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  • Michael Philp

I'm an imposter

You might have heard of "imposter syndrome" - the persistent fear that you will be exposed for being a fraud. People usually experience imposter syndrome when we first start a new job or a new task, particularly something that is stretching our abilities. "Surely the boss will find out that they've made a grave mistake and fire me - I know nothing!". After a while, these thoughts tend to disappear, usually after we have mastered most of the requirements of the job. But for some people these thoughts never go away. That despite all their efforts and success, they still consider themselves an imposter - a fraud.

"It's only a matter of time before people discover the truth - that I don't know what I am doing. I've been fooling them all this time".

So, why do some people continue to think this way, when all the evidence suggests otherwise?

I'm not as good as I should be

It's easy to feel like an imposter when you have very little experience - in fact, it's true to a degree. You don't know what you are doing. You are making mistakes. That's part and parcel with being a novice. But for those who continue to think this way, even with many years of experience, these thoughts are driven by something more deeper and complex than lack of experience. Underlying these thoughts is a deep seated belief of not being good enough or defective in some way. These deep seated beliefs, also known as core beliefs or schemas, develop early in life and set the lens through which you see the world. They come from a variety of interactions we have in our lives, too many to fully discuss in this blog (see the book "Reinventing your life" by Jeffrey Young for a full description). Instead, we'll focus on how we tend to cope - by either giving in to it, avoiding, or overcompensating.

I'm a failure

If you give into the belief of being a failure, then you accept at your absolute core that you are a failure, that you will always be a failure, and that no matter what you do, you are destined to fail. You can imagine then the response someone who surrenders to this belief might have - to give up. You may have met these people in your life - or you feel this way yourself - they seem to have no drive, no ambition, despite having potential to do more, they seem to not push themselves. They will describe themselves as "lazy" (see our blog on laziness here) and may be entrenched in their depression.

I don't think I'll be good enough

Many people avoid situations that could potentially expose them to the feeling of being a failure. They end up under performing in comparison to their potential. They don't go for promotions or decline opportunities to extend themselves for fear that they will fail. People who avoid situations that may trigger failure schemas may use cognitive dissonance strategies of telling themselves the timing isn't quite right. They avoid opportunities because trying and failing would be an unbearable hurt - it would prove those deep down beliefs are actually true. Thus, it becomes easier to avoid being challenged, even if the person is unhappy in their current role, than to be exposed to the possibility of failing.

As long as I do it 100% correctly, I'll be ok

The final coping mechanism is the over-compensator. For some people, they may have developed core beliefs around high standards, that their self-worth is only measured in achievements, which becomes impossible to maintain. These standards are excessive. In a work situation, the person might be working extra hours, scrutinising their work, finding it difficult to delegate or micro-managing others in order to make sure the job is done correctly. And even if they do achieve those impeccably high standards - they don't give themselves time to celebrate. It's on to the next thing. Eventually, this leads to burnout. But it's all been driven by the same underlying belief - I'm not good enough and everyone knows it.

How to help with imposter syndrome

This is where therapeutic interventions like Schema Therapy are helpful. Through Schema Therapy, we are able to identify the underlying core beliefs and the attempted coping mechanisms and behaviours that go with that belief. It can be difficult work emotionally to uncover these beliefs and identify that vulnerable side of you; but this is where change can occur. And ultimately, this can lead to the life that you want to live.


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