If you broke out in a sweat when you read the title of this post you may be one of the 40% of highly successful, high achieving people who suffer from “imposter syndrome.” (Or one of almost all of us who experience it at least occasionally.)
What is it?
The core of imposter syndrome is that no matter your achievements, no matter your success, no matter how much positive feedback you receive, you feel like a fraud. And you live in dread of being found out.
The term was coined in the late 1970s by researchers Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes. It refers to “high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” In their words, “The term “impostor phenomenon” is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women…Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
According to Dr. Clance in anonymous surveys men disclosed these feelings to the same degree as women. It is now believed to occur in equivalent numbers in men. The apparent relatively higher occurrence in women may reflect a cultural prejudice making it shameful for men to admit to perceived weakness.
I’ll tell you what imposter syndrome is not. It is not a clinical diagnosis. (Good news!) One reason is that imposter syndrome is so common almost everyone experiences it sometimes.
You know you are suffering from imposter syndrome if you find yourself regularly making these kinds of statements about your achievements:
- “It was just luck.”
- “Anyone could have done it.”
- “Someone else would have done a better job.”
- “If people really knew me, they would realize I’m actually (stupid, worthless, incompetent, not as good as they think I am, fill in your criticism of choice).”
Given the intense shame that accompanies the sense of perceived inadequacy most people live their imposter feelings in isolation. This may be you if you find yourself thinking:
- “Nobody else feels like this.”
Ironically, attempts to reassure you about the value of your achievements may backfire by “upping the ante”. After all, the essential perceptual error is that evidence of your achievements is evidence of your fraud. The more you’re complimented the more you feel like you’ve fooled people.
As you might imagine feelings like these can contribute to a host of other problems such as depression and anxiety. They may even underlie addictive behaviors used as way to escape pervasive feelings of dread and inadequacy.
So what do you do about it?
In my experience people feel the most relief from imposter syndrome when they work on developing a sense of self that is independent of external achievement or success. This doesn’t mean you should stop trying to succeed. It means external success is not where you seek your sense of self value. Instead try to develop a sense of self based on intrinsic qualities such as compassion, lovingness, intent, commitment, honesty, honor, etc.
It is also essential to stop living these feelings in isolation. Discovering you are not alone engages a sense of “universality”, one of the primary elements of any healing process. It’s such a relief when you realize, “You mean I’m not the only one?”
But in the highly competitive and often adversarial world of law with whom can we share these feelings?
Remember the old Knight from Indiana Jones and The Holy Grail? After watching the Nazi disintegrate into a puddle of flesh from drinking out of the opulent, false grail the Knight said, “He chose poorly.” After Indiana Jones correctly chose the humble carpenter’s cup the Knight said, “You have chosen wisely.”
Choose wisely. Only share your vulnerability with people who are themselves willing to be vulnerable and humble.
Here are some more suggestions:
- Be vulnerable and authentic with yourself in the privacy of your own mind or journal.
- Name your feelings as imposter syndrome. Develop some objectivity about your feelings.
- Choose safe, trustworthy people to share your feelings with.
- Practice revealing yourself one step at a time. Preferably tiny, baby steps.
- Stop faking it. You’ll never believe people value you if you never let them see the real you.
- Question your values. Are you only worth what you have achieved? Is that a belief you want to hold? For others? For yourself?
- Shaolin Kempo Master John Fritz begins his presentations by saying, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad I’m here. And I know what I know.” Try it.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.