Imposter Syndrome occurs when a successful and hard-working person experiences a pattern of self-doubt and a persistent fear of being “found out” regarding one’s inadequacies and flaws. This person can never have enough achievements to fully perceive oneself as worthy of being proud, because the fear of impending failure or embarrassment is always present in one’s mind. Due to frequent thoughts about failure, a person with Imposter Syndrome is prone to anxiety and depression. Also, there is little joy in one’s career, parental, or academic successes, because this person feels like a fraud who is just playing out a persona. Imposter Syndrome is a cognitive distortion which can be treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Psychoanalytic techniques aimed at exploring the sources of one’s sense of incompetency. To keep this underlying sense of incompetence from surfacing, the person is likely to use one or more defense mechanisms. I will describe three common forms of Imposter Syndrome.
The first form of Imposter Syndrome is the Noticer, who cannot be proud of one’s achievements if they do not measure up to what is perceived to be “as good” as others’ achievements. The Noticer is always comparing oneself to others, whether it is physical appearance, material belongings, status, or abilities. The Noticer is always defending one’s fragile psyche from an intense fear of not belonging. This form is particularly affected by social comparisons. Social comparisons assist individuals in determining their rank in social groups, assessing what others find attractive in them, and providing information on how they should change their behaviors to obtain favorable outcomes. However, the Noticer uses social comparisons to continually “prove” one’s worthlessness. This self-deprecating thought pattern puts the Noticer at a high risk for developing an anxiety or depressive disorder.
The second form is the Discounter, who automatically rejects or minimizes support, praise, or even love from others. This form of Imposter Syndrome is difficult to change, because the Discounter behaves in such an isolatory and emotionless manner, thus not accepting support or guidance from others. The Discounter can drain relationships and keeps up one’s emotional and mental walls, due to the intense fear of “never being enough.” This wall also interferes with risk-taking in one’s career and interpersonal relationships. The Discounter struggles with a sense of being unqualified, which prevents this person from negotiating for a better salary or from seeking a more satisfying job. Finally, the Discounter tends to feel relief, instead of pride, after an accomplishment, thus perpetuating the cycle of self-loathing and social isolation.
The third form is the Perfectionist, who is always hungry for more success, better outcomes, and higher prestige. The Perfectionist feels unsatisfied no matter how much effort is expended toward a goal or how many ambitious goals are achieved. Furthermore, the Perfectionist is constantly telling others how to improve their efforts and how things “must be done” when the underlying fear is of losing control. For the Perfectionist, it is extremely important to control all situations, which often results in narcissistic behaviors and even to the point of frequently gaslighting others. The Perfectionist views uncertainty as a weakness and as proof that he or she is truly a “fraud.” Although this form of Imposter Syndrome can promote career, academic, and interpersonal successes, there is always the anxiety of losing control, which is an inherent part of human existence. Therefore, the Perfectionist is prone to developing an anxiety, depressive, or personality disorder. The Perfectionist is at particular risk of exhibiting behavioral and thought patterns which are characteristic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and even Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Imposter Syndrome can develop from being raised by an overly-critical parent, who negatively affects a child’s perceived capabilities and overall sense of worth. Critical parents tend to be hyperfocused on their child’s performance in academic and social activities and to value compliance and obedience with little nurturing toward the child’s emotional development. Critical parenting is a form of emotional abuse which can develop into chronic childhood trauma. Imposter Syndrome can also develop from a history of ADHD, such as difficulty staying organized with personal responsibilities, social insecurity, difficulty with communication skills and emotional expression in one’s intimate relationships, ineffective decision-making and problem-solving skills, and frequent academic and professional mistakes or missed deadlines. Adults with ADHD may repress their fear of failure and their negative self-talk by developing one of the three forms of Imposter Syndrome which were described above.
Whereas Imposter Syndrome is typically unconscious and mindless, the learning and use of Mindfulness strategies can help to break through the cycle of fear and hiding. However, a person can only break free when one identifies and accepts the sources of the self-doubt, either through writing, engaging in therapy, and using inspirational redirect words as needed to focus on the process and on one’s efforts, as opposed to the feared outcome of failing or being inadequate. Using Mindfulness or Cognitive Behavioral strategies can help someone with Imposter Syndrome to shift from an external to an internal locus of self-worth, which can eventually create a sense of pride and confidence. The first step is to observe when one’s Imposter-related thoughts and feelings begin to surface, so that more appropriate behaviors can follow. Imposter Syndrome CAN be overcome by taking action each day to create and maintain one’s purpose and by being open to continued learning and self-growth.