Last night, Nina at Queercents finally put a name to something I’ve been feeling for years. According to Dr. Valerie Young, I’ve been feeling “Impostor Syndrome.”

Nina quotes Wikipedia’s definition of Impostor Syndrome:

Individuals experiencing this syndrome seem unable to internalize their accomplishments. Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved in their chosen field of work or study, or what external proof they may have of their competence, they remain convinced internally that they do not deserve the success they have achieved and are really frauds.

Proofs of success are dismissed as luck, timing, or otherwise having deceived others into thinking they were more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. This syndrome is thought to be particularly common among women who are successful in their given careers and is typically associated with academics.

I think putting a name to the feeling helps. It means I can say “Ok, what I am feeling is Impostor Syndrome. Now I can take steps to figure out why I’m feeling that way right now and how I can counteract those feelings.” It’s like knowing something simple such as “I’m feeling afraid, now I shall try to help myself feel braver.”

On her site, Dr. Young talks about some ways of getting past IS.

Another useful list is David Burns’ list of cognitive distortions (part of cognitive behavioral therapy–what I used to get out of my worst depression) from his book Feeling Good. I actually find this list more helpful than the other, perhaps because I’m already so familiar with the system, I can just take the negative feelings and say “here’s all the distortions in my thoughts.” Here’s the list, copied from HealthyMind.com

  • All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  • Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  • Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
  • Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
  • Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
  • Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out.
  • The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
  • Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”
  • Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
  • Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  • Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  • Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.

I don’t think this is just a womens’ problem, though apparently it’s more common among women than men. (Maybe in the same way I’ve noticed more women apologize for their little mistakes than men do.)

If you’ve ever felt completely unqualified when others think you are, if you’ve doubted yourself, if you’ve worried that you’ll let everyone down, if you’ve put yourself down because people have too high an opinion of you, if you feared that everyone will find you’re a fraud—you may be experiencing IS.

It’s not some rare and incurable disease. It’s a simple cognitive distortion, like getting a crick in your (mental) neck. And just like that crick in your neck, it can cause you a lot of pain and discomfort until you sort it out.

Maybe you’ll need to talk to someone–your friends, your spouse/partner, your therapist–maybe you can sort it out on your own. But until you do, I don’t think you’ll be truly free to succeed financially. You may succeed on paper, but you won’t experience it in your life, in your emotions, where it matters the most.


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine November 14, 2007 at 10:55 pm

IS, eh? That’s totally me.

Dawn November 15, 2007 at 8:09 am

When I was younger I totally believe I had a significant tendency towards Impostor Syndrome. As I’ve grown older, my internal confidence level has grown, and it has become easier to accept that I might be good at somethings. Oh I remember vividly that “All or Nothing” thinking pattern, I was really good at that. Age has seasoned me to realize there really isn’t black and white … it’s all different shades of gray.
Nice piece Mrs. Micah, very interesting and thought provoking:)

SavingDiva November 15, 2007 at 10:32 am

Great post! I’m right there with you…

wealthy_1 November 15, 2007 at 11:42 am

I agree with Dawn. I think that over the years my Impostor Syndrome has decreased. As I’ve matured (I hate saying gotten older) it’s become easier to step back and look for the other side.

I agree with you, Mrs. Micah that when we can identify our behaviors and feelings, its somewhat easier to accept them and try to figure out ways to change.

This is an excellent post. You are a very enlightened young woman.

Living Off Dividends November 17, 2007 at 1:42 am

i used to have a mild form of this. writing down your achievements in chronological order and reviewing them periodically really helps!

Barbara January 2, 2008 at 10:45 pm

Hello Mrs. Micah,

I came upon your site, via Catherine Lawson’s blog.

What a wonderful post, you’ve done.

Often, young women may experience IS due to the fact they weren’t allowed to develop self esteem and self confidence during their growing up years. If parents, siblings, and/or family members aren’t handing out those “atta girls”, women can grow up with many negative personality traits. How sad it is to think that parents don’t realize that child learn what they live.

FourPillars January 20, 2008 at 11:16 pm

Great post – I think this results from a lack of confidence. People with big egos can learn a skill and think they are experts whereas other people can learn the same skill and think they are novices.

I see this in the office where people like myself who are competent do okay, but people who really sell themselves (ie think they are great and can sell it to other people) do very well and end up in executive positions even though they may not be any more competent than the average worker.

Mike

John Graden August 29, 2008 at 1:28 pm

This is such an important syndrome that I’ve written a book about it, which you can find more information on at JohnGraden.com.

Lisa November 6, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Hi,

I’ve recently been seeing a lot on this, and I can understand the feeling. I wonder if it also extends into adulthood. I’ve heard of people feeling they are faking adulthood. Just going through the motions and never feeling like they really transitioned. Thanks for the detailed points on the syndrome – it really puts it in perspective.
Bye for now.
Miss Mentor

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