Dealing with 'Impostor Syndrome'

bambiDo you often attribute your successes to luck rather than your abilities? Do you feel that you’re tricking people into thinking you’re more competent or intelligent than you actually are? If so, you may be experiencing ‘impostor syndrome’ – a term first used in the 1970’s by psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes to describe high-achievers unable to internalise their accomplishments. It is also coupled with an ongoing fear of being exposed as a fraud; that one day people will realise that you’re not as good at what you do as they first thought.

Whilst ‘impostor syndrome’ is not defined as an official mental disorder, it is often a painful character trait to live with. Not only do we fear judgement or rejection from others, but we also miss out on experiencing satisfaction and pride in what we do. Even when we do receive praise, this may be followed with anxiety over whether we can perform to the same standard again in order to avoid disappointing those who have praised us. So what can we do about it?

Breaking the Rumination Cycle

Those of us who feel like a ‘fraud’, whether it’s in our career or creative pursuits, may find that we typically spend more time ruminating about our failings than we do on enjoying our successes. Even if we succeed nine times out of ten, we’ll probably dwell on that one mistake more than anything else. Here’s where mindfulness can come in handy!

By building some awareness around our thought patterns (i.e. “I know they said they liked it, but it could have been so much better”) we can begin the process of detaching a little from those thoughts. It may even help to give them a label, to help with recognising them for what they are. So for example, next time you find yourself reflecting on how you duped your boss into thinking you were good at your job, you can think to yourself, ‘Impostor syndrome thought’. This can be done with all kinds of thoughts actually, but the point is to start identifying with the thoughts less, so that in time you may come to think of yourself as less of an actual impostor, and more as someone who just has impostor thoughts.

Lingering on Praise

When someone praises us, our first thought might be something like, ‘Oh, it was nothing’, ‘I just got lucky’, or ‘Anyone could have done it’. If we’ve experienced impostor syndrome for a long time, we may brush off praise without even being aware that we’re doing it. Yet it may be helpful to start giving more attention to the positive feedback we receive.

By spending a few moments to let the good feelings in, we can start to do a little rewiring of the brain to help it become more attuned to receiving praise. As Dr. Rick Hanson describes:

“By taking just a few extra seconds to stay with a positive experience—even the comfort in a single breath—you’ll help turn a passing mental state into lasting neural structure.”

So next time someone tells you that you did a good job, experiment with letting that positivity in, even if it feels a little uncomfortable at first.

Self-Compassion

This may seem like a difficult thing to give yourself if you’re feeling like you’re no good at anything, yet bear with us. When we’re feeling inadequate, what is it that we most crave? It’s probably a sense of self-confidence, or better yet, some self-esteem! We want to feel adequate, competent, enough. Yet, we tend to base our sense of self-esteem on our achievements, which puts impostor syndrome sufferers in a rather hopeless situation. As Dr. Kristin Neff says it in her book ‘Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind’:

“It’s the old carrot-and-stick approach—self-judgment is the stick and self-esteem is the carrot.”

Instead of constantly trying to succeed enough to earn ourselves some elusive self-esteem, we can instead give ourselves something that doesn’t rely on such conditions. After all, we don’t usually give compassion to others based on how much money they earn, how high-ranking their position is, or how popular they are. Rather, we give compassion to those who are suffering, and that can include ourselves too.

Although mindfulness can’t completely remove our impostor thoughts, by using the above practices we can start to relate and react to them in a lighter, healthier way.

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