretty good show of confidence and productivity – until something happens. A colleague who appears to be a rising star. A client who doesn’t return. Being given a demanding project or a more prestigious role. A pitch that falls flat. Being silenced in a meeting.

These situations can create moments of self-doubt for all of us, of course. But for those who live in fear of being exposed as incompetent, or even – that most offensive of words – mediocre –  such events become the hooks on which we hang our fears of inadequacy.

Oh, inadequacy! That most unsettling and invalidating of states. There are so many ways to say “I’m not good enough,” and inadequacy finds them all. We hear its insistent whispering, and it sets off a cascade of compensatory reactions.

Social psychologist and Imposter Syndrome expert Amy Cuddy notes that imposterism leads us to overthink and second-guess. It makes us fixate (often inaccurately) on how we think others are judging us. We’re scattered and distracted — worrying that we are underprepared, obsessing about what we should be doing, mentally reviewing what we said five seconds earlier, fretting about what people think of us and what that will mean for us tomorrow.

Sometimes, the threat of failure and exposure is so great that people will opt out altogether, withdrawing from environments, opportunities and people that are potential threats to their competence.

The battle against our “weak” self

“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’  – Tina Fey

Imposter Syndrome is a conflict between polarised parts of ourselves. We’re all probably familiar with the tug of war between our longing to be strong and powerful against the reality that we are also fragile. Of course, we all want to feel solid inside and come across as impressive – but when challenges arise, we are bound to feel uncertain and self-doubtful. When we lack the self-worth to buttress this inherent vulnerability, we resent it, and revolt is then waged.

A client said to me recently, “I look at other people at work, and it’s hard to believe that they are feeling similar to me. They all seem to have it together.” Imposter Syndrome thrives on self-comparisons. Terrified of being exposed as incompetent, we become astute observers of other people, and where we are situated in the pecking order of competence and success.

Our inner scorekeeper roars into action, desperately trying to regain equilibrium. It is in this way that we fall into that overcompensating cycle. We feel small → we’re repelled by this feeling → we over-compensate (overwork, self-criticise, puff our chests out) → the partition (and battle) between weak self and strong self is reinforced.

In this tug of war, we need to drop the rope. There are better ways.

Be aware

We can start by observing our inner state when we become triggered. This can be as simple as naming the feelings  – anxious, envious, embarrassed, uneasy  – as they course through us. This naming process can help slow down some of our reflexive reactivity. We can also catch ourselves in the act of overcompensating and name that, too: I’m feeling anxious and insecure, and I’m doing that thing that I do to try to chase that away.

Be compassionate

When anxiety, inadequacy, and other difficult feelings surface, they are most unwelcome. Often, we respond to such feelings by allowing them to run amok – leading us to feel flooded and overwhelmed. We also are often inclined to suppress and avoid painful emotions, leading us to feel numb and disconnected.

There is an alternative – we can turn toward such emotions and accept them as part of the package deal of being human. Most importantly, we can have compassion for the parts of ourselves feeling weak and insecure, while still seeing clearly the biases in our appraisals of ourselves and others.

Self-compassion is quite counter-intuitive to the way many/most of us have been conditioned. Many of us contend with an inner critical commentary that is so auto-pilot that it almost seems like white noise. The act of responding in a caring way to difficult emotions that we wish we didn’t have is actually quite a skilled and intentional process.

A client recently said to me, “I was nervous to approach my feelings in this way – usually I numb them or try to push through them. But I found a certain sense of peacefulness came from listening to the needs behind the strong emotions.”

How did I get to this point?

Being a therapist, I believe such struggles are an on-ramp to some important insights about ourselves. How did you come to arrive at such a loaded relationship with competence? From where might this self-doubt come?

Understanding the core beliefs and life experiences that have influenced your narratives about competence and worthiness is a precursor to change. Working through these issues helps keep us present, rather than hijacked, when setbacks do occur (which they will). Self-doubt is part of progress, but it need not morph into full blown anxious reactivity.

What if I get stuck?

These briefly outlined strategies may raise your awareness and plant some seeds, but in reality, the issues underlying Imposter Syndrome can be quite layered. Sometimes some self-help is enough to make necessary shifts, while other times we can really benefit from the guidance of a counsellor through this process.

As always, we love hearing from you. If this speaks to you and you want to share more, please reach out to us. And if you know of others who could benefit from the thoughts in this post, please share away!

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.