Imposter syndrome


Imposter syndrome will plague most of us at some point in our lives. It often accompanies change, when we’ve moved up in the world in some fashion and start to feel a looming, background sense of anxiety or worry that we don’t belong.

Let’s explore what imposter syndrome is and how we can deal with it in counselling therapy or on your own.


What does imposter syndrome feel like?

In psychotherapy, we use the philosophical term “phenomenology” to characterize the kind of inquiry that takes seriously peoples’ description of their experience in their own words. We like to talk about experience, because it helps us build a richer picture of people’s struggles—much richer than using the dry clinical language used in medical descriptions/diagnostic symptomology. Let’s take a phenomenological dive into an archetypal example of imposter syndrome. See if you can connect with some parts of this:

Imagine you’ve started your dream job. After years of hard work and an arduous application and interview process, you’ve finally made it. You’re surrounded by all of the colleagues you’ve always hoped to join, and they look at you as if you’re one of them. But, you think to yourself, “I can’t possibly belong here… this job, this title, this profession, in this group of wonderful people.”

It doesn’t feel like it was supposed to feel. There is a strange dread in your belly, a feeling of fear, and when you explore your thoughts about what concerns you most, there is a sense that you’re going to be “found out”. It’s as if you’re being sneaky, or dishonest, but it wasn’t intentional. You’re collecting the fruits and rewards of belonging here, but you worry you’re a fraud, that you’re belonging isn’t real, and that at any moment the rug might get pulled out from under you. That process will be humiliating. Everyone who was so nice to you and gave you so much respect will pull it all away, and, on top of that, they’ll be angry that they were fooled by you.

Your behaviour might start to shift. You’ll try to outperform yourself, insisting that you must meet standards of work you can’t quite place, but you know are more than you’re already doing. Submitting work or speaking in public becomes fraught with performance anxiety. Anticipation of feedback becomes dreadful, as every chance someone has to comment on your work could be the time they finally catch you out. The worry and the striving become a frenzy. No matter how hard you work or how successful you are, it doesn’t seem you can escape the fear. As joy is sucked out of your accomplishments and you work harder and ever harder, burnout looms on the horizon. Emotions become increasingly volatile in your resting hours, with tears often so close to the surface.


The Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome

Let’s unpack our phenomenological description. We can locate some of the main symptom categories of imposter syndrome. They include:

  • Fear of exposure
  • Low self-esteem
  • Comparison to others
  • Shifting expectations/moving goalposts
  • Dread
  • Emotional volatility and dysregulation
  • Shame and hiding
  • Performance anxiety
  • Walking on eggshells
  • Perfectionism

But perhaps what’s most striking about imposter syndrome is that the strategies to diminish it seem to make it worse. Trying harder only makes the phenomenon more powerful.


What’s the difference between imposter syndrome and low self esteem?

There are important distinctions between imposter syndrome and low self-esteem, which can help us resolve imposter syndrome. Low self-esteem is a sense that “I think/feel I am not enough”. Though this sounds a lot like imposter syndrome, we need to make it more specific to really target imposter syndrome specifically. Feeling we are not enough is common and can be a difficult challenge in its own right, but it doesn’t make us an imposter.

Imposter syndrome is specifically described in the following dynamic: “they think I’m enough, but I think/feel/believe I’m not”. It is this discord between how we understand others to be viewing us and how we are viewing ourselves that creates the feeling that we are a fraud. We create a rationale for the presence of this gap: we pulled the wool over their eyes; we slipped through the cracks; there was some mistake; we convinced them we could do more than we can, etc. The fragility of this rationale leads to the sense of impending doom, that it will all come crashing down when the “gap” is discovered..

As we try to make sense of the gap between the perceptions of others and our own, we can feel progressively worse. Some may even feel that they must have been purposefully dishonest and can add guilt and shame to the already potent cocktail of fear and anxiety.

But the truth is this: the gap between others’ perceptions of me and my own perceptions of myself doesn’t need a lot of explanation! Nothing unsavoury needs to happen. Sometimes people misunderstand us, and sometimes we misunderstand ourselves! The question with imposter syndrome is who’s perception is correct? Do you really belong or not?


What’s the difference between imposter syndrome and perfectionism?

perfectionismImposter syndrome can be thought of as a bigger umbrella term—it tries to capture the whole experience of feeling like an imposter. Perfectionism, in this case, is one of the strategies people use when they are feeling like an imposter to try and prevent being exposed. Most people employing perfectionism will have some sort of reason to use this strategy. But not every reason for perfectionism is imposter syndrome.

The two terms overlap, but they differ in that perfectionism is simply a psychological strategy we use to deal with a problem. Fear and anxiety is the problem in this case. And imposter syndrome is a broader term to capture the whole predicament, including the problems and solutions that tend to accompany it.


If I’m not an imposter, why do I feel like one?

Low self-esteem is not the prime culprit in imposter syndrome. Rather, it is our high regard for others, or our high regard for statuses.

Even those with very high self-esteem can find themselves in a room of people for whom they have some exceptionally high regard. Myself, it would have to be astronauts. I’ve been awestruck by astronauts since I was a kid, and if somehow I found myself in a room of astronauts and they needed my input on space psychology of some sort… well I might start to feel like an imposter! It’s not that I have low self-esteem, it’s that there is a gap between my existing self-esteem and the esteem in which I hold astronauts. Now while that’s an extreme example, so many of us feel something like this when we emerge from own stage to another: a new grade in school, a new group of colleagues, a new job title, or a new company. And it’s made worse when it’s something we really wanted, something we were ambitious and aspirational about, because those desires represent the lifting of our esteem of that place and those people.


How do therapists treat imposter syndrome?

Every therapeutic journey is different, but the following are elements of therapy that can alleviate and even resolve imposter syndrome. When this happens, we allow ourselves to refashion our sense of self, to be less comparative to others or to our own expectations, and to enjoy our accomplishments and the life we’ve built.

  1. Trust the Gap: Our personal expectations of “what it takes” and “what I’ve got” will never fully overlap. The perceptions of others about “what they think I can do” and my own sense of “what I can do” will never fully overlap. The key to feeling less anxious about this gap is to recognize that it is always present and doesn’t require any sort of devious trickery (imposter, fraudulent) to be present.
  2. Curiosity: When we come to understand that the gap is always present, we can be more open to being curious about our own preconceptions, expectations, and how others established their expectations of you. Curiosity includes the fact that you might be wrong, including in a good way. Perhaps you do deserve that promotion. You can’t explore this without allowing curiosity to open our rigid concepts of self and other, of self and belonging.
  3. Cognitive Dissonance: Curiosity is all about seeing what you couldn’t see before, being open to new perceptions and interpretations. Unfortunately, when we show up on the scene with a firm conclusion already in place—i.e. “I am an imposter!—our brains would prefer to help us maintain that conclusion rather than search for other evidence. This is called cognitive dissonance or conclusion shopping. A trained therapist can help you set aside these defensive patterns and be genuinely open to new information. When it comes to imposter syndrome, new information usually gives evidence that you do belong, that you are an authentic member of this new place, and that there is no fraudulence waiting to be exposed.
  4. Self Assessment: When the dread and anxiety have begun to recede, it is important to regain your footing in your sense of self. The perfectionism and performance anxiety that accompanies imposter syndrome has usually disconnected us from our authentic work level: our aptitude,  competency, energy, etc. This is lost because we’ve worked so hard for so long we can’t remember what kind of output we might have if we “take our foot off the gas”. We must experiment, observe, and draw new conclusions using deliberate practice. This step is also greatly helped by a second person, perhaps a therapist, because active verbal processing is critical to relearning deep truths about ourselves.
  5. Respect: when we recognize the lie of imposter syndrome, we gain the ability to respect ourselves and those around us, even those who might be “better” than us in some way or another.  If we are resilient, it can be a beautiful blessing to find ourselves surrounded by smart and charming colleagues, enjoying along with you the rewards that you deserve.