What does it mean to be an impostor? The Webster definition “is a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.” If you know me, you know I believe understanding of our personal definitions is important. If you read this definition would you consider yourself to be an impostor? Hmm. Probably not. Sounds malicious doesn’t it. Despite not identifying as an impostor, I find many professionals are suffering from Impostor Syndrome (originally termed Impostor Phenomenon).
Uh. What’s that?
Impostor Phenomenon was first identified by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 using research conducted at Georgia State University (Go Panthers!!). The women studied were shown to disregard their accomplishments and were convinced that they had somehow pulled off an elaborate rouse that had everyone fooled. Now I’m talking about women who have made amazing accomplishments and tremendous contributions to their fields. Doctors, Lawyers, Teachers. Who would ever believe that these women would doubt themselves?
Perfectionism, fear of failure, and fear of exposure appear to be the most common indicators that you may operate as an impostor. You may feel anxiety, stress, depression, and a generalized pressure to perform and perform well. You are always concerned about putting your best foot forward and making the best possible impression.
Working to keep up that impression leads to suffering and persistent beliefs of inadequacy. I use the word suffering because impostor phenomenon is an internalized pain, distress, and hardship. The women studied often downplayed their competence saying “I’m not good enough” or “My abilities have been over estimated” or with references to being too slow and all achievements being due to luck. Impostor Syndrome reinforces an idea that you are somehow undeserving of your skills, talents, accomplishments, and dare I say love, adoration, or appreciation. The result is STRESS!! Loads and loads of stress.
OK. So what changes my identity as an impostor?
Well, impostor syndrome has a lot to do with your self-identity and your ability to be compassionate with yourself. I could talk (write) all day about the societal and personal messages that influence impostor syndrome however I find it most effective to focus on YOU.
What do you value?
What are you trying to hide?
What do you fear people will say?
What are you proud of?
The goal is for each answer to be yours and yours alone. At this point don’t worry about what is achievable. Don’t stress about what others will think. Who cares if your mom will approve. This part of the process is yours and yours alone. It does not have to be shared with another sole (unless you choose to share). I want you to first expose yourself to yourself without the prying eyes and staunch opinion of others.
Determine what you value. When you close the door and pull the covers up to your chest what do you most want to possess? And I’m not talking about stuff here. Disregard physical possessions. What are the beliefs, characteristics, ideals that you most cherish? What are your values? Consider and list what you deem to be important or beneficial.
Identify your mask. Name the things that you don’t want others to know about you. Be honest, no one else needs to see your list. Now consider what actions, words, and behaviors you use to hide these things from others. These are your masks. Once you expose yourself to yourself you access opportunity to become more and more comfortable with who you are. As you increase your own understanding you will also increase your confidence and as a result you will become less and less fearful of being exposed.
Identify your exact fear. It’s easy to say “I’m afraid.” It’s often harder to express what you are afraid of. Again, be honest, no one else needs to see your list. However, if you want to share the list GO FOR IT. I encourage it. There is no particular level of confidence required. The more you are able to share your fears, the less power they will have to trap you. Secrets Keep You Sick.
Identify what YOU consider to be an achievement. We have a habit of focusing on large milestones. Graduations, Promotions, Marriages. These are great feats but what about the everyday wins? We also have a habit of considering other people’s opinion in our accomplishments. Why did that feel like a win until you compared it to someone else? Name the things that make YOU proud. Don’t place value on your achievement. If you did it and it resulted in positive feelings then it’s your achievement.
Track your achievements. My new favorite way to do this is with an Achievement Jar. This is literally a huge, yes HUGE, mason jar filled with small notes documenting my accomplishments. Big or small. The point is to have a visual representation of your achievements. A tangible way to look back and connect the dots while realizing that this huge jar of achievements can’t all be luck.
All this to say that your achievements are defined by your assessment. By asking yourself these questions, answering with your values in mind, and consistently REMINDING yourself of those answers you will begin to change your beliefs. You will become less willing to externalize your accomplishments and accept yourself as an impostor.
I know it sounds impossible. The only requirement is patience. Patience with yourself.
You are NOT a fraud. You deserve all that you have achieved and more!
Maybe you don’t believe that today…but you will.
Clance, P.R.; Imes, S.A. (1978). “The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention”. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241–247. doi:10.1037/h0086006.
Rayvéne is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Master Addiction Counselor in Smyrna, GA (just outside Atlanta.)
Specializing in helping you remove the mask and Be Your Best You. Assisting you to connect with your identity and ignore the noise of others options and expectations. I also help overwhelmed couples find a healthy balance between caring for themselves and one another. LGBTQQI affirming therapist and ally. Many clients are professionals who are seeking balance and relief from stressors of success. Learn more at www.simplicitypsychotherapy.com
Note: While the suggestions within are intended to provide direction and begin your journey they are not intended to replace the guidance of a trained professional. Exploring these concerns in the presence of a licensed counselor or other licensed professional may provide deeper insight and assist in managing more multifaceted concerns that may arise.