If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “One of these days people will realize I don’t know as much as they think,” then you are in excellent company!

I have many clients who constantly feel under-qualified no matter how much they accomplish or how hard they work. The Impostor Syndrome is a phenomenon whereby, regardless of their achievements, people feel that they are inadequate and believe they are only masquerading as a lovable and accomplished person

One of the behaviors associated with feeling like a phony or fake is a combative hyper-vigilance from the fear of being “discovered” as an impostor. As a result, it is common for sufferers to avoid situations where they might publicly reveal their imagined incompetence. If they must face such a situation, they over-prepare in order to keep up the “facade.”

This fictitious fakeness serves the purpose of preventing impostors from enjoying the happiness and gratification that would be painfully inconsistent with their feelings of worthlessness. For insecure impostors every kind word seems fake, undeserving, and suspicious.  “She can’t really like me.  She must be after something.” That’s because their identity is not grounded in reality.

They turn their assets into liabilities because their lives are filled with the anxiety that they will be exposed as a fraud. The purpose of their poor trust in others is often to prevent conceit by silent self-deprecation:  “I am a fake.”  This is how they seek to “control” the potentially dangerous tendency to give credit where credit is due.  It might go to their head and ruin them.

For example, someone experiencing the impostor syndrome might not request a raise or seek a promotion for fear that they will be rejected and proved a failure. They say to themselves: “I don’t really know what I’m doing, I’m a fake. It was a fluke that I got hired. I only got the job because they didn’t find anyone better.” This dismissive attitude serves the purpose of preventing them from enjoying the happiness of their success. If they know it could end at any moment, how can they relax? It is just a matter of time until they are exposed.

These impostors cannot accept that they are lovable or knowledgeable, it is inconsistent with their feelings of worthlessness. They live filled with anxiety that:
– their imperfections and ineptitude will be exposed
– no one would like the ‘real’ person, so they have to keep the charade going in perpetuity, which they feel inadequate to do.
– no one could really like them, so anyone who offers praise must be after something.

Impostors may have been told that they are “too hard on themselves,” or that they are their “our own worst enemy.” These “diagnoses” do not offer them any insight into the psychodynamics of their self-sabotaging behavior.

Why do they do this to themselves? These self-criticisms and self-punishments are a method of self-victimization. It is bad enough when others victimize them with blame through accusations of “negligence,” “stupidity” or “foolishness.” It is even worse when they make the mistake of taking others assessments at face value and agreeing with them that they are the author of their own distress.

Some of us are so well “trained” to accept guilt, fault and responsibility that, when there is no one around them, they assume they will be blamed. They then compound their pain and exacerbate it with fictitious guilt and unwarranted anger. Thus, they are the victims of themselves.

The antidote to this mistaken attitude is to identify the latent fear that one will be carried away by this extreme asset, and instead give oneself permission to enjoy it – even take appropriate pride in possessing it.  Appropriate pride can only exist in a context of self-respect.

Photo by Michele Hubacek