I was asked to speak about the “imposter syndrome” and it left me musing about my time as a MA student at the Adler School of Professional Psychology, now Adler University. I finished my BA three years before and I guess I was feeling overwhelmed about attending University and was examining my thoughts about the meaning of a MA degree in psychology. I eventually got over my feelings of unworthiness because the longer I was in the program the more I became comfortable with the title and role. Also, we tend to believe everyone else is doing fine except ourselves and wonder why it’s only us feeling we are an imposter when others in reality have similar feelings. Talking to my colleagues helped because a number of them felt the same.
The “imposter syndrome” is part being uncomfortable with change and sometimes, in part, it is an irrational belief arising from our core beliefs about who we are and what we believe about ourselves and the world. Our core beliefs around competence, belonging and worthiness are the issues that arise when we feel like an imposter. Questions like Do I feel like I belong here? Do I deserve this promotion or level of income or status? Can I really do this job? Will they find out I am an imposter? These thoughts can be dismissed by following the evidence. What is the evidence for me being an imposter, is it about feelings, assumptions, or facts? You can also check your self-talk. Is it helpful or unhelpful? “I don’t belong” or “This is new, and I am learning, it will be OK.”
Risking and trying something out of our comfort zone brings feelings of unease and we often feel like abandoning our effort and returning to a more comfortable state. There is a sense of unworthiness and that we do not really belong. Much like wearing a new pair of shoes our feet have not adjusted to the shape of the shoes. They might feel uncomfortable and/or look strange and then we ask ourselves should we have bought them in the first place? Eventually, though, the more we wear them the newness subsides, and they become more comfortable and part of our everyday life.
Life changes, sometimes suddenly, and physically life is different, but our mind and body have not had a chance to adjust. As in a change of residence we automatically go to turn on a light switch that is not there or we have a new job with a different route to travel to work and we automatically start down the wrong route. We have developed a habit of doing things one way and now we have to undo our habit and start a new routine. We all resist change, but some people are afraid to change anything in life even if it is no longer working. If we resist change too much, life will make the change for us. If do not heed the “wake-up call” our job will leave us, or our partner will demand change usually leaving us unprepared.
One of the strategies to deal with the “imposter syndrome” is to act “as if” or to borrow a phrase from 12 step programs “fake it until you make it”. This serves to not reject our new role right out but to try it out and hopefully become more comfortable. I remember mentors in my life who could really see my capabilities better than I could and encouraged me to try and stick with new situations and, when I found it challenging, help me see my strengths. I know that their encouragement helped me get over my fear of change and get me through challenging times.
Maybe on the other hand we haven’t been given the tools or training in order to do what we need to. Remember we need reality checks and to follow the evidence before we conclude we are indeed “an imposter.” I remember many jobs being a “trial by fire”, I was thrown in and had to fend for myself with very little training or guidance. In that situation there is really no time to think about being an imposter, it was enough just to survive. Feelings of unease, of feeling uncomfortable are there to keep us on our toes so that we can check in on ourselves, to help us to be present with what is happening, and to learn to believe in ourselves. Maybe we are in a dysfunctional work environment, maybe it is not a good fit. Feelings are there to get our attention. Feelings are the way we gauge what is going on and they provide the energy to adjust and change things as needed. Talking to others we trust and/or people who are mentors and can offer clarity and encouragement helps. We don’t need to suffer alone.