It is notable that many NYC psychotherapists and psychologists find their therapy offices filled with high achieving millennials with big jobs, but bigger doubts. These high achieving and ostensibly successful people who in-spite of their accomplishments, promotions, and validation from co-workers feel like a fraud. This phenomenon is often referred to as imposter syndrome (a term officially developed by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978). Why does there appear to be an increase in imposter syndrome? The rise in one’s dissonance between one’s outward appearance and internal self-view may be due to the pressure of keeping up with one’s impressive digital self. Perhaps the helicopter or overindulgent self-esteem parenting of the 80’s, exemplified by participation awards may also be contributing factors. It is important to note that although prevalent now, imposter syndrome is not new or specific to one demographic. Comments from Maya Angelo, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep and Tina Fey suggest they struggle with this issue. Literary Icon Maya Angelo has stated, “I have written 11 books and but each time I think, uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Typically, people with imposter syndrome have intense trepidation and dread that their brittle mask of competence will crumble leaving them exposed as a “sham” or “charlatan”. They believe their success if obtained, is undeserved and find ways to devalue their achievements. “It took me too much time to accomplish or the audience was undiscerning,” is often a refrain that reverberates in their mind. One patient described his experience of his imposter syndrome akin to a gas tank with a hole in it. There is a constant need for re-fueling in attempts to undo their perpetual self-doubt and anxiety. In addition to the anticipatory anxiety of being found out, the imposter often feels guilty, shameful and self- loathing.
It is important to note imposter syndrome can be more pronounced when starting a new job or academic pursuit. The unknown and ambiguity of a new situation leaves more room for projection of fears to evolve. In a new situation it is somewhat normative to some extent to have some fraudulent like feelings.
Below are dynamics that contribute to imposter and management tips:
- The Real Other: The real other is the imposter’s projection of a better self or person who contains everything they lack. The content of the fantasy pertains to a person or group that truly knows and has authentic knowledge and wisdom and has achieved excellence. This person is not an imposter. Some day the imposter hopes that they can be like the “Real Other”. This striving is an attempt to suppress an uncomfortable reality. There is no real other. The imposter’s illusion protects against the recognition of the universal humanness and mortality. Giving up the chase of the elusive authentic knowing other is dreadful. Finding it doesn’t exist is akin to losing religion, thus leaving a void. It’s more comforting to be an imposter in a world where there is someone all knowing, than a flawed person, in a world with other flawed people. In this reality there is no perfection and loss is inevitable.
- Puffery: Because imposters have consistent fear of “not being good enough,” they tend to over sell when it’s unnecessary. They inflate their capacity because they feel a lack of knowledge is unacceptable. This may create anxiety or contribute to fraudulent feelings.
- Owning it: It is speculated that people who feel like a fraud in their profession suffer from low or inconsistent self -esteem. Internalizing their accomplishments and holding onto them could significantly mitigate their suffering. This is a difficult process however a guided imagery technique may help.
Tip: I think John Kabat’s Zinn’s book, “Wherever You Go There You Are,” which does not mention the word imposter syndrome at all can be helpful. The book poetically references moving passages about being in the moment rather than chasing an idea of future self. It encourages us to live and awaken the constantly moving space and time we inhabit.
Another mindfully based technique is to avoid demonizing the imposter self that emerges from time to time. It may be a part of you but not all of you. Feeling fake does not mean you are fake or phony.
Tip: If you are honest with others than there is nothing to hide. This transparency can greatly mitigate anticipatory anxiety about being “found out”. Being honest about your limits is not a weakness, but a strength. As Socrates suggests, knowing what you don’t know is wisdom. Communicating this to others is a sign of insight and acceptance. More over, when you accept yourself, you signal to others a sense of comfort, which will make them more prone to also accept you. People will follow the cues you provide them.
Tip: Close your eyes and get into a comfortable position. Initially focus on your breath. If you get distracted gently notice the distractions and go back to the breath, take the time to imagine a moment in your life when you felt at your peak performance. A time when you felt a complete flow with what you were doing. What do you see, where are you? What did you feel and think? Let yourself connect with this experience. Tell your self this is me when you arrive at that peak place.