Stepping into an unfamiliar life situation, such as a new promotion or career transition, can be daunting, sometimes triggering feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. A sign of imposter syndrome, this self-doubt can be a difficult challenge to overcome if left to fester. But a group of experts agree there are actionable steps you can take to acknowledge and combat those negative psychological rabbit holes.
The term imposter syndrome dates back as far as the 1970s. One of its early introductions was in a 1978 article titled, "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention," by psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes. “Impostor syndrome is a set of beliefs that leave you feeling doubtful of your skills, ability, and whether you deserve to be at the table, and that you will inevitably be exposed as a fraud,” says Dr. Ayanna Abrams, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist and owner of Ascension Behavioral Health in Atlanta, GA.
For women and particularly marginalized groups, such as BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and the disabled, it is exacerbated further with "not just a feeling of not being good enough, but also the actual implicit messages that tell us we don’t belong," Dr. Andrea Salazar-Nuñez, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist at the University Of Washington and owner of Maricopa Counseling and Consultation Services, emphasizes. "Women of color especially have to overcome the subtle messaging that institutions were not made with us in mind.”
And as overwhelming as the term and issue itself may be, it can definitely be overcome. Ahead, experts break down how to identify imposter syndrome in yourself and how to move past it.
Imposter Syndrome: Telltale Signs
So what are some of the signs of imposter syndrome? Although it's not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychologists often see it in their clients. "You may feel doubtful and anxious about your ability, avoid accepting or initiating opportunities, delay your personal or professional growth, and feel stuck where you are," Dr. Abrams shares. "For most people, it comes and goes, but for others, this can be a very persistent set of symptoms."
Dr. Liana Georgoulis, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Founder and Director of Coast Psychological Services in Los Angeles agrees that these feelings aren't inherently a bad thing, adding they can be "normal provided that, with time, we begin to feel more comfortable and adept in the new role or unfamiliar situation. It’s more problematic when people have a chronic feeling of being an impostor despite their value, worth, and their efforts."
At its worst, the syndrome manifests in the form of anxiety, nervousness, trust issues, putting yourself and your accolades down, or constant worry you may not be good enough compared to others or how they perceive you. Many experts agree this psychological pattern tends to affect people who are approaching pivotal life shifts, especially high achievers. "I see it pop up as individuals are about to or are in the process of taking on a new endeavor. Sometimes it’s applying to grad school, taking a new position at work, moving into a leadership position, or making a leap into a different field," Dr. Salazar-Nuñez tells TZR. It can also be in the form of a new relationship or dissolving of an old one, such as divorce, where you're forced to step into unknown territory.
If left unchecked, imposter syndrome can take a toll on the relationships in your life, says therapist Darlene Lancer, in an online blog titled "What Is Imposter Syndrome?" She writes that the negative thinking can "potentially alienate people and negatively impact relationships by provoking arguments or intentionally push those we love away, hindering intimacy and connection. But the opposite can also occur, creating codependency with others for them to constantly rely on you or settling for someone less than you deserve." At work, rumination can create analysis paralysis and "can also lead to shame and avoidance behaviors," adds Georgoulis, thus creating a downward spiral of cognitive distortion in our thinking pattern, potentially delaying work deadlines, therefore placing your job at risk.
Abrams feels social media may be contributing to an increase of imposter syndrome. "While social media has its benefits to help us feel connected with others and less stuck in our own thoughts, it can also throw us into a comparison spiral, making (unsubstantiated) assumptions about others' performance, gifts and other aspects of their lives." In other words, attribution bias. "Imposter syndrome can certainly be more of an issue in competitive environments, and around groups of people or other individuals who are demanding, critical, and invalidating. I see a lot of this in Los Angeles where there are high expectations and unrealistic and false ideas about success and worth and value," Georgoulis adds.
Fortunately, there are healthy ways to kick imposter syndrome for good.
Why Imposter Syndrome Shows Up
Figuring out why you may feel doubtful of your accomplishments or uncomfortable in new/unknown situations is the first step in conquering imposter syndrome. Dr. Georgoulis shares with TZR, “We can all feel like an imposter at times as we learn new things or make changes in our lives. This typically indicates a problem with self-acknowledgment and confidence in one’s abilities or a belief that one must doubt themselves in order to protect against failure, rejection, or embarrassment."
Often times, this may elicit physiological and emotional responses. "When you put imposter syndrome into the context of our nervous system/stress response and our minds' natural way of wanting to protect itself, it makes sense," says Salazar-Nuñez. Furthermore, vulnerabilities via family history, childhood, traumas, and any struggles with mental health can negatively shape our behaviors. Georgoulis stresses, "By the time we are about 13 or 14 years old, our painful experiences have already impacted us tremendously. As a result, we develop core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world, and are often hard to change because of the way the brain develops. Such beliefs are literally comprised of neural networks and pathways that exist in the brain which are etched and reinforced over time." This reiterates the negative confirmation bias that there is something wrong with one's self, which is a false belief. "You can see why this is problematic if the belief is inaccurate and destructive and can lead to shame and avoidance behaviors," she tells TZR.
But for marginalized groups, there's an added layer of complexity. A 2017 study from the University of Texas at Austin, published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, found that prejudices experienced by minority college students contributed to their issues in mental health. Abrams expresses, "This is because traditional spaces, especially in the workplace, do not offer environments that feel emotionally safe and embracing of various identities." Dr. Salazar-Nuñez agrees and states imposter syndrome "is also connected to our exposure and experiences with racism. There are so many messages in the media, education system, healthcare system, and consumer culture that center whiteness, and in particular white, cis-men. After a while, it’s hard not to internalize those messages. When we have even the slightest sense of not belonging it can trigger all of the racial trauma from our life as well as generations of trauma."
How To Combat Imposter Syndrome
Recognizing incongruent thinking and making a choice to stop these patterns from blistering is crucial to preventing imposter syndrome. "Holding onto and buying into old beliefs and thought patterns about being an impostor is harmful to your well-being, self-confidence, and motivation. You don't need them," Georgoulis states.
Having self-love and compassion is important. "Understanding where and why imposter syndrome stems from can be liberating in and of itself [...] and can free us from self-judgment," Salazar-Nuñez conveys. It takes the power away from your fears and gives it back to your confidence. Additionally, a community provides support, reassurance, and validation, making you feel a little less alone and little more normal, she adds.
Dr. Abrams recommends mindfulness techniques and learning skills in anxiety management are helpful "strategies to shorten how long these thoughts last." Dr. Georgoulis concurs, adding "that you have a choice in choosing not to buy into these narratives [...] disengage from doubt and rumination. Instead say, 'I am choosing to trust myself,' and 'thank you, mind.'" Both agree to redirect your attention back to the present or to the activity you are engaged in and learn to examine the evidence and list out all the reasons you are capable, strong, resilient and deserving.
If you are still struggling with acknowledging that these feelings are not reflective of where you and your accomplishments actually are in reality, therapy can be of great benefit. "Mental health therapy models like cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy to help reframe your thoughts, remind you of your own accomplishments, and create a gratitude practice, can assist you in putting distance between you and your self-doubt," Abrams explains.
One thing's for certain, no one is immune to imposter syndrome. It is likely to appear at some point in your life. But with strengthening your awareness, going on easy yourself, and utilizing healthy coping tips, you can stop it right in its tracks.