What Is Imposter Syndrome and How to Deal with It

How to Cure Imposter Syndrome with Self-Compassion

Maybe you missed a deadline, yelled at your child, botched a presentation, or did poorly on an assignment. We all feel like we don’t belong from time to time. And when you’re not sure of yourself, it’s easy to lose your sense of self-compassion and feel like a fraud.

Everyone else is handling it, why can’t I? How long until people find out that I actually don’t belong here?

When you become overwhelmed, it’s easy to personalize everything. Your negative thinking and self-doubt feed your sense of inadequacy and insecurity.

Far from motivating, imposter syndrome can actually contribute to depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and self-sabotage.

What Causes Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome was first described by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes in the 1970s. They called it, “imposter phenomenon.” At the time, they focused on high-achieving women, but it turns out that imposter syndrome affects people from all walks of life.

Through messaging from our society, culture, and upbringing, we develop scripts that play in our minds almost automatically.

When your mom belittled herself, your teacher always favored certain students to answer complex questions, or the characters you watched on TV fell into certain stereotypes, you internalized those narratives and they became part of your script.

Competitive environments filled with intense pressure to achieve and individual attributes of perfectionism and family dynamics can all lay the groundwork for imposter syndrome.

And beyond just an individual issue, there are also social and structural aspects of these internal scripts. Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of discrimination create a foundation for imposter syndrome to grow and thrive.

In these contexts of your life, as you fall short of a reaching goal, you might struggle to forgive yourself because you didn’t really have many opportunities to see self-compassion and accountability appropriately modeled.

While imposter syndrome is not a diagnosis, there are some signs that you can look out for. These imposter syndrome symptoms include:

  • Doubting your skills, talents, and accomplishments
  • Fearing that you’ll be exposed as a fraud
  • Feeling undeserving of your successes
  • Believing that you’re not as competent or intelligent as others may think

Some of these symptoms overlap with markers of social anxiety disorder including an intense fear of scrutiny from others and avoiding social situations out of fear. In fact, it is possible, though not a given, for imposter syndrome and social anxiety to go hand in hand.

How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

The opposite of imposter syndrome is not disregarding, rationalizing, or sweeping an issue under the rug. On the contrary, the best way to stave off imposter syndrome is through self-compassion and being honest with your strengths and limitations.

     Researcher and author, Kristin Neff, defines self-compassion as treating yourself with the same kindness, concern, and support you’d show to a good friend.

Research has shown that in the face of struggle, pain, and even failure, self-compassion promotes psychological health and buffers against anxiety. One study that focused on women who overindulged in food, found that self-compassion enabled them to resist further temptations.

And rather than hide from challenges or beat yourself up when you feel inadequate, self-compassion can curb the avoidance tendencies that arise with imposter syndrome and improve your overall wellbeing.

When you become accountable for your shortcomings and don’t hyperbolize them by developing imposter syndrome, you actually give yourself the best chance to succeed. The resilience that you gain through self-compassion allows you to learn from your mistakes, evolve, and become more successful.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome at Work

Work is a unique space to manage imposter syndrome because chances are, you haven’t mastered everything that your job entails, yet you probably feel that you need to put up a front so that you can move up in your career and grow professionally.

It can be hard to be torn between feelings of self-doubt while also needing to paint a picture of mastery. Work can quickly become a pressure cooker where your self-flagellation spirals out of control and turns into self-sabotage. The resulting imposter syndrome has been linked to impaired job performance and burnout among a variety of employee populations.

If you’re thinking that your perfectionistic tendencies and self-criticism are good motivators, try being kind to yourself and see how that works in comparison. While it’s true that discipline is often a key to excellence, it turns out that so is self-compassion. And overcoming your imposter syndrome can actually make you more competitive in the workplace.

Practicing Self-Compassion

Now that we’ve established the power and benefit of self-compassion, it’s time to discuss how to wield it. It’s one thing to say that you want to be kinder to yourself. It’s a whole other thing to nourish, foster, and prioritize that while managing your imposter syndrome symptoms and potential co-occurring anxiety or depression.

Find a Healthy Soothing Strategy That Works for You

Pick up your instrument, take a walk, stretch, massage your neck, or take three slow and steady breaths. These are examples of healthy soothing practices, but you’ll need to explore to find the ones that work for you.

Don’t worry about what your neighbor, colleague, or best friend is doing. Know that each person is unique and focus on finding a practice that makes you feel grounded and centered within yourself.

Ditch the Negative Self-Talk

Negative self-talk is part of what causes imposter syndrome. Notice the ways that you talk to yourself and make space shift your inner dialogue to one that is more loving. Be kind to yourself. When you catch yourself thinking or saying something unkind, gently remind yourself that you no longer speak to yourself that way.

This doesn’t mean that you ignore your negative self-talk. Instead, recognize the thoughts and feelings of “not-enoughness” as they arise and know that they are a normal part of the human struggle. Moreover, some of it likely arises from biases, discrimination, and stereotypes that in your conscious mind, you despise and disagree with.

If you’re struggling to reframe your internal dialogue, think about what you would say to a friend in the same situation and try saying that to yourself.

Another important step in reconstructing your self-talk is to separate fact from feelings. Just because you feel a way, it doesn’t mean it’s true. If you’re grappling with a negative-self perception, consider The Work of Byron Katie and ask yourself:

  • Is it true?
  • Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
  • How do I react, what happens, when I believe that thought?
  • Who would I be without the thought?

Address Your Imposter Syndrome Symptoms with a Professional

Imposter syndrome can undermine you at every step. Whether your goals are centered around an academic, professional, health-related, athletic, or social pursuit, finding support can be the key to your success.

Working with a therapist can help you untangle your deep-seated narratives and re-write your internal scripts from a more intentional place to ensure that they align with your goals and values. A mental health professional can also support you in developing the courage, resilience, and capacity to overcome your tendency to self-sabotage.

You are not meant to do this alone and you don’t have to stay stuck. Now that you no longer have to carve out the time to travel to and from a therapist’s office or hand over half of your paycheck for each session, online therapy is a real, accessible option.

Kate Dubé

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) | Berkeley

Kate Dubé is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and mental health writer trained at UC Berkeley and UCSF in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, mindfulness, psychodynamic and psychoanalytic approaches. She specializes in creating a therapeutic space to work through daily stressors, anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues and life transitions, including parenthood. Kate incorporates her clinical expertise to create well-researched, accessible content on topics ranging… Read more