Do you sometimes doubt the authenticity of your accomplishments and attribute your success to good luck or timing? If so, you may be acting as your own worst bully, and you need to cut that out! I was guilty of beating myself up for many years, so I decided it was time for payback.
The bully made her way into my life very early. She entered quietly, and hid in the background until she saw fit to pounce. Here is how it began:
When I was six years old, my teacher placed me in the highest reading group in her first-grade classroom, along with only one other student. Right away, I knew this was an awesome thing. Why? Because my mom and dad told me so. My parents had made it clear that academic success would make them proud, and I quickly learned that being praised felt good. I wanted more of that.
My teachers thought I was smart, too. I was giddy when I spotted a smiley face or a star atop my assignment pages, and I loved seeing how my parents beamed when they read my report cards. Although I was shy and awkward and overweight, I was labeled a “smart kid,” and I derived my self-esteem from doing well in school and getting positive feedback from the authority figures in my life.
And then somewhere around seventh grade, it didn’t feel easy to do well in my classes. I began to doubt myself and I wondered if my parents were wrong about me. What if I wasn’t the brilliant and accomplished daughter they had made me out to be?
Back then, my struggle hadn’t been classified, and it was only around the time I graduated junior high that two psychologists hypothesized how some people (mostly women, they theorized) could fall victim to what they called the Impostor Phenomenon.
What is the Impostor Phenomenon?
Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes published “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” in 1978. The paper’s abstract states, “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
While Impostor Phenomenon does show up in highly successful women – Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, and Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor are two self-proclaimed examples – it can also affect men. Psychology researcher, M.E.H. Topping, wrote that men do not like to acknowledge that they have IP, and often suppress their emotions about it.
Those who suffer from Impostor Phenomenon don’t believe their intrinsic abilities are the cause of their successes. They are sure their accomplishments are the result of working harder than others, and that they manipulate people’s impressions of them with this kind of compensation.
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” – Maya Angelou
The Impostor Phenomenon Plays Out in My Life
I started compensating when I began junior high and continued to do so in high school, college, graduate school and throughout my 12-year advertising career. I convinced myself that I achieved good grades only through a ridiculous amount of studying, and my promotions were due to situational luck. Meanwhile, I was terrified I would be outed as a fraud, and when I was laid off from my job in 2001, I viewed that as justification for having duped people for all those years.
After the layoff, I struggled with my identity and didn’t know how I was going to find another job. I felt ashamed and dumb, and really afraid to try again after having shown my true colors. Then I got pregnant and was relieved that I could reinvent myself as the perfect stay-at-home mom. Of course, perfection didn’t play out, and I once again felt like a phony. I was Impostor Mom! While that sounds like a stretch, a University of Vermont graduate student, Queena Hoang, found that although Impostor Phenomenon is typically seen in classrooms and the workplace, it can also show up in social relationships and family situations. So, when, in 2014, my husband told me he wanted a divorce, I became Impostor Wife.
How Can You Push Away the Impostor Bully?
Is it possible to drive the Impostor bully away, and to be cured of this condition? Although Impostor Phenomenon (or Syndrome, as it is often called) is not considered a psychological disorder and doesn’t show up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is real and insidious. Impostor Phenomenon reveals itself in those who have failed to internalize self-esteem, and feel good about themselves only when they receive positive external feedback.
Psychotherapy that addresses the victim’s need for external positive feedback and works to help her internalize self-esteem is essential for overcoming IP. In their book, If I’m So Successful Why Do I Feel Like A Fake: The Impostor Phenomenon, authors Joan C. Harvey and Cynthia Katz offered tips for overcoming the negative feelings and emotions associated with Impostor Phenomenon:
- Talk to others who are experiencing the same feelings, which will help you recognize that you are not alone.
- Put your impostor feelings down on paper so that you can own and name them, and then begin to literally strike out the negatives.
- Break down daunting tasks into smaller parts.
- Learn to take control of situations rather than feeling immobile and helpless.
- Teach yourself to accept compliments.
Doing the Work
Since I learned I would have to go back to work in order to make ends meet, I’ve had some more run-ins with IP. My immediate reaction was, “I can’t do this. I haven’t worked in over fifteen years, and I’m not really good at anything.”
But this time, I took my impostor bully to task and showed her evidence that I was a competent, talented and deserving person. I made a list of my accomplishments and started to believe that I was indeed responsible for success across many areas in my life.
And then I took a leap of fear. Yes, fear. I was afraid to reach out, to apply for jobs, and to ask for help. But I did it anyway, and it paid off.
I just started a part-time job as an administrative assistant to help pay the bills. I’m also trying to get writing assignments since that is what I truly love to do.
I want to be clear that my self-esteem isn’t completely repaired. But now I’m either ignoring that negative voice in my head or drowning it out with positive affirmations. I know I can still fail, and that rejection often follows writing submissions. But I’m better prepared to deal with disappointment because I’m not going to take it as personally as I once did. That damn impostor had followed me around for nearly fifty years, and she needed to be sent packing. She’s done enough harm for one lifetime.