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  • Writer's picturePatrick Carson

Imposter Syndrome, its consequences, and 3 techniques to combat it

Imposter Syndrome is one of the most widely-experienced psychological phenomena, with some studies estimating up to 82% of people meet the criteria at any one time. Broadly, it is defined by a persistent inability to realise and accept that our achievements are the result of our hard work or our abilities. We instead put them down to luck, or outside forces, or mistakes in the system. We doubt our own intellect and skills, and we feel like imposters or frauds. We know that as soon as someone finds out the mistake, finds out that we’re not meant to be here, then the whole thing will unravel and come crashing down.



It’s an intensely distressing feeling, and high levels of imposter syndrome can be associated with stress, burnout, poorer job satisfaction, and poorer work performance. This can feed into a cycle of negative thinking that can keep us trapped. We think we’re imposters, so we become stressed and unhappy. As a result, we find it harder to concentrate, so our work performance drops. We interpret that as yet more evidence that we’re not good enough to be here, and the cycle continues, and the beliefs get stronger and stronger. It’s a painful and distressing process, so here are 3 tips to combat it.


1. Label your Thoughts

We are always thinking, but we’re not always taught how to think about our thoughts. Sometimes, this can lead to us treating our thoughts less like thoughts, and more like these immutable, inarguable facts. The thoughts and worries feel like they’re objective truths, not possibilities, or interpretations, and never is this more prominent than when we’re already under considerable stress. We can become “fused” to our thought patterns, and find it very difficult to separate ourselves from them. The first step towards “de-fusion” from our thoughts is label them as they are - as thoughts, or worries, or predictions.

Statements like “I don’t deserve to be here” are worded like, and interpreted as facts. So, when you notice yourself having that thought, put a disclaimer before it –

“I’m thinking that I don’t deserve to be here”.

“I’m feeling worthless”.

“I’m telling myself the imposter story again”.

Putting that disclaimer in front of our thoughts helps us to get a little bit of distance between us and the thought, and to accurately label it for what it is. After all, “I don’t deserve to be here” isn’t a fact - it’s an interpretation. It’s something that could be true, but could very well be false.



2. Check the Facts

Thoughts are powerful. A thought can change the way you feel and the things you do, and the kind of thoughts associated with imposter syndrome can make you feel worthless, drain your energy, and to take up your valuable time at work and at home. If a thought is going to have that much power over us, we at least want to make sure that it’s true. We want to treat that thought like a possibility, and do some detective work to find out if it’s valid, rather than just accepting it as true and giving it free rein to ruin our day. As difficult as it is to do in the moment, it’s worth trying to locate any evidence we can that tells us that our thought might not be true, or at least might not be as true as it initially feels. Consider your successes in the role, the things you’ve done and done well, and the feedback you’ve received from trusted colleagues around you. You might find it difficult to bring to mind - we naturally hold on to evidence much more easily if it confirms our beliefs, as opposed to if it challenges them. Consider how you would respond to a friend if they came to you with the same anxieties you’re experiencing now. Would you treat those worries the same as you’re treating your own? Or would you respond to that friend with care, warmth and compassion? If you can bring up evidence to challenge the worries of your friend, some of that same evidence may well apply to you.



3. Be Wary of Comparisons

It’s human nature to make comparisons to those around us. However, like with many instincts and habits we take for granted, comparisons are not always helpful, and not always accurate. When you look inwards, you see the full picture - your successes, strengths, and accomplishments, but also your weaknesses, disappointments, and regrets. The things you wish had gone differently. When you see other people, however, you see what they want to show you – the aspects of themselves that they’re comfortable to put out there in the public eye. The strengths, the successes, and the highlights. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you wind up comparing your full reality to someone else’s highlights, you’re rarely going to come off well. If you can’t avoid comparisons, then remind yourself that the comparison isn’t always a fair one, and the conclusions we draw from the comparisons should be taken with a grain of salt.


I hope these tips have been helpful! However, it should be noted that persistent imposter syndrome could reflect deeply held thoughts, feelings and beliefs, and it’s worth discussing with a mental health professional for long-term relief and resolution.






References

Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275.


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