When Jodie Foster won her Oscar for the film “The Accused” she said: “I thought it was a big fluke. The same way when I walked on the campus at Yale, I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back.”
Being overly preoccupied with the impression we give to others means that we can become terrified of showing any doubt or anxiety. Being more concerned with learning rather than performance can help. Learning means that it is okay not to know.
This is the kind of experience in which one's underlying thought is “sooner or later I will be found out”.
I have to confess that I have these thoughts from time to time. I was born into a working class background where people were not expected to do jobs such as being psychotherapists. When I have these thoughts and feelings I am experiencing Imposter Syndrome. It is something which is surprisingly common.
The origins of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome was first identified by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance in 1978. At the time, it was a condition which appeared to be more prevalent in women than men. However, later research confirmed that it was equally distributed across genders. Although it is not classified as a mental health problem according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it has definite features and its occurrence in depression and other disorders is high. This is not surprising given the ways that depressed people cope with their problems by putting on masks. Mask-wearing is at the heart of Imposter Syndrome. Facebook and Instagram enable us to digitally enhance and photoshop our masks, curating what others see. This merely serves to reinforce the fact that our real self is just not good enough. Why might this be?
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Mechanisms behind Imposter Syndrome
People with Imposter Syndrome fear being caught out. They fear not living up to what they think are the expectations of others. The fear of being caught out means that they may continually take on new challenges in order to manage the impression of not being seen as a failure. Paradoxically, the fear of being caught out may be so great they avoid coming out of their comfort zone. Ultimately they can end up in a spiral feeling more and unhappy in work and in life. The more difficult things get, the more the imposter mask becomes indistinguishable from the face. How can we begin to work with this?
We can begin to find out why we do this. Imposter Syndrome is a symptom of something and not a cause. The Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy states that problems we experience in depression seem to cluster around four areas: getting close to others; difficulties in expressing our needs; expressing negative feelings; and making mistakes. If we have difficulties in any or all four of these areas, honest and open relationships with others may be hard. If we open up to others they may not listen. If we make a mistake we may be criticised or punished. Once we have a sense of the cause behind the symptom, we may need to rethink our approach.
The preoccupation with how we perform is something that lends itself to Imposter Syndrome. Being overly preoccupied with the impression we give to others means that we can become terrified of showing any doubt or anxiety. Being more concerned with learning rather than performance can help. Learning means that it is okay not to know. It is okay to fail because if we don’t fail, how do we learn? Group work in depression has also taught me the value of communicating. To feel like a fake in the company of others can be lonely. It is also very common. If we all owned up to feeling like imposters from time to time it is likely that we will feel less alone and more connected with others.