We all struggle with self-doubt from time to time, but some people live with a constant fear that their professional success is a house of cards that could come tumbling down at any moment. They believe that their success is just a series of lucky draws because they are not inherently able or competent, and if and when people find out what they are really capable of — they will be exposed as a fraud. These individuals struggle with what is known as “imposter syndrome”.
The term impostor syndrome was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. When the concept was introduced, it was mostly applied to high-achieving women, but since then research has found that many men struggle with imposter syndrome as well. While imposter syndrome is not a formal mental illness or diagnosis, people who struggle with this often also struggle with low self-esteem and self-worth, as well as more serious difficulties such as depression and anxiety.
Many believe that it is only those who newly enter the workforce or start a new position that struggle with imposter syndrome, but that is in fact not the case. Imposter Syndrome does not have to do with one inherent ability; it is mostly related to how one feels about themselves. The more successful a person is, the more likely they will feel that they are posing or acting in their role. No matter how well they do at work, and how much praise or positive feedback they receive, the idea that they are capable and successful cannot be digested or internalized.
What causes imposter syndrome?
Individuals who struggle with imposter syndrome can come from households where there was a high value placed on achievement. This could be that the parents expected a lot from their children or the parents themselves were highly successful. Having success be an anchor within a family could result in a person feeling like they don’t measure up to the explicit or implicit standards set for them. The opposite is also true, where some with imposter syndrome come from families that did not have anyone in positions seen as traditionally successful, so who they are and where they come from, feels very different from the role or position they hold today.
Mainly a result of their family dynamics and societal messages about success and who is capable of it, most individuals with imposter syndrome have very high standards for themselves and anything less than perfect is considered not worthy and not able. They have internalized messages from their upbringing that their self-worth and their self-esteem is dependent on and defined by worldly achievement and success, so a lot of energy is aimed at maintaining their position and proving that they are worthy of acceptance, appreciation and admiration. Since there is so much pressure to achieve external success, they are less likely to focus on their internal life, which would include self-awareness and a realistic evaluation of ones one’s talents and abilities. The older they get, the further they stray from their true self, and the less realistic they are about the expectations they set for themselves.
The familial context and their perfectionistic tendencies are exacerbated by social comparison, which is amplified in today’s world by social media. These individuals will compare themselves, along with their very loud and present inner struggles, with filtered and curated snapshots of people who appear to ‘have it all together.’
How one can relate to the imposter syndrome?
While I would love to suggest a 30-day program to getting rid of the imposter, unfortunately understanding and healing those parts of you takes a bit longer. You have to travel internally to those parts of you that developed in childhood that linked your value and worth with your achievement. On this journey you will need to confront your fears of being rejected and abandoned, and you will need to heal the parts of you that are laden with shame.
Where does one start in doing the work and the healing associated with the imposter syndrome?
Consider your inner world as consisting of many parts. We all have parts of us that are confident, heroic, and whole while having parts that feel vulnerable, victim-like, and fragmented. All parts exist in all of us, some louder than others. There are times where you feel fully in control of your power, and other times you feel like it is a struggle to find your footing. So, even if there is a part of you that feels like an imposter, know that it is only a part of you. It is not the totality of who you are.
Don’t resist the imposter, welcome it as you have a real dialogue with it. You weren’t born like this but developed this part of you because you felt that your sense of self was determined by your accomplishments. This part of you came about to protect you and make sure you always put your best foot forward. However, it is no longer serving you. And usually, the parts that help us in one phase of our life can hold us back in another. Once you understand the origins of the imposter and realize that its pointing towards the parts of you that are unhealed, you can work on healing them, as well as learning the lessons and thanking this part of you that helped you get this far in life. The more you heal, the less power the imposter has, letting you move more and more into your power.
Develop a relationship with the imposter. We might never be able to totally rid of this part, however, we can learn to relate to it and keep it in check. Use the following questions to try to understand where it came from, and how it is telling you about what you need to heal.
What am I afraid of really? What is the worst that can happen?
What are my gifts and talents?
Where in my life do I not feel like an imposter?
When you hear the voice telling you that you are an imposter – listen closely, whose voice is it?
If your friend or a child came to you with similar concerns, what would you tell them?
What would happen if you accepted that you are ‘acting’ a part until you can fully inhabit it?
Imposter syndrome is essentially a part of you that is afraid that the authentic self will be rejected and abandoned. When someone is struggling with this issue, they have so much of their focus and attention on keeping appearances that they forget to check in with themselves about what their truth really is. The lens with which they view the world becomes so corrupted that they cannot see their own talents and thus, dismiss their own abilities. While many of us want to quickly rid of this part of us, we may be missing the point. The imposter, if you relate to it as a part of you that is protective, is here to guide you to your wound that needs healing, and eventually, it is here to guide you to your truth.
Dr Saliha Afridi
As a clinical psychologist for the past 13 years, Dr Saliha Afridi has spent 12 years working in the UAE and founded The Lighthouse Arabia in 2011, a community mental health and wellness clinic providing quality psychological and psychiatric care to children, adults, couples and families.