Beating Imposter Syndrome

Even the most accomplished and confident woman may find herself from time to time questioning her capabilities or value. Whether on the first day of a new job, on a date with a desirable partner, bringing home a first child, or talking to a big client, a woman may think, “I’m not good enough for this”, “I don’t belong here”, or “someone else would be better suited for this than me.”  If these thoughts persist, however, it may reflect what psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD named “imposter syndrome” - a phenomenon that manifests as self-doubt, a lack of confidence, and a belief that one is unqualified for her position and happened into it by luck or circumstance. For some women, the belief persists that she has somehow “cheated” or “tricked” her way into convincing others that she is capable.   But internally, she feels like a fraud.

Studies have shown that imposter syndrome is significantly more common in women than in men, perhaps because women are more likely to attribute successes to luck or help from others rather than hard work, and more likely to attribute setbacks to personal deficiencies rather than outside factors. In other words, when a high achieving woman gets a promotion, she is more likely than a man in her position to attribute it to factors other than her own talent and skills. This sets the stage for skewed thinking about her abilities, and over time, it can reinforces the fallacy that she is “faking her way” through her achievements.

At CTWPS we see this kind of thinking often - ironically, often in especially brilliant, talented and accomplished women! The first steps toward managing imposter syndrome involve identifying thinking traps, working toward a more balanced self-view, and engaging in constructive behaviors. Below are action items that we might engage in therapy for reducing feelings of fraudulence:

1) Reframe your thinking. Part of battling imposter syndrome is recognizing that it involves some non-truths. While a woman may be justified in feeling some nervousness about taking on a challenging new role (who doesn’t?!), it is usually not true that she is completely unprepared for it. Most likely, she is not actually a fraud - she has some training and experience that have led her to this position. We would encourage a client to practice telling herself the whole truth, and challenge black and white thinking, by taking an honest accounting of her work and accomplishments. When a client sees herself as undeserving of a promotion, we might ask her to concretely list out her qualifications and accomplishments, as well as her areas for development. It is important to be honest and realistic about the gaps in one’s expertise, but often the focus on this detracts from a woman’s attention to her accomplishments. By asking our clients to be explicit with us about her achievements, we can come to a more balanced perspective.

2) Challenge the presumption that you are a superb con artist (and everyone else is gullible). Because the belief that one is an imposter is hard to shake, it is important to seek out as much outside evidence as possible to balance one's view. Dr.s Imes and Clance suggested an experiment to help a woman let go of the belief that she has tricked everyone. We would have the client imagine a person she believes she has tricked (i.e. a boss), have her role play telling that person specifically how she has tricked them (i.e. "you gave me that promotion because I've charmed you and you like me as a person, but you don’t realize that I'm not really capable of managing the new role".) Next, we would the client to talk back to herself from the perspective of that person (i.e. to say as her boss, "I don't just give promotions to the people I like, I give them to people who show promise"; or "It is insulting that you think my judgment is so skewed by liking people - I know talent and skill when I see it".) Giving voice to disconfirming evidence is an important part of challenging the idea that you have tricked everyone. Developing an open relationship with a mentor or other experts can also be helpful, both as a learning opportunity, and as a source of reliable feedback.

3) Change your language. An important behavior to address is in how a woman speaks to and about herself. If a woman finds herself consistently attributing her successes to luck, she can edit this by engaging in productive self-talk, i.e. “I contributed to this project by...”, “I closed that deal by…”, “I got an A on that paper by…” We encourage clients to practice demonstrating evidence of her competence on a daily basis, and credit herself verbally for her achievements. This can also be practiced by having a mindful moment at the end of a project, successful or not, in which a woman writes down for herself what strengths and skills she brought to to the table. While increasing positive self-talk is important, it is also useful to share one’s successes with others. We encourage clients to celebrate their achievements! Share them with your family, friends, and colleagues. While many women tend to focus on negative feedback, it is important to balance this tendency with the positive. Practice internalizing praise and practicing pride in your work by talking about it to yourself and others; this will help your accomplishments to become integrated into your self-view.

4) Develop your “inner expert” and increase your self-efficacy. While we want to focus on our achievements, there is always room to grow! We might invite a client to set learning goals for herself, and develop expertise about the field in which she is feeling deficient. For a new mom this can mean taking a parenting class or spending time with other moms to share tips. For a rising professional this can mean taking continuing education classes, attending conferences, or reading books about her field. The behavior of building mastery is self-perpetuating; by learning more, a woman builds confidence and faith in her own legitimacy. Developing the quality of self-efficacy requires a “walking the walk” or “fake it until you make it” attitude, in which a woman pushes herself to embody and emulate the person she wishes to be, even if she does not completely feel it. We might encourage a client to push herself to volunteer for challenging tasks and take on the goals that are a bit intimidating. By “acting as if” and doing the behaviors of someone who is confident about a project, she can further rewire her thinking. The important thing to remember is to take ownership of one’s self-doubt and take action. Learn by doing! Anxiety is designed to make us avoid danger; we encourage clients to practice mindfully disobeying her anxiety and feelings of self-doubt, and delve into honing her skills.

It is essential to remember that those who struggle with imposter syndrome may be no less successful, competent, or capable than those who do not struggle with it. Our goal is to help clients who experience feelings of insufficiency and fraudulence to change their thinking and their behavior in ways that can help them fully inhabit their successes.