Imposter Syndrome and the Influences of Social Comparisons

       Imposter syndrome is an internal experience, largely derived from social comparisons, which causes you to believe that you are not as competent or stable as others perceive you to be.  This syndrome is common in people who focus too much on external influences, such as societal, religious, or family  expectations.  This syndrome often results in a repetitive process of comparing oneself to others, which can lead to developing depression, anxiety, and negative perceptions which can affect your sense of self-efficacy.  This syndrome can affect anyone at any point in life’s path.  You may experience this syndrome when struggling with job tasks, when making choices which conflict with your family’s expectations, and when being in a dysfunctional intimate relationship.  You may feel frequent fear about “being found out” that you are not as happy or emotionally stable as others or as you “should be.” 

     In today’s competitive and stressful society, being an “imposter” can be a necessary coping mechanism to get through the day at your job, with your partner, with your children, and with your own self in general.  Imposter syndrome is characterized by self-doubt, inconsistent motivation, and continually striving to “be enough” or to “be better” when comparing yourself to others or to societal standards.  The imposter syndrome is also characterized by evaluating your performance at home, at work, and in social situations by mainly external factors.  You may actually try so hard to be “OK” that you often sabotage your own goal achievement.

The Dangers of Social Comparisons

      Social comparisons have been hypothesized to assist individuals in providing information on how they should change their behavior to obtain favorable outcomes and have been correlated with depressed mood states, negative perceptions, anxiety disorders, and pervasive, deprecating thoughts about one’s abilities and worth.  The early history of social comparison research emphasized the comparisons which people select to evaluate their abilities and opinions about themselves and others, specifically whether people compare their performance outcomes by comparing themselves to others who they perceive as superior to them.  In forming perceptions of others in your social environment, viewing others as morally, socially, intellectually, or physically superior can result in very negative perceptions about yourself.  Therefore, social comparisons can cause you to experience low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, and being your own worst critic of your own characteristics. 

     When you perceive others as being “better off” than you, this creates a very self-defeating path in life.  Furthermore, social comparisons cause a sense of low self-efficacy, which is represented by your beliefs about your ability to succeed in a particular situation, and these beliefs are determinants of how you approach your life goals, your daily tasks, and any challenges in your life.  A strong sense of self-efficacy relates to your ability to view challenging problems as tasks to be mastered, a deeper interest in and greater commitment to daily activities, and a buffer against setbacks and disappointments. 

     In sum, social comparison research studies continue to explore and to better understand the cognitive evaluations about the strengths and weaknesses which people tend to base their comparisons to others.  Social comparisons have been repeatedly found in research studies to negatively affect one’s mental health, one’s general well-being, and one’s sense of self.  Current research studies are also exploring the link between one’s dependence upon social media responses and one’s sense of self-worth.  Higher levels of frequency and emotional investment in social media usage have been correlated with greater depression and anxiety, as well as a weaker and less stable sense of self.  Therefore, social comparisons can be very influential in determining your beliefs about your ability to achieve your life goals and to maintain satisfying, healthy interpersonal relationships.  Depression, grief, PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, and relationship problems have all been correlated with higher levels of social comparisons.

     The good news is that you can consciously develop a sense of self-efficacy and can learn how to stay focused on your own unique path in life, rather than to externally focus on how you “should be” as in imposter syndrome. By staying focused on your internal voice of who you really are, you will gradually find that external forces are irrelevant and often toxic.  Your internal strength can continue to evolve throughout life by acquiring new skills and experiences which are all your own and must not be affected by anyone else.  Think about all of the time and energy wasted in ruminating about how you “should be” when you only need to be “you” with your flaws, fears, negative perceptions, skills, challenges, and, most importantly, unresolved emotional experiences.

imposter syndrome negative perceptions sense of self-efficacy

Living as your Best Self Apart from Social Influences

      Your mental health is your own unique journey.  You may not feel comfortable explaining to your family members, friends, or romantic partner your struggle with various symptoms, such as depressed moods, persistent worries, triggers of past traumas, or concentration difficulties.  This discomfort can result from the fear of being judged or misunderstood by others who do not understand mental health issues. Social comparisons can shape the development of your sense of self, in terms of specific personality traits, values, opinions, behaviors, refinement of one’s particular abilities, and evaluations of one’s successes and failures. When you learn to evaluate your self-efficacy in a mindful manner which is focused only on YOU and not through comparisons to significant others and to social expectations and standards, you will find that life becomes much more simple and manageable.

     Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy are two very effective therapeutic techniques which can help you to learn how to navigate through anxiety-provoking or emotionally painful memories and negative perceptions, so that you can move forward with increased self-awareness and self-acceptance.  You can gain a sense of empowerment over your ruminating thoughts and the debilitating emotions caused by these thoughts.  You do this by gradually and carefully identifying the thoughts which have been irrationally and negatively influenced by social comparisons.  While this process requires motivation and perseverance, it can help you to develop valuable skills which provide resilience when confronted with life’s challenges.  These approaches focus on thought revision strategies for managing anxiety and depressive symptoms.  Most importantly, these approaches can help you to stay focused on your unique and independent thoughts and behaviors aimed at being your personal best and at coping with any challenging external events.  It will take work and perseverance to stay focused on YOU and to recognize when you are being triggered by social comparisons or when you feel like an imposter, but you will emerge with a stronger sense of personal control and a lack of concern about others’ judgments or expectations

     When you succeed at something, you are able to build a powerful belief in your ability. Failure, on the other hand, can undermine these feelings, particularly if you are still in the early phases of building your self-efficacy against negative perceptions.  Working on setting goals that are achievable, but not necessarily easy can be a good starting point at combating imposter syndrome and improve your sense of self-efficacy. 

Written by New Age Psychiatry’s Compassionate Therapist: Rebecca Wang-Harris PhD 

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