I am an imposter. I am also a very competent person. Whether at work, in my personal life, in fitness, or in my sobriety… I am more than competent. I know this. I’m telling you this. This is true.
Does it sound like I am trying to convince myself?! That’s because I am.
My asshole brain also tells me that I’m a fraud every chance it gets. It tells me that I don’t know what I am talking about. I do not deserve recognition for anything. It makes me question myself every step of the way. I try my best not to show this outwardly, and at this point in my life I think I pass as normal, but it’s always there lurking in the background ready to laugh at me when I’m feeling good about an accomplishment. Because I don’t feel I deserve many or any congratulations, compliments, or accolades. I know in my head that I do deserve them at times, but when I get them I immediately think of what part of myself is lacking.
This may sound like a bit much for people that know me. But it is how I have felt most of my life.
Within the last few months I’ve stumbled upon the term Imposter Syndrome and the more I read about it the more I see my entire life has been lived through this lens.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Impostor phenomenon, also known as imposter syndrome, was first coined by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s. It is considered to mainly occur among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.1 Imposter syndrome refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. To put it simply, it is the experience of feeling like a phony, like you don’t belong where you are. It can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.
Some of the common signs of imposter syndrome include:
• An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
• Attributing your success to external factors
• Berating your performance
• Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
• Sabotaging your own success
• Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short (I do this a lot)
I don’t know when it started for me but if I had to narrow it down I would say this feeling really surfaced in college. Actually, it could be the result of being the youngest of four boys, the closest one in age was 6 years older than me. All of them going to good schools and were football standouts. Meanwhile, I was a decent student, went to a good school, and was a good football player, playing two years at a division III school, but, in my mind, I was nothing to write home about comparatively speaking. Key words there are “in my mind” I’m sure.
How about being the only red-head in the family. If that doesn’t give you imposter syndrome, I don’t know what will!!
I went to college and started out majoring in biology. While I was interested in getting into the field of sports medicine, I was NOT interested in biology and chemistry. So after two years of struggling through that, I had to make a change and I chose accounting. Why not, after all my oldest brother was an accountant. So it was basically like throwing a dart and picking whatever balloon you hit. Accounting was sensible and I could do a lot of things with that degree and didn’t really need to decide on anything else at that point in time.
But I felt like I failed at one major, simply by not continuing on with it, and was starting late on another major where I already felt like I was behind the eight-ball in terms of graduating on time and was playing catch up with my peers that had been taking these classes for 1-2 years already. This allowed my feelings of being an imposter to mount. Even though I quit football to focus more on my major, took extra classes and summer school, and finished my degree in four years as planned, my mind got stuck in that mindset that I was playing catch-up. Looking back through the years with this perspective now, I don’t know that it’s ever fully recovered from it.
There are 5 types of Imposter Syndrome identified2:
• The perfectionist: Perfectionists are never satisfied and always feel that their work could be better. Rather than focus on their strengths, they tend to fixate on any flaws or mistakes. This often leads to a great deal of self-pressure and high amounts of anxiety.
• The superhero: Because these individuals feel inadequate, they feel compelled to push themselves to work as hard as possible.
• The expert: These individuals are always trying to learn more and are never satisfied with their level of understanding. Even though they are often highly skilled, they underrate their own expertise.
• The natural genius: These individuals set excessively lofty goals for themselves, and then feel crushed when they don’t succeed on their first try.
• The soloist: These people tend to be very individualistic and prefer to work alone. Self-worth often stems from their productivity, so they often reject offers of assistance. They tend to see asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence.
While I identify with all of them in some way, I am a superhero at my core.
My whole adult life I’ve felt this way, and while I was more than competent at my job, I would never say “no” to any request and would work a ton of hours, weekends, and holidays all in hopes of not being “found out” as the fraud I felt like. This in turn, I realize now, ended up fueling my drinking. Big time! Because the problem with being the superhero is that it can’t be sustained. And while alcohol was initially a lubricant to handle stress, it eventually became my kryptonite.
The irony was that the one thing that I never felt like an imposter at was, you guessed it, drinking!!! I could drink with the best of them and was knowledgeable about all the newest and best brands, flavors, etc. No wonder I embraced it like I did. When I was drinking with others, those feelings of being a fraud dissolved away. It made me happy. It made it feel like I was truly connecting with others. It made me feel like an equal. Which was everything that I thought I wasn’t.
The only problem is that alcohol is designed to make us drink more over time. Our tolerance goes up, our tastes “improve”, and the next thing we can find is something we don’t like looking back at us in the mirror. Those “fun” nights eventually turn into loathsome mornings.
How can we finally measure up?
So how can we finally begin to measure up to reality? That’s just it, we aren’t trying to measure up to any unrealistically high standards here. We only need to see our reality as others do and believe it is, in fact, real. Here are some ways to overcome this belief from the American Psychological Association1:
Talk to your mentors
• Share your feelings with someone you trust so that they can help you recognize that these impostor feelings are both normal AND irrational.
Recognize your expertise
• This doesn’t mean you have to only look to those above you for help. By helping those younger or more inexperienced at something you can also realize how much knowledge you have to impart.
Remember what you do well
• According to Imes, “Most high achievers are pretty smart people, and many really smart people wish they were geniuses. But most of us aren’t,” she says. “We have areas where we’re quite smart and areas where we’re not so smart.” She suggests writing down the things you’re truly good at, and the areas that might need work. That can help you recognize where you’re doing well, and where there’s legitimate room for improvement.
Realize no one is perfect
• Clance urges people with impostor feelings to stop focusing on perfection. “Do a task ‘well enough,'” she says. It’s also important to take time to appreciate the fruits of your hard work. “Develop and implement rewards for success — learn to celebrate,” she adds.
• Sidenote: Well enough… This post was the idea for my first blog post over two months ago. It’s sat half done because I wasn’t sure how much information I wanted to include, whether practical or personal. What I had written “wasn’t good enough”. This week I finally just started writing and finishing it. Is it what I had in mind? Not at all. This turned out a lot more introspective than I had planned or even thought about before. But that’s what happens when we just start typing, it is its own unique thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Change your thinking
• People with impostor feelings have to reframe the way they think about their achievements, says Imes. She helps her clients gradually chip away at the superstitious thinking that fuels the impostor cycle. That’s best done incrementally, she says. For instance, rather than spending 10 hours on an assignment, you might cut yourself off at eight. Or you may let a friend read a draft that you haven’t yet perfectly polished (like this blog post). “Superstitions need to be changed very gradually because they are so strong,” she says.
Talk to someone who can help
• For many people with impostor feelings, individual therapy can be extremely helpful. A psychologist or other therapist can give you tools to help you break the cycle of impostor thinking, says Imes.
Since starting therapy in January 2019 I have learned a lot about myself and why I do things. I’ve learned to see where I can get stuck in my own head and have thoughts that aren’t true but feel true in the moment. The more work I do in therapy the easier it is for me to spot certain thoughts and correct them before they spiral out of control. Since uncovering this aspect of my personality (i.e., my Imposter), I’ve come to see that one big problem I have is that I don’t take praise well at all. I always deflect and downplay. My therapist has forced me to recognize when I am going to start this pattern and to stop myself and simply say “thank you”. No other disclaimers or explanations needed.
I’m still working on it!!
The funny thing is that while I was so confident in my drinking persona, the opposite is true in my sobriety. I’m back to deferring to everyone else thinking I’m not qualified enough to comment on things. What do I know about this or that to share it with others?
I’m slowly growing out of this habit and I realize that there is no big expertise to be had in this realm. Everyone here is just going through a shared experience. Some have more days or less days than others. Some may have a specific degree or knowledge they can share that you can’t. We have read more books, less books, or different books than the next person. We attend different meetings and we share different stories. But together we support one another in the best ways we know how.
And the best way we know how doesn’t require a disclaimer. Our stories are no better or worse than the next person. They’re totally different and oddly similar all at once. We share it for connection, because there are no imposters here. We are all ENOUGH.