What is the imposter Syndrome? The first three steps to heal it
What is the Imposter Syndrome?
We all have experienced it: The nagging feeling of not being enough; that self-doubting voice running a constant commentary inside us; the compulsion to compare ourselves with others negatively. But what is the imposter syndrome? What causes it? And most importantly, can we ever get rid of it? In this blog post, I attempt to answer these questions.
What is the Imposter Syndrome? A story:
I’ll never forget my graduation ceremony from medical school. After surviving years of deprivation, sleepless nights and social isolation, my classmates and I finally arrived at the finish line. I was graduating with the highest GPA recorded in our medical school in twenty years—3.8 out of 4. Because of that, I was chosen to be valedictorian among students from all careers.
I delivered my speech with passion—a call inviting the graduates to rebel against mediocrity. After I finished, the audience gave me a standing ovation. My parents wept in emotion, and my professors burst with pride. It should’ve been the pinnacle of my young life.
However, a little nagging voice inside me kept whispering, “All these people think you’re a big deal or something. They don’t know what a lazy slacker you are.”
Yes, I considered myself a huge slacker masquerading as a good student. While some of my classmates had strict study routines and reviewed their notes daily, I procrastinated and postponed it until a few days before the exams. Then, I’d camp with a handful of friends in someone’s house, drank gallons of coffee and pulled an all-nighter, cramming weeks of studying into a couple of days.
Does this sound familiar? If the answer in your mind is “My situation is completely different. You were a bright student being too hard on yourself, but not me—I am a real slacker,” Then chances are you really need to keep reading.
Most times I’d scored an A, I thought I’d just dodged a bullet thanks to frantic last-minute studying and multiple-choice guessing. And those rare occasions when the test turned out to be easy, I thought I’d been lucky the test consisted of questions I knew well. So, there! I didn’t deserve all those high grades. I wasn’t really the disciplined student people believed I was.
What is the Imposter Syndrome and how the heck do you spell it?
Since the imposter syndrome is associated with perfectionism, the first sign that you may suffer from it is if you obsess about how to spell it. (I’m just kidding. Am I?).
Well, my obsessive inquiry for this post revealed that both spellings, “Impostor” and “Imposter” are considered correct. Impostor is the term recognized by most dictionaries, and the official spelling used by Dr. Pauline Clance, the therapist who first described “The Impostor Phenomenom” in 1985. Over the years the term “Imposter” has gained more popularity and dominates online searches. For that reason, I’ll be sticking to that spelling during this article.
This syndrome was initially described as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness.” Or like another article described it, “an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be.” It’s rooted in an inability to internalize your own success and a tendency to discount our own achievements, attributing them to external factors (either luck or too hard work). That inability to give ourselves credit leads to the vicious cycle frequently described in this condition, the Impostor Cycle
What is the Imposter Syndrome Cycle?
To illustrate this cycle, allow me to tell you another story from long before my medical school graduation.
My parents loved telling their friends how, at age 3, I started following my older sister to her school across the street. Once there, I loved it so much, I refused to go home. (Yup, I’m a nerd since the crib and won’t apologize!). That led to the school agreeing to register me despite me being a year younger than the usual Pre-K student.
Coloring, doing crafts and working with Play-Doh… the beginning of my academic life was all fun and pleasure. I loved learning. Reading and writing seem to come easier to me than my classmates, but I didn’t think much of it.
The trend continued through Kindergarten, when, by the end of the year, my teachers had a “brilliant idea” that delighted my parents: They recommended that I skip first grade.
Suddenly, I was a five-year-old in second grade. From effortless playing, school turned into hard work. Around me, kids two years older than me engaged in harder math, grammar and history lessons they’d been learning for months. A year ago, I was the bright little girl impressing her proud parents and teachers. However, now I was the student behind, struggling to learn to write in cursive and grasp division. I wondered if I’d lost my touch, if I was no longer as smart as I used to be.
A new thought planted in my mind. “It’s taking me so much work and effort to catch up with everyone else, I must be very dumb.” How self-conscious I felt every time my parents bragged to their friends about what a smart kid I was for having skipped a grade!
The Birth of the Vicious Cycle
I share this story because it showcases two important misconceptions that are at the root the imposter syndrome.
1-“If I have to work hard at it, that means I’m failing.”
It’s interesting how back then it didn’t occur to me to say “I’m facing a much bigger challenge than last year—I’ve graduated to a higher level— and it’s going to take more effort.” I assumed that if it didn’t come easy, I wasn’t as good at it as others.
Believing that success “should” be natural and effortless is a hard standard to live for. Especially considering that the other side of the coin often is. “If it comes easy and effortlessly, I deserve no credit for it.”
2- “I’m the only one having a hard time.” The five-year-old girl I was felt like the outsider who’d arrived last minute at the party and was trying to catch up. My classmates had had an extra year of lessons; and I assumed everyone else had a handle of things—except me.
In the same way, in adulthood, we assume everyone else has their life under control. From picture perfect social media posts, to retelling of adventures around the water cooler, it may seem we’re the only ones struggling financially, or having marital conflict. We believe everyone else is gliding effortlessly, singing to the birds, like Snow White in the woods. (Shocking newsflash: they aren’t).
The Impostor Cycle: When Nothing is Ever Enough
The two stories I’ve shared above also illustrate the parts of the Impostor Cycle:
1-Self-doubt leads to Overwork: Believing that things “don’t come natural to us like to other people” we work extra hard (or like in my case in medical school, procrastinate because of paralyzing perfectionism, then overwork, trying to catch up).
2-Results are discounted: When we then achieve our goal, we then don’t appreciate our success because “obviously, we only succeeded because we worked extra hard.” Or alternatively, attribute the results to luck.
3- Not letting it in: The inability to acknowledge our own accomplishments blocks the natural grow of confidence that is expected from repeated success.
4- More self-doubt is generated, and the cycle repeats.
In summary, our life becomes a cycle of: Overworking-Brief relief-Then complete dismissal of the positive feedback. But this isn’t the only way the inability to take in our own success hinders our happiness. This inability is also the root for the Hungry Ghost Syndrome, that condition when, no matter what we achieve, we’re never satisfied. And every goal obtained is cause for minimal celebration, because we’re already launching onto the next goal.
This blog post is meant to focus on what is the imposter syndrome, and not in its treatment. But I didn’t want to finish this post without offering at least one practical step you could start taking today. So here you have three that have worked for my clients and me.
Three Steps to Start Healing The Imposter Syndrome
1- Cultivate awareness: Just by realizing you’ve been doing this, you’re already ahead of most people. The next step is practicing the ability to listen to that nagging voice, detaching from it, and choosing to doubt what that voice is saying. (More of that in the next post).
2- Savor every little win. The Imposter cycle begins with an inability to take in our success. Because of that, I encourage you to practice the following exercise:
Every time you achieve a goal, or meet a deadline, or even every time you take a step in a positive direction, pause for fifteen to twenty seconds and savor it. Dwell on it, congratulate yourself, bask in your glory. By doing that, you’re engaging in Neuroplasticity, a scientifically tested process to strengthen neuro-pathways and create new brain connections.
By practicing neuroplasticity, you will, little by little, replace a dust trail by a highway. Your ability to recognize your own success and enjoy it, will grow cumulatively.
(And, by the way, do this process right now to celebrate yourself for reading this post all the way here. You’re already taking more action than most people).
3- Connect with others. When you make an effort to better know people around you—especially those people you consider intimidating because of their apparent success—you’ll realize they’re more similar to you than you think. Chances are their lives are not as perfect as they appear and they also struggle with self-doubt.
In the next blog post, we’ll be diving into other questions. “What causes the Imposter Syndrome? How can I know if I have it or I am truly just incompetent?” and most importantly, how can I get rid of it?
Stay tuned till then!