Just Google the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and you’ll find hundreds of TEDTalks, articles, and blogs covering this well-documented, and much-explored human experience.
The psychological feeling of being an imposter at work, at home, and even at play are rooted in deeply traumatic experiences like childhood emotional and physical abuse.
And yet, despite these serious mental health challenges, I’ve seen the same articles advise just talking about the issue, and realizing you’re not alone, as the cure.
Let me be clear: you are definitely not alone. But does the realization of not being the only one suffering from imposter syndrome make you feel any better?
Knowing others are experiencing depression does not stop one from feeling depressed. It can help, and seeking support is important, but it isn’t going to magically stop it from happening. Let’s explore what this phenomenon actually is and how to actually tame your inner imposter.
To Understand Imposter Syndrome, You First Need to Understand How Our Brains Work
The documented percentage of individuals who experience imposter syndrome is around 70%, regardless of age, gender, race or occupation. I would hypothesize that the percentage is even higher. Why? Because we all have a disconnect between how we are perceived by the outside world and how we perceive ourselves. This discrepancy is not actually rooted in abuse or neglect, but in brain development.
As early as 4 or 5 years old, children begin to notice the way friends, family, and other people view them is different from how they view themselves. This is when our internal self-concept begins to diverge from our external presentation of self.
Our brain, as Anil Seth discusses in his TEDTalk on how our brains perceive “reality”, is a mass that is trapped in a dark, enclosed skull. It’s only access to the world is through our senses and body. Because of this, our brain is constantly trapped between previous ideas of self and new input which leaves us all feeling a little different on the inside than we do on the outside.
Faking It Till You Make It Works, If You Let It
Another root of feeling like an imposter is that our brain copes with learning new identities by “faking” them until we can incorporate them into our self-concept. Basically, as we grow up, we begin to “act” like an adult. This is where the term “adulting” comes from.
In high school, we try on different personalities and personas. Through our 20s we explore identities and careers and interests. We settle on some of them– like getting married or getting a good job. The problem is that in general these experiences still feel and are perceived by our brain as just that, pretending.
If we would rather be home on our couch eating take-out and playing video games, we label the choice to be productive as “not genuinely ourselves”. This leaves us sitting in meetings saying to ourselves “Wow, if these people only knew that this morning I had two week old pizza for breakfast, they would not be listening to me lecture them about healthy, germ free living!”
We perceive the personas we wear in different social setting to be false fronts, instead of holistic aspects of an integrated self. And since we see them as false, we believe we are imposters. But ‘fake it till you make it’ is actually a very healthy coping mechanism.
When you ‘fake it’ what you’re really saying is ‘I’m unsure of my ability but I’m going to jump in and try anyway.’ While this is helpful and gets us to expand our knowledge and learning, the part of us that believes we’re faking lags behind.
How to Tame the Imposter Syndrome Beast: Step 1
So how do we stop letting this experience rule our daily lives and begin to use it to our advantage? First, embrace the idea that everyone in the office, classroom, or war room has multiple identities. The Congressperson, executive, and teacher all go home and geek out over Game of Thrones.
They were rejected by dates, humiliated by teachers and friends in childhood, and probably failed at a few things, too.
None of these experiences mean that they are not competent to do their jobs, which means your previous experiences don’t mean you are an imposter. As a therapist, I have the unique experience of having knowledge and skill that can help others to be successful, but I also have absolute understanding that I am only able to use those skills minimally myself.
This does not change the power of using those skills. I have learned to employ my multiple self-states effectively in different environments and know that they are all part of “who I am”. My masks are not fake, they are simply different parts of me that inform each other and can be used in appropriate settings.
Stop judging the part of yourself that feels inadequate. It is only one part of you, and it should be there only to keep you humble, not ashamed.
Finally, accept and the fact that the opinions of others are only tools for you to employ in your desire to grow. They are not ultimate truth. I have suggested the Rule of One-Third to many people and try to live by it. In life, one third of the people you know will tell you they love everything you do. One third will reject your ideas and actions with judgement and negativity. And one third do not care at all about what you’re doing.
Embrace the fact that a part of you will always exist that feels 15 years old, even when you are 65. A part of you will always feel inexperienced, even 20 years into a successful career. A part of you will always wonder if other people are hiding the same experiences you are behind their masks of competence, because the truth is, they are.