Impostor Syndrome: What it is + How to Break up with it!
Have you ever gotten a job and wondered whether the interviewer made a mistake? Or perhaps every time your partner showers you with love, you’re petrified they’ll discover you don’t deserve it. If you can resonate with scenarios like this, you’ve likely experienced impostor syndrome. It can make you feel as though you aren’t good enough as you are and have to constantly change yourself to prove your worth. This condition often makes you doubt who you are and what you’re capable of; in many ways, it erodes your self-esteem.
Impostor syndrome is more than a trend or catchy phrase––it’s a reality for many. Individuals who struggle with it often feel different, displaced and lack a sense of belonging.
If you want to learn more about what impostor syndrome is and how you can overcome it, continue reading below.
What is Impostor Syndrome
Also known as impostor phenomenon or impostorism, it’s a condition that makes you believe your success results from external factors and luck as opposed to your talent and skills. It can make you question how worthy you are of praise, achievements, and the good things life has to offer. For the most part, you struggle to accept and believe success happens to you because you’re deserving despite external evidence proving otherwise. Interestingly, those who suffer from impostor syndrome are often high-achievers.
A review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science tells us that around 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their life. This means you are not alone in your struggle, which can be comforting to know. Mainstream psychology began documenting the term around 1978, however. Since that time numerous studies have been done on the condition and how it presents in the workplace and beyond.
Impostor Syndrome and Black Indigenous Women of Color
Unfortunately, research tells us impostor syndrome especially affects those who identify as women, although other gender identities experience it too. This could be because most early studies have focused on women. It’s also found to be prevalent among BIWOC. Why could this be?
One reason could be because modern-day success continues to be male centric while upholding patriarchal norms in most settings. Throughout history success has been defined by status, political power, and wealth-—three areas historically dominated by white men. How does this affect BIWOC and make them more prone to impostor syndrome? They can fall into the mindset of defining success by these standards, and falling short can make them minimize their success.
Impostor Syndrome and Microaggressions
The workplace environment can also trigger impostor syndrome for BIWOC. Experiencing microaggressions from work colleagues can perpetuate thoughts of unworthiness and not being good enough. A study on microaggressions in the workplace among women of color found Balck women feel pressure to perform perfectly to counter negative stereotypes about black women. The study also found racial microaggressions lead to feelings of embarrassment and guilt.
What does microaggression at work look like for black women? Being “tone policed” and tagged aggressive or loud in the workplace. This can lead to you minimizing yourself or shrinking to avoid bolstering the stereotype. Likewise, being interrupted while speaking can make women feel as though their voices don’t matter; the recent debate between Kamala Harris and Vice Pence is a primary example. Another common scenario we see- women's ideas being ignored in the workplace, yet when their male counterparts contribute the same ideas, they’re, praised.
Women already have more obstacles to overcome simply from the impacts of privilege and systemic oppression; they often feel the urgency to work twice as hard for the same jobs as men, and Black women in the U.S. earn 39% less than white men.
This often leads to the endless internal battle of second guessing our own judgement in situations that feel "unfair". Is it me? Is it racial? Is it because I am a woman?- Well I will just work extra hard to level the playing field for myself!
Types of Impostor Syndrome
While impostor syndrome describes a general condition, there are specific types. Dr. Valerie Young, a renowned expert on impostor syndrome, found there are five subcategories which are:
This category of people set unrealistically high standards for themselves. You may notice they’re control freaks and find it hard to delegate without micromanaging. If you’ve ever found yourself obsessing over every detail and constantly trying to achieve perfection, this may be you.
Feelings of inadequacy and incompetence push these people to overwork themselves. They attribute any success they achieve to hard work as opposed to their talent and skill. This incessant need to work hard to prove their worth can be detrimental to both their mental health and relationships. They may also find work-life balance difficult and struggle to rest. They find validation in working, and it helps affirm their self-worth.
Are you terrified of asking for help because you feel it will make you look stupid or incompetent? If the answer is yes, you may be a soloist. They refuse help and would rather struggle alone because they tie their worth to accomplishing things independently.
The Natural Genius
Have you ever wondered if you should quit a hobby or career path because you aren’t naturally good at it? The natural genius believes that if things don’t come to them with ease and speed, it’s because they aren't competent. They are overly critical of themselves, set unrealistically high standards, and feel they should get things right on the first try. They hate working at things they’re not good at because they have fixed mindsets—the belief that you can’t get better at things that don’t come naturally to you.
The group of individuals believes what and how much they know determines their competence. They’re continually seeking knowledge out of fear that they’ll be exposed as frauds. Signs of the expert include not applying for jobs if they don’t meet all requirements or constantly seeking training and education.
Now that you know what impostor syndrome is, perhaps you’re wondering what causes it. Well, the answers aren’t exact. Some researchers believe it can be attributed to personality traits, while others trace it to behavior and family history. We most also acknowledge impacts various forms of systemic oppression as well as race based trauma in all of these areas.
Personality Traits: Research finds that certain personality traits can increase the chances of you getting impostor syndrome. More specifically, they include traits like perfectionism, neuroticism, and struggling with self-efficacy.
Childhood Experiences: It isn’t uncommon for people to feel pressure at home from a young age. For instance, you might have had pressure to achieve academically or a sibling who was seemingly more gifted than you. Or maybe you were the only BIWOC in your class, or school. In a similar strain, perhaps you felt pressure to take a conventional career path and not becoming a doctor or lawyer makes you feel less than. Such experiences can plant seeds that eventually affect you in adulthood. The experience of being a first generation graduate or the "one who made it" can add additional pressure for many communities.
Discrimination: can also trigger impostor feelings. For instance, being a BIWOC in a predominantly white organization can cause feelings of “impostorism”––especially when there are ingrained stereotypes about competence. Often, a sense of belonging boosts our self-confidence, so when that’s absent, it can perpetuate impostor syndrome.
Faith-Based Influences: If you have beliefs that are less than conventional, it can lead to internal conflicts or dissonance. For example, if you come from a Christian home and use crystals or honor the moon, you may feel like you don’t fit in or aren’t good enough compared to more traditional Christians who may speak against it.
Signs and Symptoms
So, how do you know you have impostor syndrome? What are some behavioral patterns or feelings you experience? Here are some common signs and symptoms you may battle with regularly.
Feeling of inadequacy
Feelings of depression
Lack of confidence
Dwelling in past rejections/failures
Fears of the future
Obsession with perfecting things
Not acknowledging/undermining your success
Fear of failure
Needing to be special or the best
5 Steps to Breaking up with it
Impostor syndrome can be mentally, emotionally, and physically draining. Instead of experiencing joy and fulfillment in your work and relationships, you might be stuck with feelings of emptiness. The good news is you’re not alone and there is help. Because you deserve to live a life where you can celebrate your accomplishments, feel worthy, and accept love, I'm sharing 5 practices that might help.
Because negative self-talk can perpetuate impostor syndrome, therapy can help significantly. More specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy exercises individually or within a group can help you work through underlying causes and guide you to tangible solutions. During sessions, you can talk through your feelings and directly address recurring fears, failures, and doubts you experience. Therapy can especially help if comorbidity is present (simultaneous presence of two or more conditions). For instance, someone with impostor syndrome could also have anxiety and depression that needs to be treated.
Being aware of the symptoms of impostor syndrome can make it easier to identify when you’re operating from a place of fear. A greater level of consciousness can also give you a better understanding of your triggers. If you’re able to catch yourself in the act, you can turn your negative self-talk into positive and give yourself the assurance you need at the moment. Meditation and practices that increase your connection to your body can be great ways of connecting more fully with the present moment. A great start is to explore activities that stimulate your senses such as sight, sound, taste, smell and feeling.
Accepting yourself isn’t only about accepting what you think are imperfections; it’s also about accepting your positive attributes. Admit you’re incredible, acknowledge your accomplishments, and accept that you’re good enough as you are. This isn’t easy to do, but with time and consistency, self-acceptance can help you change the way you see yourself. Sometimes celebrating ourselves feels unsafe or arrogant. If this feels hard, ground yourself into your root chakra to increase your sense of safety before leaping into the experience of visibility. Start with something small you are comfortable celebrating, share that with a trusted loved one.
Journaling is a practical way to increase your level of consciousness and document your journey. Make a note of how you feel daily and start recording your wins. When you read back on your entries, you may notice patterns of behavior and areas that need more nurturing or healing. Journaling can also be a powerful tool, as you can document your achievements and see how far you’ve come. However, if you don’t practice acceptance, internalizing your success will be challenging and self-doubt will dominate your mind and emotions. Complete your journal entry by writing a declaration. Shift from where you were to where you ARE. Example: I allow myself to witness the fear while embracing my courage to be seen.
Meditation can help with some negative symptoms of impostor syndrome. For instance, research shows meditation has many health benefits such as improving anxiety and depression. If you’re open to meditating, it can expose you to a deeper level of self-understanding and healing.
New to meditation? Start with breathing techniques and aim to meditate daily––even if only for two minutes. It’s a positive way to begin exploring deep-seated causes of low-self esteem and remolding the way you think and feel about yourself.
Impostor syndrome tells you that to be good enough or loved, you have to achieve, and this is simply untrue. Doing more, working harder, and giving more won’t cure feelings of unworthiness; it only adds to the cycle.
Breaking up with impostor syndrome is about changing the messaging in your head and accepting you are worthy as you are. You won’t be more deserving when you get another degree or complete another certification.
You are inherently worthy of love, respect, appreciation just as you are. Vibrating from this energetic frequency sparks a sustainable shift from within. This declaration of truth paves the way to create the life reflective of your hearts truest desires!
Here are a few books, articles and podcasts you can check out for further learning.
Remember, overcoming this condition isn’t another task you have to master. Take your time, be kind to yourself, and surrender to the journey.
The Psychology of Impostor Syndrome (podcast) by Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin
May this be an invitation:
Design the life you wish to experience.
Vibrant living from your authentic core!