Imposter Syndrome: Challenging the Faulty Narrative
Humans are notoriously bad at assessing ourselves, living as we do, trapped behind our own eyes, in brains that constantly filter and interpret the world through narratives that we wrote as young children trying to make sense of our place in a confusing and chaotic world.
Imposter Syndrome was a term coined in the late 1970’s by two fellow Atlanta psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They defined it as a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’."
For some of us this sounds very familiar. This is not just something people deal with in their early careers. At 67-years-old, with decades of experience as a psychologist, last week I was asked to guest lecture a psychology class on Narrative Therapy. I was revisited by my aging Imposter Syndrome. “You won’t explain it well; you aren’t good at lecturing; you’ll come across as disorganized…”
Of course, the lecture went great, but this experience proved, once again, that the negative voice can whisper sweet bullshit in our ears throughout our lifetime.
If we keep pushing through, the voice gets softer. Instead of saying “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” “Who do you think you are that people want to hear from you?” it morphs into a vague but manageable performance anxiety. Thankfully over time the positive voice (“You can do this. It’s going to be OK”) wins out.
The wisdom of age is knowing that the more we push through that discomfort, rather than allowing it to make us avoid the thing that scares us, the less disabled we will be.
Publishing my novel was a monumental “Screw You” to my Imposter Syndrome. “Bird Gotta Land: The Education of a Young Psychologist” is a fictional memoir based on my experiences in graduate school in clinical psychology three decades ago. The same struggles that I had completing my dissertation (which I address in the novel) plagued me as I tried to complete, publish and put my novel out into the world.
One of the pivotal chapters in the book is a Psychodrama workshop in which Stephen (fictionalized me) remembers and re-lives an experience from his childhood in which his older sister gets frustrated as she is trying to tutor him in math. A sensitive child, Stephen picks up on her frustration and internalizes it as “You are stupid. What’s wrong with you? Maybe your brain just doesn’t work like the other kids.” In reality, nobody ever said those words, but that was the story that Stephen told himself in order for his sister’s negative reactions to make sense.
Of course, his sister had her own shortcomings and was trying to teach him without adult-level skills (patience, compassion, creative coaching strategies). Her short fuse had nothing to do with Stephen’s intelligence. But this truth doesn’t matter.
Interpretation is everything.
All children go through an Egocentric Stage of Development in which everything is personalized. “It must be me” is the filter through which children interpret events in their world, providing the child with the illusion of control: If it’s me, then I can do something about it!
In an ideal world, a loving adult would have said to Stephen, “Your mind works differently than other kids. I can find a way to explain things that will make sense to your unique brain and set up a systematic way to help you face your schoolwork that is less overwhelming so you can succeed and build some confidence.” In the novel, Psychodrama workshop participants are enrolled as Ideal Parents who provide Stephen with these more compassionate and accurate messages, the idea being that if Inner-Child-Stephen gets a perspective shift then Adult-Stephen can re-write his faulty narrative.
Recently my 87-year-old mother was cleaning out some boxes and sent me some of my report cards from elementary school. Teacher comments were consistent year after year. I was a smart little boy with “a tendency to talk…and daydream…” who did “not always give his closest attention in class.” Back in the 1960’s, no one helped me get to the bottom of my school struggles.
(Love the cheery "Best of luck!" at the end of the year. She might as well have added "You're gonna need it!")
Today we know more about how to work with the brains of kids who are creative, have attention deficits and other learning style differences. Parents and teachers are getting better at helping these unique kids not feel like they are stupid or bad.
Imposter Syndrome can lead to a negative feedback loop of anxiety, procrastination and avoidance that results in poor performance and a reinforcement of the Not-Good-Enough-ness that underlies Imposter Syndrome. It is also a form of self-protection: by staying small and acting out the not-good-enough narrative, we are attempting to protect ourselves from potentially being called out, criticized, judged or shamed by others. It gives us mastery over the imagined inevitable negative outcome from putting ourselves out there and being vulnerable: “You can’t fire me, I quit!”
We are forever like the child trying to have mastery over potential negative outcomes.
This is a tough cycle to break.
So how do we re-write the faulty narrative of Imposter Syndrome?
1. Figure out where it originated. If you can recognize it as a “story” being told by your kid-self rather than the “truth”, you can work to uncover the origin of the story. In so doing you should develop some empathy for that child who was doing their best to simplify and understand a complex world.
2. Understand the protective function of the story: it’s designed to keep you small and safe. Forgive that part of you! Thank it for trying to protect you and assure it that you are now strong enough to handle the potential negative feelings that come from not being perfect.
3. Become aware of when the Imposter Syndrome is sabotaging you. When you are avoiding, procrastinating, and under-performing, you are engaging in a self-fulfilling prophesy.
4. Re-write the narrative in the here-and-now. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and trying things that you did not believe that you could do will help you collect more accurate data about yourself. This new data can be used to update the story and re-write the narrative.
Even as a seasoned practitioner, living in a grown-up body, who completed a PhD, built a successful psychotherapy practice, and wrote a novel, at times I can still hear that voice telling me “You’re not good enough.”
Thankfully these days, the voice is a whisper, not a scream.