Imposter syndrome shows up in our lives in various ways.
It holds us back from reaching our full potential and is, unfortunately, incredibly insidious.
I have always remembered feeling as if I didn’t deserve the successes I’ve had in life.
As if somehow luck rather than skill has been responsible for where I am today.
Last year, for example, I graduated from a fairly intense 3-year doctor of nursing practice program.
Despite getting all A’s other than one A- (thank you first semester pathophysiology!) in graduate-level nursing classes, I was unable to shake the feeling that I wasn’t smart enough to succeed in this field.
As if I made it through by chance instead of by working hard.
And everyone around me was smarter and way more capable than I.
Mysteriously Vague Feelings of Being an Imposter
I have always been a high-achiever with perfectionist tendencies and have trouble acknowledging my own success.
It’s tough to feel good about something when you live in constant fear that you will, at some point, be discovered as a fraud.
Or when your standards are so high that it’s not humanly possible to live up to them.
These feelings are tough to talk about with others out of fear that I truly will be discovered as a fraud.
Besides that, I had a hard time describing how I was feeling in a way which would make sense to anyone else.
Because by all regards, I was successful.
After graduating with a fine arts degree, I worked my way through an associate’s degree in nursing.
Then a baccalaureate degree before being accepted into the doctoral program.
All while working as a nurse.
And raising little ones.
My feelings of being a fraud only solidified these feelings even more.
After all, successful people don’t feel this way.
They wake up every morning, live their awesomely successful lives, and revel in the lives they’ve created.
No doubt, no fear, just confidence and success.
All day, every day.
Imposter Syndrome is a Real Thing
And then one day not too long ago, I was listening to a podcast.
It was about something called “imposter syndrome” and it perfectly described the feelings I had been experiencing for so long now.
I was truly shocked to learn that there was an actual name for what I had been feeling.
Even more shocked to learn that imposter syndrome affects a wide range of people from all walks of life.
And that it is especially common among people who are, in fact, successful.
Hearing the podcast was life-changing for me.
I finally had a name for what I had been feeling.
And if I had a name for it, there was hope I could do something about it.
Hearing the podcast started me on a path of self-discovery.
What exactly is imposter syndrome?
And what causes it?
I started looking for answers.
Imposter Syndrome in High-Achieving Women
And found out that imposter syndrome was first observed by two female psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.
Their work with high-achieving women in the 1970s uncovered patterns of thinking which revolved around feelings of fraudulence.
Women with advanced degrees and professional recognition who also felt that luck, and not intelligence, had gotten them where they were today.
Their paper, published in 1978, outlines the collective experiences of over 150 women from diverse fields including nursing, medicine, and academia.
They discovered that although some of these women also had co-existing anxiety and depression, many had no mental health diagnoses.
Clance and Imes even discovered that imposter syndrome was not exclusive to women.
Differences Between Women and Men
Although imposter syndrome impacted men, it was to a significantly lesser degree.
To explain this phenomenon, the researchers turned to the work of another woman researcher, Kay Deaux.
Deaux’s work hypothesized that society plays a role in the differences in perceived ability between the sexes.
In her work published in the mid 1970s she describes that society is conditioned to have lower expectations of women.
Women therefore often have lower expectations of themselves.
And are then more likely to attribute their own success to luck rather than skill.
Men, on the other hand, are conditioned to go after success less cautiously than women.
And are then less likely to attribute success to anything other than their own ability.
The work of these three women was eye-opening for me.
It provides a possible explanation for the themes which run much deeper than I ever anticipated.
In my life, I often feel like I’m fighting a variety of battles that I don’t completely understand but am doing my best to overcome.
Mom guilt is one of them.
I’m constantly feeling pulled between work and home.
Always trying to check one more item off my daily to-do list, whether I’m at work or at home.
And never quite feeling like the end result is good enough.
Or even if the end result is great, that it was simply luck.
Could it be that mom guilt also has its roots in faulty societal expectations of women?
That on the one hand, women are expected to successfully raise a family while working.
And are also expected to stay in great shape, continue socializing, and maintain their own self-care.
But on the other hand, and in light of their status as women, are expected to perform poorly at all these things.
Are we simply set up for failure from the very beginning?
And I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never heard of dad guilt.
Is that even a thing?
You may also enjoy reading this post about the secret to life as a working mom.
A Tale of Two Families
Even beyond societal gender expectations lies family dynamics.
Clance and Imes identified two separate family dynamics which can be used to explain why imposter syndrome occurs.
Family Dynamic #1
The first involves a scenario in which a sibling has been designated as the “smart” one while the daughter herself becomes known as the charming one.
The daughter then comes to feel torn between the belief that she is really just a pretty face and the desire to prove herself as otherwise.
She begins working even harder to prove herself academically yet her family refuses to acknowledge her as such.
At that point, feelings of fradulence begin to emerge.
Doubt sinks in and she wonders whether the beliefs of her family are in fact true.
Family Dynamic #2
The second family dynamic in which imposter syndrome begins to creep in involves the daughter being viewed as perfect in every way.
Whether it’s academics, sports, or music, her skills are viewed by the family as second to none.
And not only are her skills exemplary but she doesn’t have to work hard to achieve any of it.
Everything comes easily to her.
This is the dynamic which is intimately familiar to me.
The point at which imposter syndrome began to creep in was when something actually didn’t come all that easily to me.
It was the point at which I actually had to struggle when I began to doubt my own family’s assessment of my talents.
Maybe I wasn’t as gifted as they believed me to be if everything didn’t come easily.
And maybe I’m simply fooling everyone with the success I’ve achieved thus far.
Natural talent only goes so far and there comes a point for everyone in which hard work is necessary to go further.
Regardless of which family dynamic was present during the formative years, imposter syndrome is a sneaky belief system which is tough to pinpoint until you become aware of its subtleties.
It’s a faulty thought process which holds you back from your true potential.
Now that we have a better understanding of imposter syndrome and how it starts, what can we do to change it?
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
As with many things in life, awareness is the first step.
Although it seems contrary to what you feel, talking about your feelings with others can discredit your fears.
Talking about your feelings aloud with someone else can help you identify how truly false imposter syndrome actually is.
As an example, if you studied for a test, there’s a greater probability that you passed due to preparation than by luck.
Unfortunately, we have learned to doubt ourselves and have an easier time believing luck and not preparation was responsible.
Getting an outside perspective can help ground you until you begin to change the negative thought patterns associated with imposter syndrome.
After all, in many cases, imposter syndrome is based on “feelings” and not on reality.
When you boil it down, imposter syndrome is a false interpretation of actual events.
Until you speak those feelings out loud, they will continue to have power over you.
And you will continue to misinterpret the true source of your own success.
Root Cause Analysis
Likewise, journaling can be extremely beneficial in something I call “root cause analysis.”
I can’t take credit for this concept as it is one which is attributed to the field of nursing, among others.
It essentially involves dissecting a situation to determine the true cause of an error or dysfunction.
As an example, root cause analysis is frequently utilized in the nursing home setting after someone falls.
The ultimate goal in this scenario is to prevent future falls.
But you can really only do that if you figure out what caused the fall in the first place.
Did the person slip because they were barefoot?
Was their drink out of their reach?
Or were they trying to get to the bathroom by themselves?
Once you figure out the root cause, you can theoretically prevent future falls of this nature.
The same process can be applied to anything you deem a “failure” in your own life.
Spend some time thinking about a particular situation which didn’t go according to plan.
Determine which factors contributed to a lack of success.
In many cases you will find that those factors were actually outside your own control.
And if they were out of your control, how could you possibly do anything about them?
Never Give Up … Never Surrender!
We simply have no control over so many aspects of life and need to stop continually beat ourselves up for them.
Conversely, it is equally important to record your successes as a reminder that you are smart and capable.
You are deserving of success.
And even in the face of setbacks, you are constantly learning and growing.
Do you want to know a secret?
No one really knows what they’re doing.
The most successful people in the world experience imposter syndrome from time to time.
It’s not as if you reach a certain level of success and suddenly know everything or are confident 100% of the time.
But the difference between success and failure is never giving up.
Successful people never let feelings of being an imposter hold them back from taking the next step.
They take feedback from each and every experience and instead of letting it defeat them, they learn and grow from it.
And become more confident the next time because of all they’ve overcome to get where they are today.
You may also enjoy reading this post about the secrets to success.
It’s Your Turn
I really wish that I had some type of magical secret to immediately and permanently overcoming imposter syndrome.
But I don’t.
All I have is the gift of awareness.
Because once you become aware of something, it forever remains a part of you.
Once you have the knowledge, you can take steps to change it!
Take this opportunity to analyze your feelings and determine where you can make positive changes.
You don’t have to live in constant fear that you will one day be discovered as a fraud.
Because you’re not.
You are so much more smart and capable than you give yourself credit for!
Now … go forth and be awesome!
Don’t forget to comment below on your big take-aways from this post!
Where are you struggling right now and how are you going to take steps forward?