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  • Jan Flynn

Unmasking Imposter Syndrome

Not Fake, Formidable!

Last week I wrote about my current internal struggle

I described my decision to disrupt the negative thought spirals that have been giving me unnecessary pain by recruiting professional help. Maybe you’ve had something like this happen: you have a stubborn ache in your knee or neck or wherever, one you put up with for months until you realize that not only is it not going away on its own but it’s getting worse. Also, it’s making you grumpy and reluctant to do things you otherwise enjoy.

At last, you schedule a visit to a doctor. On the morning of your appointment, you notice that your knee or neck or whatever doesn’t hurt quite so much.

Maybe it’s not such a big deal after all. Maybe you’re wasting time and money over nothing. Maybe you should just cancel the appointment.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a wise spouse who is on to you, and who points out that maybe the reduction in your pain is your body’s relief that you’re finally doing something about it. So maybe you should follow through with that instead of assuming that your knee/neck/self isn’t sufficiently worthy of expert attention.

If so, and if you listen to your wise spouse, you’ve just dodged one of the more subtle and insidious faces of imposter syndrome.

Which, I’m beginning to grasp, is something that bedevils me. Odds are you’ve experienced it too. If you have, then you’re familiar with its weird stew of perfectionism, insecurity, and self-judgment.

Imposter syndrome isn’t an actual disorder

It’s not listed in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the vast, periodically updated, and at times passionately debated reference manual produced by the American Psychiatric Association.

Imposter syndrome is more like a bad mental habit. But it’s serious enough that it’s been studied, starting in the late 1970s. It’s responsible for a lot of emotional distress and even careers that have been curtailed when otherwise high achievers talk themselves out of pursuing opportunities.

If you’ve ever experienced this, you’re likely to be a high achiever with an unfortunate tendency to play an underhanded trick on yourself. You set a lofty goal and work like a demon to meet it. But once you do, you convince yourself that your achievement is due to luck or having somehow fooled the boss, the dean, or the director into thinking your work, or more to the point, you are worthy.

It’s a kind of anti-entitlement: a sense that your accomplishments can’t really be the result of all that hard work and preparation you’ve put in. The relief you get from external affirmation — by getting the promotion or the award or the publishing contract — is fleeting and quickly morphs back into anxiety. You can’t be that good. It’s only a matter of time before somebody finds out what a fraud you are and kicks you to the curb.

Sure, you pulled that one off, but what about the next project or performance? Your only hope is to meet the next hurdle flawlessly, with no room for error. But what if you can’t do whatever it is perfectly, or even at all?

Then everybody will know what a fake you are.

Sound familiar?

If you wander through Wikipedia looking for the goods on imposter syndrome, you’ll find this unsurprising titbit:

“When impostor syndrome was first conceptualized, it was viewed as a phenomenon that was common among high-achieving women.” Wikipedia

With brilliant timing, a friend of mine recently sent me a card, from what is now my new favorite card studio. It makes this point much more vividly than Wikipedia:

photo by author: Emily McDowell Studio

I don’t think anybody has to scratch their heads too much over that assumption. We warrior women might look tough, but in a nation that still hasn’t managed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, all those messages we’ve absorbed through our pores from birth onward that we’re neither smart (enough) nor strong (enough) take a toll.

However, more recent research indicates that imposter syndrome is pretty evenly distributed across genders and that up to 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives.

So as I said, whatever gender you align with, there’s a better than 50-50 chance that you and I have spent some time in the same club, the Brotherhood of Generally Unqualified Shysters (BOGUS), whose motto is: Don’t tell anyone you belong. Because as Groucho Marx famously said, we wouldn’t want to be in any club that would have us as members.

The problem with imposter syndrome is its wonky circular reasoning, its repeating loops of negative self-talk that ignore all the abundant evidence that you actually do deserve a seat at the table. Maybe it’s just your brain clumsily trying to protect you from the sting of failure by scaring you into not even trying. If you let it, the imposter cycle can ground your dreams before they even launch.

It might help to know there are some very illustrious names on the BOGUS roster, folks who by their own admission struggle with the sense that they don’t belong at the conference or the awards show or teaching the master class, including Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman, Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sonia Sotomayor, Emma Watson, David Tennant — and the list goes on.

Or maybe that doesn’t help. Maybe you look at those names and think, “Yikes! I’m not even good enough to be an imposter!”

See how the syndrome works?

According to Dr. Valerie Young, a co-founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute, people in STEM fields, medicine, or creative arts may be particularly susceptible. These fields are both high-stakes and have either a high rate of change or an unpredictable one (for the creatives). Trying to get on top of that and then keep up is a hopeless, Sisyphean task, yet we think we’re supposed to anyway.

Imposter syndrome is one stubborn critter

But like all habits, this is a learned response, and it can be unlearned — or, replaced with one that serves us better. And yes, I’m about to give you directives as though I’ve mastered this myself. I certainly haven’t, but I intend to, and meanwhile there’s an advantage to having deep experience in feeling like an imposter: I can easily swing into fake-it-until-you-make-it mode.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

Just like any habit you want to change, the first step is awareness. Now that you’ve recognized the imposter cycle that activates in your psyche when you’re considering a new project or because you’ve just received an uncomfortable dose of praise, the trick is to catch yourself before that cycle gains momentum and spins out of control.

“I heard that,” you say (in your inside voice) when you detect the familiar not-good-enough litany starting up. Since it’s a pattern of thought that got you to this uncomfortable, limiting place, it follows that thinking different thoughts will lead you somewhere else.

Reframing thoughts is one of those techniques that is so ridiculously simple that it’s difficult to believe it can be so powerful. But if you can get yourself to bring up a different script, you can recruit your whole self into following it.

In my case, that would mean disrupting my knee-jerk, reactive internal monologue: Who do I think I am; I have no idea what I’m even doing; other people could do a much better job and blah-blah-blah . . . and then replacing it.

“Look at me, pushing myself out of my comfort zone,” I could say instead. “What if this turns out to be really cool?” Already I feel lighter. And, dare I say it, excited.

Ingrained habits, like the thinking cycle of imposter syndrome, don’t give up easily.

But you know what? Neither do I.

I’d bet the rent you don’t either. The only reason we’ve ever felt like imposters is that we’ve been daring enough to try doing hard things. And if we can’t entirely eradicate our fears that our achievements are more frauds than feats, we’re hardly alone. Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein reportedly confessed to a friend:

“. . . the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” Albert Einstein, quoted in Neuronation.com

If it’s hard for Albert Einstein to accept that anything he did was good enough, then maybe some degree of imposter syndrome is part of the human condition, at least for humans who are ambitious without being sociopaths.

As long as you and I refuse to let fear talk us into playing small, I think we’ll be okay. Maybe even formidable.

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