On this podcast I talk about the interesting phenomenon called impostor Syndrome. When you have impostor syndrome, you have a deeply held belief that you are a fraud who is on the verge of being found out!
I call this interesting because those afflicted with impostor syndrome are typically anything but a fraud. They are typically high-achieving, highly competent people who for whatever reason feel like they’re impostors who have somehow duped everyone into thinking they deserve their position in life.
Persistent thoughts include:
- “Someone will find out I don’t belong here and they’ll fire me.”
- “I don’t deserve to have all these nice things happen to me.”
- “Do I really know enough to do this job? What if I don’t?”
Despite an abundance of concrete, tangible evidence of such a person’s achievements, somehow this information doesn’t penetrate to their inside. Instead they are plagued by self doubt feelings of inadequacy, and anxiety and depression.
Everyone has these feelings sometimes. Some people just have a flavor of Impostor Syndrome, and some people have it full-on. Just like depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. Your symptoms may not warrant a diagnosis. So this podcast is for everyone who has ever felt like an impostor!
The Impostor syndrome was identified in the 1980’s by Clance and Dweck. In the study, two different groups of people were observed in relationship to achievement and success.
- When the one group that didn’t show feelings of inadequacy faced a so-called failure, they pushed themselves to master the task even more.
- When the other group faced a so-called failure, these individuals withdrew from the task, internally blamed themselves for the failure, and experienced feelings of anxiety and shame. These were the “impostors.”
What was the difference between the people who persevered, and the impostors? Quite simply they had a different view of intelligence.
Our impostors saw intelligence as fixed. They were motivated by performance goals. If they failed at a task, they took it to mean it must mean they were not really so intelligent after all.
The other group, the ones who kept trying, saw intelligence as being something that could grow. This group was motivated to learn. And that meant they could react to failures in a resilient way and then renew their efforts to master the tasks without feeling inadequate.
Where did our impostors get their beliefs? If we keep digging into the research we can learn about the family constellations surrounding them. impostor feelings were highly correlated with the need to please others in the family in order to get attention. This child was given attention only when performing behaviors that benefited the adults or others .In general, however, the family was not there to support the child’s feelings and individual development. (Bussotti 1990)
So how did the child cope? They began to develop a “false self” in order to be accepted and approved. That false self stays with the child who becomes an adult, and then no matter how successful– they are they feel insecure about their own abilities and identity. (Langford 1990)
Because I’m describing people who feel like they’re not good or competent enough, you might start thinking about self esteem as in, do they have low self esteem? Interestingly, no. If you feel like you are leading with a false self you don’t suffer from generalized low self esteem. Instead, your self esteem in the area of achievement is unstable and requires a system of defense that is burdensome and produces anxiety.
This system of defense involves different behaviors. Research bears out a difference in how men and women exhibit their impostor syndrome. It was observed that females would typically withdraw when feeling the inadequacy of the impostor syndrome whereas males would compensate and push themselves in a frenzied manner in order to prove their competency. (Beard 1990)
Gender aside, your system of defense involves performing being smart. Your false self is concerned with looking smart. It’s not enough to achieve. You wonder what does your performance indicate to others about your abilities? At least in the area of achievement your concern is how do others see me?
Let’s think about you as a child more. Because you were just a child who didn’t have all the insights that we as adults have, you may have felt you had to abandon your Self and your needs to maintain emotional safety. The family you were born into didn’t provide the support for you to evolve into who you felt your Self to be as a young child. You continued to present this false self mirroring back what was needed or expected from your family. Now as an adult you continue the same behavior patterns when you try to meet the demands of the social world. You feel the push to please to be validated at work, or school in places where performance and goals were in place.
Let’s take a look at impostor syndrome through the lens of IFS. What do we see?
All of us have parts of us holding outdated beliefs about ourselves. Those outdated beliefs are often negative, or creating negativity because they’re holding us back in some way.
When you feel like an impostor you are trying to hide your vulnerability and feelings of unworthiness left over from a younger time. Along with feelings of unworthiness come the dreaded feelings of shame.
You’ve probably developed a fortress of parts to defend against the outside.
This is a group of parts that was really smart at a young age. They clustered together and saw what needed to be done and how to interact to get the support and love for you. They were like child geniuses who could read the social cues and then mirror what was needed to the significant adults in your life. These parts really know how to manage the world on the outside of you to make it safe and get you the “prizes.”
The more you have used them the better they got at working together as a group. It is like on the job training for this cluster of parts. So when you are an adult you begin to really notice them as separate from you and actually their presence and how good they are at what they do keeps you from having other sides of you be available too. You may feel hollow and not connected to yourself and you long to express other sides to you. Another part of you will call them or yourself impostors. That is good that you can even notice this discomfort because once you see where you are in all of this and told totally overrun you can help yourself move towards change and feeling authentic. The part of you calling them impostors who is that talking? Is this a part that feels more authentic and would like to have more presence in your life.
All of these behaviors are meant to prevent others from finding out you are false and wearing a mask.
The goal of personal development with or without therapy is to lessen the dependence on others’ positive evaluations for one’s self value and build a more internalized sense of self worth. Then one can live from the inside out feeling authentic and true to oneself and connected on the inside. The way that can happen with the IFS lens is that we get better connected on the inside.
When one gets connected to and understands the inner protecting parts who form the “fortress” I just described, then winning others’ affirmations is not the driving force each day. The part that was working on overdrive trying so hard to be better and better reaching those performance markers real and imagined can relax back and enjoy the fruits of its hard work.
It becomes easier to feel affirmed and valued by oneself. The environment does not need to be manipulated in order to win praise for performance.
A new life begins each day with respect for oneself and one’s own learning needs. The support that wasn’t there as a child is there in the form of more connection with the Self qualities that were blocked by the fear anxiety and other protectors.
How do we get the fortress to step back?
When 3 conditions are met, the fortress will step back and the inner Self and other parts will be free to lead. There is no longer an inner dictatorship with the false self and all the cronies in charge.
Three basic conditions required to bring about connection and change.
- A warm acceptance towards oneself: Self Compassion
- A motivation to know and hold empathetic understanding of the one’s internal world: Self inquiry and Curiosity towards oneself in kindness and open hearted listening.
- Taking the interest and calm in sitting with one’s self and feel how difficult it has been for so many years: Empathy
We set the intention to provide for ourselves and accepting affirming atmosphere. There has to be some attention paid to the parts that have been leading so that they feel the support and can step back.
These parts have been working hard for you for a long time without recognition. Get curious about these parts of you. Stop and notice what parts get up and go out the door with you in the morning. What are their jobs and what role do they play in your life.
What do they say?
As you hear from your parts you will remember and re-feel the pressures and forces within the family that led to the beliefs you hold today. This can be hard for you, so bring your Self Calm and Curiosity to this conversation so you don’t feel too overwhelmed. Your parts have a story to tell you about how hard that younger inner child part worked to adopt a role to please others and win approval. As the story is witnessed by your larger Self the protectors will step back. Here is when you will feel the vulnerable emotions that were there but shut out of your awareness. Now the other more vulnerable feelings are exposed for you to get to know better too such as fear of failure and rejection or shame because of beliefs of not being good enough. Those too are welcomed by the Compassionate Self. It makes sense to have such feelings of anger or/and sadness.
It is likely this examination of the past will tap into feelings of sadness and anger at the lack of genuine nurturing present during childhood. It is important to stay with these parts and not be totally blended with them so that these difficult feelings can be validated and witness.
The best way not to blended is to be the noticer. Notice what is happening inside of you as you hear these stories. And then make statements and ask questions from any sliver of Self you might have. Wow this is so hard for you right now. Because who is the noticer? Not the part of you that feels so extreme. Also describing the sensation in your body to yourself of this feeling you named sadness for example. The sensation noticing keeps you from being all of it like in the old way of habitually being.
In the end it will be important to test out the new beliefs with experiments and paying attention to what parts of you are “talking” inside as you try out new behaviors. After all you are restructuring your entire internal system around achievement and glory.
If you can’t do this alone then seeing a therapist will help you through this process. The therapist can stay in those qualities of Self such as compassion, calm curiosity and connection when it is too difficult for you to not get overwhelmed.
It could also work to have a close friend or loved one hold you in compassion and caring as you speak from these vulnerable parts.
Working with your “impostor syndrome” parts changes your story of vulnerability. You didn’t choose this way of being in the world but you can certainly change this way of being now.
There is a way through this change. After all what you are doing is developing parts of you that are already there and let them guide your behaviors too. You will realize your inner courage to let go of the parts of you that have been leading as you do this inner exploration.
Because our beliefs feel so anchored in us from our experiences just having clear paths of success will not get rid of the inner feelings of inadequacy. Because you have a part of you that holds a belief it “knows” to be true. (ie. think it knows and yet it is only a part of you)
- The way it can show up is fearing success. Especially the visibility and responsibility that can come with success.
- Or the impostor Syndrome person pressures themselves even more not to fail and being found out. They work harder and longer than most around them.
- Feeling phony and so you try to give the answers that are expected and fit in
- Feeling inadequate you can use charm and social intuitiveness to gain approval and praise and then feel the just results are due to charm and not ability.
All of these behaviors and the results from these deeply held beliefs fuel the impostor feelings.
As you can imagine it is hard to enjoy or own the success as your own when you are filled with a fear that failure can happen at any moment the mask is pulled off..
The IFS therapy lens can be used for getting to know impostor feelings and releasing and unburdening parts of yourself that hold worries and concerns for you around success and having a good life. New situations may bring them up again but you can meet them unknot them and release the belief they hold and in doing that you begin to reduce those impostor feelings and feel more confident you can cope with them as they come up in your life.
With this IFS lens you can realize:
- Your own inner support meeting these feelings with understanding and concern for how hard it is. You are not alone.
- You can identify these feelings and other thoughts and feelings that accompany feeling like an impostor. In that way you unblend from these emotional parts and feel separate from them. Not overwhelmed by them.
- Standing in your Larger Self you are more aware of the bigger picture. You can see those automatic thoughts that jump in and seem like the truth but actually are not. Sometime those thoughts are too fast and you may find yourself feeling extreme feelings. Take a timeout and be with those feelings hear from them. Open compassionate and non judgmentally.
- Question these thoughts. Reality check time. I am not smart enough I am only average. On my web site at bethrogerson.com you can download a guide to help you meet apart of yourself.
5 Steps to Reducing Impostor Syndrome
- Notice you feel hollow and not real and what that does to you.
This makes me think of chocolate Easter bunnies. You don’t want to be the hollow one, you want to be a full, authentic solid chocolate Easter bunny.
Being the hollow bunny has served you well and yet now it just doesn’t work as well. Noticing it brings you closer to a more sustainable way of being in your life that feel authentic.
2. When you are experiencing impostor syndrome you concentrate more on others and what is outside of you as important.
A Chinese saying is that one mountain is always higher than another. You can’t solve the feelings inside of you by focusing on the external and comparing. That is a behavior that you can leave behind as you feel emotionally safer with your Self and your other parts.
The parts that have been driving your life have been focusing on what others are doing and who you are in relationship to them while you strive to achieve.
Look at your own path and what you are learning. Think of competing with yourself. You develop parts of you that are interested in your improving yourself and learning from your needs as you interact with the world. Learning is not fixed. Find what other parts wish you were being and doing. What do they want and need. How could they show up more in your life?
- You are embarking on truly finding out who you are when you feel authentic. When you are a solid chocolate bunny.
Often we project onto others what we would like to be ourselves. Look at the people you admire. What qualities do they have? Now look at yourself. Do you have some of these qualities. Most likely you do and they can be helped to develop and be more visible
- This is a time of personal transition: Transition move into transformation
It could get confusing at times as you try to feel from the inside out who you are and what needs you have and what traits you want to show to the world. There is always transition that comes with change. It prepares you for the change you are wanting to step into. When there is transitioning can f eel like you are not changing and then other feelings may come along: feelings of discouragement and criticism from the inside. It is important to meet each of these with your caring and self inquiry.
You meet any depressing thoughts or discouragement in the morning from a place of Self and see what you can do for it on this one day. One day at a time.
- This will be a time of breakdowns and breakthroughs.
I spoke with a client recently who told me about an emotional overwhelm she had because she felt she had failed where someone else would have succeeded. And from the breakdown she met herself in her emotions with compassion and caring consoling herself. She saw she had cast herself as victim in the situation, and began to feel emotionally stronger. She saw this place she was in as a place to learn.
If this breakdown became a breakthrough what would I be learning? she asked herself. When she gave herself compassion in this hard place and listened intently to her emotional pain without it completely overwhelming her she felt calmer and could see a way through the problem.
When we can’t get comfortable in our lives it is time to start looking inside and see what parts are leading and what beliefs we hold that influence our behaviors in our daily lives.
There are steps that you can take to understand those feelings and to get to know them better. When you understand where they come from and that they are not all of you it is easier to let go of them when they do come up.
BEARD, J. (1990). Personality correlates of the impostor phenomenon: An exploration of gender differences in critical needs. Unpublished masters’ thesis, Georgia State University, Atlanta.
BUSSOTTI, C. (1990). The impostor phenomenon: Family roles and environment. (Doctoral dissertation, Georgia State University, 1990). Dissertation Abstracts International, 51, 4041B.
CLANCE, P . R . (1985). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.
DWECK, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41, 1040-1048.