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Imposter Syndrome

Wed, 06/21/2023 - 10:44

Families, Inc. therapist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset. The following is a transcript of a recent interview with KFIN's Breakfast Club's Brandon Baxter discussing imposter syndrome.

Q: What is Imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome, or imposterism, is a psychological pattern where a person doubts their achievements, skills, or talents and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor. It commonly affects high-achieving individuals and can hinder their personal and professional growth.

Q: Is it very common? 

Imposter syndrome is more common than many people realize. It affects men and women across different ethnicities, professions, and walks of life. Research suggests that up to 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives.

Q: Is it something people experience more when they're just starting out in their careers?

Graduate students, early-career professionals, and individuals in leadership positions often experience it due to increased responsibilities and expectations. But other folks like skilled workers, new parents, and stay-at-home parents can also feel it.  

Q: Help me understand why high achievers or accomplished people would experience it.

Well, the dynamics behind it are actually really interesting. Most skilled or accomplished people tend to believe that others are just as skilled as they are. This can spiral into feelings and beliefs that they don't deserve accolades or opportunities over other people. And interestingly, there is usually no threshold of accomplishment that puts these feelings to rest. 

Q: But it's not only accomplished people, right? I mean, can average Joes feel like imposters? 

Yep. There is another phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance, where we each doubt ourselves privately but don't realize that other people doubt themselves too. And since we can't know how hard others work or how difficult they find certain tasks, there's no way to prove to ourselves that we are as capable (or more so) than those around us.

Q: I can't help but think that the influence of social media and constant comparisons to others plays a part in some people feeling like they're imposters or not good enough.

The rise of social media and the constant exposure to exaggerated and perfected versions of others' lives can intensify feelings of inadequacy and fuel imposter syndrome.

The ease of comparing oneself to others' achievements and successes can contribute to the prevalence of imposter syndrome in today's digital age.

Q: There have been a lot of famous and successful individuals openly sharing their experiences of feeling this way. Have you seen some of those examples? 

Maya Angelou, the acclaimed author and poet, admitted to feeling like an impostor despite her numerous achievements. She once said, "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'"

The renowned actor, Tom Hanks, has spoken about his battle with self-doubt and imposter syndrome throughout his career. Despite his success and multiple Academy Awards, he has mentioned feeling like a fraud and waiting for someone to discover that he doesn't belong.

Even the legendary tennis player, Serena Williams, has openly discussed her struggles with imposter syndrome. She has shared feelings of self-doubt and the fear of not living up to people's expectations, despite her remarkable achievements on the court.

Q: WOW! These examples really prove that anyone from any background or level of success can struggle with self-doubt and feelings of being an impostor. By sharing their experiences, these famous personalities help normalize the phenomenon and inspire others to overcome their own self-doubt.

Exactly! Not realizing how common it is for hardworking, successful people to experience imposter syndrome only adds to the lack of understanding and fuels more self-doubt. 

The best way to combat this is to talk about it! When mentors and supervisors share their experiences with new employees or graduates, it helps to normalize this for them. It reduces shame and fear and increases feelings of well-being and competence. 

And another way we can take the shame out of this feeling and normalize it is to send the message that being "new" is not the same as being a fraud. Imposters are fraudsters. Novices, or beginners, aren't committing fraud in most cases—they just need time and experience for their confidence to build. 

Q: Otherwise, it seems like if it's not addressed, imposter syndrome can have long-term effects on an individual's self-esteem, their career choices, and how they feel about their own competence.

Messing around with a person's self-esteem can lead to self-sabotage, missed opportunities, career stagnation, and increased stress and anxiety.

Q: So, what causes someone to feel like an imposter?

Imposter syndrome can stem from both internal and external factors:

Perfectionism: People with perfectionistic tendencies often set extremely high standards for themselves. They may feel like they have to achieve absolute perfection in order to be successful. This leads to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt when they fall short of their unrealistic expectations.

Childhood experiences: Childhood experiences and relationships can reverberate through adulthood, shaping people's beliefs about their abilities and leading to fears of not meeting expectations. Contributing factors may include overly critical parents, excessive pressure to succeed, or constant comparisons to high-achieving siblings and peers. 
Attribution of Success: Some individuals with imposter syndrome attribute their success to external factors such as luck, timing, or help from others, rather than acknowledging their own skills and efforts. This can lead to a belief that their accomplishments are not deserved, further fueling self-doubt.

Highly Competitive Environments: Living in societies and cultures that are achievement-focused and ultra-competitive can lead to increased fears of failure and rejection. Rigorous academic settings, demanding careers, and hyper-critical social spheres contribute to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
Predisposed Personality Traits: Personality traits obtained through genetic and environmental factors, such as high levels of self-criticism, self-doubt, or a tendency to be highly self-reflective, can make one more susceptible to imposter syndrome. 

Additionally, individuals who are inherently modest or humble may struggle to internalize their achievements, contributing to feelings of being an impostor.

Q: What are some strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome?

Try to recognize and acknowledge that you are experiencing imposter syndrome. Awareness of the problem is crucial for initiating change. 

Challenge and reframe negative self-talk and self-doubt. Make an effort to replace self-critical thoughts with positive and realistic affirmations. Focus on your strengths and achievements.

Remember that you aren't the only one who got you to where you are. Others, whether they be employers, teachers, advisors, or peers, thought you were deserving of your successes. 

Embrace failure as a natural part of the learning process. Understand that making mistakes does not diminish your worth or competence. Learn from failures and view them as opportunities for growth.

Reach out to trusted friends, family members, mentors, or colleagues and discuss your feelings of self-doubt. Sharing your experiences can provide reassurance and help you realize that you are not alone.

Q: And like you said, it's important for them to consider when they're new in a position or project and give themselves the grace to learn and practice—and to fail and try again. We were all beginners once. Everyone who has mastered a skill was once a novice. Every expert started as a newbie. None of us just woke up with all the knowledge and skills we have today. We had to learn, mess up, and get back on the learning track. 

I read a good article the other day that said, "in a world that constantly demands expertise and flawless performance, imposter syndrome thrives on the idea that we should have all the answers, instantly and effortlessly. And here's the truth: nobody has it all figured out. The longer I live, the more I realize how little I know, and it delights me! Because regardless of outward appearances, the fundamental truth remains—we are all stumbling through something, piecing together fragments of understanding as we journey through life. Not knowing doesn't make you an imposter. It makes you human.

If you or a loved one are struggling with imposter syndrome, Families, Inc. Counseling Services can help. Call 870.933.6886 or browse our website to learn more.


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