Do You Have Impostor Syndrome?



BY DEBBIE BARR

* Kelly was promoted to the job of her dreams, but she constantly reminds herself that she’s not smart enough or talented enough to deserve it.

* Bryan exceeded his sales quota for the year but he told himself it was just luck.

* Keesha can’t stop comparing herself to the other leaders in her volunteer organization. She fears she will never be as good a speaker and as effective a leader as they are.

Kelly, Bryan, and Keesha aren’t actual people. But they represent millions of smart, talented, and successful people who feel like impostors—not really who others think they are, and unable to “own” their very real talents and accomplishments. In their own eyes, they’re always falling short of what they should be, which renders them unable to take credit for their successes or enjoy them. But almost always, the truth is, whenever a “Kelly” gets promoted, it’s because she deserves it; whenever a “Bryan” exceeds his sales quota, it is because of his hard work; and whenever a “Keesha” is brought onto a team, it is because of her potential to become as good a speaker and as effective a leader as anyone else in the organization.

If you identify with Kelly, Bryan, or Keesha, you’re hardly alone. It has been estimated that 70% of us experience Impostor Syndrome at some point in our lives. No category of people is exempt. Men, women, physicians, actors, executives, minorities, parents, and even international students who come to the US to study can all sometimes feel like impostors.

Some people succumb to Impostor Syndrome because of the false belief that they need to be perfect to be lovable. Others feel they must have given the impression that they are more capable than they really are. Still others have internalized a racial or gender stereotype about intelligence or competence, for example, women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) occupations. Whatever the root cause, people with Impostor Syndrome worry that others will find out how little they really know, or expose them as a fraud—someone whose accomplishments are due to luck, rather than genuine talent, hard work, and intelligence.

Clearly, Impostor Syndrome is a real thing and not all that uncommon. But what’s the cure?

Experts on Impostor Syndrome offer these suggestions:

  1. Pay attention to your thoughts and call yourself out whenever you start thinking you’re an impostor. Ask yourself if your thoughts are helping you or hindering you. Dr. Gail Gazelle, who coaches physicians dealing with Impostor Syndrome, notes, “This process of paying attention begins to create an important distance between you and these thoughts.” She also suggests asking yourself three questions:
  • How do I know that the thought that I’m an imposter is true?
  • What am I magnifying?
  • What am I minimizing?
  1. Talk about your fears with safe friends, a counselor or psychologist, or a trusted mentor. Valerie Young, an Impostor Syndrome expert, told Time Magazine, “People who have more experience can reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal, and knowing others have been in your position can make it seem less scary.”
  2. People often feel like impostors when they are not facing their challenges in the right way. Focus on your strengths, embrace constructive criticism, and remember that the more you practice a skill, the better you will get at it. This approach, more humble than fearful, will help you defeat impostor beliefs.

Sources:  Gail Gazelle, MD, “How overcoming the imposter syndrome decreases physician burnout,” Becker’s Hospital Review, Friday, December 6, 2019. (beckershospitalreview.com); Abigail Abrams, “Yes, Impostor Syndrome is Real. Here’s How to Deal with it,” (Time.com), June 20, 2018.


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