Expert Source: Judith S. Beck, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and author of many books, including Cognitive Therapy for Challenging Problems: What to Do When the Basics Don’t Work.
The late Maya Angelou was a pioneering memoirist, poet, playwright, singer, and actress. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a National Medal of Arts, and three Grammys. But she wasn’t entirely confident in her professional capacities as a writer. In fact, Angelou once famously admitted that every time she produced a new work, she thought, “Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
Maybe you’ve also had the feeling that, despite successes in important areas of your own life, you’re really just faking it, and you’re about to be “found out.”
That uncomfortable state is called imposter syndrome, and it’s a condition that can plague even the most famous and successful among us.
Paradoxically, by depriving you of satisfaction and causing you to don a mantle of self-protection, imposter syndrome can inhibit you from unleashing your creative gifts, condition you to keep people at arm’s length, and limit your actual accomplishments and happiness.
The remedy, says psychologist Judith Beck, PhD, is owning both your successes and your vulnerabilities.
Barriers to Overcome
- Feeling like a fraud. The core emotion in imposter syndrome is the sense that you’re fooling people, says Beck. This sense of inauthenticity can arise in every area of your life. It can cause problems at work, for example, when you believe you are not nearly as competent as others think you are. It can damage your relationships with others if you continually hide your “true” self for fear that you will be found lacking.
- Workaholism. An “occupational hazard” for people who suffer from imposter syndrome, according to Beck, is compulsive overwork, usually to compensate for perceived shortcomings and ward off that imagined “I’ll be discovered” moment.
- Perfectionism. Hand in hand with workaholism is the need for perfection. People with imposter syndrome tend to obsess about making mistakes because they view their errors as an indication of their basic incompetence.
- Tunnel vision. Sufferers of imposter syndrome tend to miscalculate the outcomes of their actions, Beck says. “They unduly focus on the negative and continually assess their performance as falling short. At the same time, they discount their positive achievements. You may tell yourself, ‘I just got lucky’ or ‘If people knew the whole picture, they wouldn’t be patting me on the back.’”
- The inner critic. Beck suggests that “imposters” may have developed the habit of intense self-criticism from messages they received about what it means to be a competent or worthy person. “If, growing up, you learned that it’s important to achieve at a very high level, you may develop an inner critic who’s never satisfied despite your genuine successes,” she says.
- Raising the stakes. “Imposters” tend to have trouble celebrating their achievements and keep demanding more of themselves — not as exciting and meaningful challenges, but as desperate attempts to maintain the pretense.
- An unwillingness to ask for help. People with imposter syndrome may hesitate to ask questions or seek out help “for fear of showing what they think is their ignorance or inadequacy,” says Beck. In protecting yourself from being discovered as a “fraud,” you can miss important opportunities for support that would allow you to perform better.
- Idealizing others’ achievements. “I did so-so on that project, but look at Anne. She hit it out of the park.” People with imposter syndrome are likely to pick out the most outstanding person in the workplace (or another important sphere), create an unrealistic image of that person’s abilities, and then compare themselves. Accordingly, they never feel they measure up.
Strategies for Success
- Celebrate your strengths. Accept that what’s easy for you, given your nature, strengths, or experience, is a good indicator of your competence. After all, many people may find it difficult to do those same things. If it’s a breeze for you to energize a crowd, improvise a song, or organize a project, own those important skills and abilities; soft-pedaling them doesn’t serve you or others.
- Show up. Even if you can’t quite believe that you’ve earned this role or recognition, accept that you are here. “Take action,” advises Beck. Use this opportunity to learn what you don’t know, work hard to achieve the tasks ahead, and give everything you’ve got to the role you’ve been assigned.
- Do an objective self-assessment. To challenge the feeling of fraudulence, Beck suggests, consciously “stand back” from your negative judgment and assess yourself realistically. You’re likely neither totally competent nor totally incompetent. Commit to doing what you love, and to showing up as who you really are, warts and all.
- Do a reality check with a friend. Since this kind of self-assessment can be hard to do on your own, Beck suggests talking with a trusted friend or colleague. “You can say something like, ‘I have a tendency to think my work isn’t very good. Can you help me take a more objective look?’” If you feel too vulnerable to do this with a friend, consider working with a good therapist, she advises.
- Practice removing your “mask.” Asking for help, and admitting to small weaknesses or moments of uncertainty will help you see that the façade of total competence you’ve tried to maintain isn’t necessary. Decloak in small increments among people you trust, says Beck, and you’ll see that most people’s opinions of you won’t plummet as the result of your admissions of imperfection. In fact, their view of you may improve after they witness your willingness to reveal your true self.
- Realize that nobody’s perfect. It’s likely that your areas of relative weakness or incompetence don’t add up to something so shameful they must be forever hidden, Beck says. They’re simply part of being human. Realizing this can calm the stress of imposter syndrome and help you connect with others. After all, people prefer to spend time with others who are genuine, not those determined to seem perfect at all costs.
This article has been updated. It was originally published online on May 27, 2013 and originally appeared as “Who, Me?” in the June 2015 issue of Experience Life.