Do You Have Imposter Syndrome?

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imposter syndrome

One of the most popular Disney movies of all time is about a “street rat” turned prince.  With the assistance of a witty genie and a magical lamp, Aladdin morphs from a penniless street urchin into a wealthy prince.  Aladdin participates in a calculated and elaborate charade where he pretends to be a rich prince, Prince Ali, so that he can position himself to fall in love and marry the sultan’s daughter, Jasmine.  Jasmine is duped and falls for the charade, but eventually figures out that Prince Ali isn’t at all who he claims to be.

Aladdin knowingly acted as an imposter, or someone who pretends to be someone they are not, in order to trick and mislead others.  An imposter can be thought of as an imitation, a fake, or a phony and usually impersonates others for their own personal gain.  But what about the people who feel like an imposter when they are simply being themselves?  Clinical psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes conducted research on this subset of the population.  They studied a sample of high achieving women to understand a phenomenon they called “imposter syndrome”, where people believe they are not worthy of their earned successes, despite much evidence to the contrary.

Imposter syndrome refers to an individual who downplays their successes and accomplishments by simply attributing it to other factors.  Achievements and triumphs can be credited to things such as luck or fortuitous timing, rather than skill set or intelligence.  Highly successful individuals will question themselves, wondering if they are meeting or exceeding expectations, while secretly waiting for the moment when they will be discovered for the imposter they feel they are.

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Imposter syndrome does not apply to all situations and instead, is a response related to specific conditions.  An individual may feel confident in some situations, while feeling inadequate in others.  Risk factors for imposter syndrome include a propensity towards perfectionism, a fear of disappointing others, or an overall apprehension about failure.  Imposter syndrome can cause a person considerable distress, causing feelings of worry and strain, embarrassment, and sadness.  An individual may experience lowered self-confidence and diminished self-esteem, preventing them from seeking new opportunities.

In order to overcome imposter syndrome and progress forward in life, an individual must learn to confront and resolve sentiments that they are being deceitful.  Feelings should be validated, but then combated with evidence to dispute them.  People need to be confronted with their accomplishments, abilities, and talents that have led to their success.  A person with imposter syndrome needs to be shown their significance and worth, while carefully linking them to their hard work and triumphs.  A person needs to be willing to take credit for their intelligence, character, hard work, and values to dispel feelings that they are an imposter.

So, whereas Aladdin was a true imposter, and knowingly acting as one, a person with imposter syndrome feels like a fraud, but is actually the real deal.  Imposter syndrome causes one to feel as if the world is going to figure out their charade at any moment, causing them to feel uneasy and on edge all of the time.  To rise above imposter syndrome, a person needs to accept that they have played an active role in their accomplishments instead of feeling like a lucky bystander.  An individual needs to learn self-acceptance in an effort to truly see themselves and their accomplishments clearly.  Thankfully, a genie or magical lamp is not necessary for one to achieve these lessons.  Instead, a person needs to be willing to have faith and confidence in themselves, while reducing their fears of failure and disappointment.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.