Imposter Syndrome: Exposing the Achievement Disease

Have you ever felt like you are hiding out in your job or school trying to accumulate “achievements” to delay being discovered as a fraud? If you have, it’s not surprising; this mind-frame is so prevalent it has been given the name Imposter Syndrome (IS). The more competitive the school and the more prestigious the job, the more prevalent the syndrome will be. Regardless of how much praise and positive feedback these individuals get, the belief endures. “I’ve got them fooled for now,” they say to themselves. “But any day…” These beliefs have surfaced in 70% of all people at some point in their lives. Previously thought to affect mostly successful women, it is now understood to affect the genders more equally (although men may hide it more). If you’re lucky, it’s a phase you grow out of when you have proven yourself enough. But for some people, the anxiety-provoking belief endures as if it is hard-wired into their genes.

To better understand this syndrome let’s take a closer look at these imposter thoughts. On the surface it seems like a harmless and even useful mindset to have. People with IS will work harder than others and people-please more than others to avoid being found out.

So why would someone let go of their IS if it helps them achieve more? The real problem is that nothing they do or achieve will make the belief and the accompanying distressing feelings go away. It’s an illusion that comfort will come with achievement. With each milestone they will feel safe for the moment, but the distress will inevitably return. They often believe there is only one way to escape being found out and that is by continuing to strive for achievement. When they encounter obstacles, it is a catastrophe, not just something to learn from. The distress of Imposter Syndrome directly contributes to anxiety, depression, and lack of fulfillment. Another downside of this syndrome is that people will impose a glass ceiling to their efforts by not allowing themselves to be recognized (passing up opportunities for promotion, taking more behind-the-scenes roles). Being truly seen and acknowledged for their contributions would be too dangerous for someone who fears being discovered as a fraud.

The real message internalized by those with IS is that they are “less than” their peers. It’s not about lack of experience or lower test scores. Those can be worked around and taken into account. It is actually a belief that they are inherently less valid than their peers. They have no business being where they are or having such great responsibilities. The underlying worldview of this belief is that some people are better inherently than others. Sure, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but is one individual ever more valid than another individual? Where could this idea be coming from?

For one thing, we live in a culture that celebrates selfies, twitter followers, and constant updates on social media. How can you realistically measure yourself against your peers when you only see their highlight reel? It’s a lot easier these days to fall prey to the “ducks” of the world who present a serene, superior face to the world on their Facebook page but who paddle furiously beneath the surface. When you already suffer the self-doubt of Imposter Syndrome these seemingly harmless social trends give you all the evidence you need that you are nothing. Less than nothing. A complete fraud.

It helps to understand what kind of people tend to suffer from imposter beliefs. One of the more common causes is the experience of having a disability, especially if it goes unrecognized or unacknowledged. For example, people with ADHD can often mask their disability by cramming at the last minute, especially if they are bright and motivated. They can often achieve relatively high-powered positions. It almost seems like there must be a competitive advantage to their constant search for novelty and stimulation. However, their methods of achieving goals often appear maladaptive, easily mistaken for laziness or lack of caring. They can’t just sit down and complete tasks like their peers and they know it. Their experience of life tells them that they just can’t do things as easily as other people. At some point, these individuals will internalize the fact that they are defective and that their achievements must be despite not because of their abilities.

Another scenario that can breed imposter syndrome is being showered with praise for inherent traits rather than for effort. When Suzie comes home with an A on her test her parents might say, “you’re so smart” rather than “you must have worked hard for that.” Or Suzie is constantly praised for being pretty or talented. Perhaps this reflects a narcissistic belief of the parent that their child carries the same special traits that they themselves have. However, the real message that the child internalizes is that one either has these traits or they don’t. If they encounter a scenario that contradicts their supposed specialness (i.e. they get a bad grade, receive criticism) then they will simply believe they are frauds rather than considering how they could have prepared better.

A third scenario is when a person achieves far more in life than their family of origin in either career/education or socioeconomic status. A person in this situation might unconsciously feel that if they fully embrace their achievements in life then they will somehow be disloyal to their family.

They might lose the comfort of the community where they feel seen and accepted and potentially be left to the harsh judgement of the less understanding. It can feel easier to hang on to the idea of being a fraud so they can keep their connection to where they feel at home. And, in reality, some families will resent or distance themselves from a member whose achievements propel them into a different socioeconomic bracket.

If these descriptions of Imposter Syndrome resonate with you right now please be compassionate with yourself. Understand that you are valid regardless of your weaknesses or where you come from. You don’t need to hold on to these feelings even if it feels safer to think this way. The first step is to allow yourself to truly be seen, perhaps with a trusted friend, mentor, or counselor. Once these imposter thoughts materialize in someone’s presence you can see how untrue and problematic they are. Then there is the journey to get out of your comfort zone and put yourself in positions where you could be “exposed.” That might be hard because you are quite capable. But maybe it means putting aside your tireless efforts, speaking up at meetings, asking for a promotion, or taking time for yourself. What you might find out is that instead of being exposed as a fraud you will finally be able to just be and feel like enough. Now you are free to pursue a life of true alignment where your efforts reflect who you are and what you want and can be acknowledged in your chosen community.

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