Imposter Syndrome and Insufficiency
In my practice and teaching, I often encounter “imposter syndrome” among those I work with. This phenomenon can be described as “feeling like a fraud” compared to those around us. I think the most troubling aspect of this situation are the feelings of shame that surround it and the anxiety that flows from worrying about being “exposed.” The implications of imposter syndrome are significant: it prevents us from living to our fullest potential, creates roadblocks to opportunities we might enjoy, and leads to an inner dialog highlighting our mistakes rather than our accomplishments and abilities.
While imposter syndrome is often seen in school and work, it can also show up in our personal lives. It appears as the internal voice saying “I’m not doing it right,” or “I'm not the person they really think I am.” It can even appear in counseling as the voice telling us that “other people are better therapy clients than me.”
I believe imposter syndrome is related to many things. Most of all, though, I think it stems from the steady stream of messages we receive in our culture about our alleged insufficiency. We are bombarded with advertising and social media experiences that imply that we don’t have enough or that our lives are somehow less than someone else’s. And in the case of advertising, we are told that we can eliminate this feeling of insufficiency if we acquire something new. What we do not receive from the world are messages that tell us we are enough as we are.
For those from marginalized or QT/BIPOC communities, imposter syndrome has an added, more dangerous dimension. Here the connection to insufficiency is especially disempowering because it can lead to a belief that our status as a “fraud” is because of our identity. In this way, imposter syndrome reinforces internalized racism and sexism and is part of a larger culture of oppression.
When we notice that we are experiencing imposter syndrome, there are some things we can do.
Know that we are always becoming: First, acknowledge that no one has it all figured out. We are in the process of becoming – both professionally and personally. When we are with people who are more knowledgeable or confident than we are, we can view this as an opportunity. Rather than proof of our inadequacy, it can be a moment for us to learn, be mentored, and build a closer connection with someone we respect. Ultimately, we will be able to do the same for someone else in the future.
Pause the inner critic: Second, we can work to monitor and interrupt thoughts that tell us we are a fraud. Rather than believing everything our mind tells us, we can question our thoughts and, if only tentatively at first, doubt the false story of our inadequacy. When feeling like an imposter, we can inventory our accomplishments, note the ways in which we have thrived under duress, and find examples of when we have successfully used our knowledge and skill. Our achievements are not random or sheer luck – they are evidence of our ability, tenacity, and competence.
Hold ourselves with kindness: Third, because imposter syndrome can be ruthless, we must meet it with kindness. All human beings make mistakes and there are things we don't know. Our mistakes and gaps in knowledge are not proof of inadequacy – they are evidence of our humanity. If we can bring this belief to the front of our minds, hold ourselves with more kindness, and soften and interrupt the self-judgments, we will begin to loosen the grip imposter syndrome can have in on our lives.