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Decoding The Impostor Syndrome: 5 Keys for Resolution

Renown Georgia State professor, Pauline Rose Clance defines Impostorism as: "the experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one's abilities." This is a destructive and debilitating definition to identify with. Surprisingly, this condition is quite common. In his 2016 study, researcher Sandeep Ravindran estimated that a whopping 70 percent of the population, "will experience the symptoms and tendencies of impostorism at least once in their life." This is an extremely high number considering the large scope of research associated with the topic. Historically, 'Impostorism' is commonly associated with workplace settings and successful individuals within this setting. I believe this condition can also be used to explain how similar patterns affect individuals regardless of success or achievements in the workplace. Mainly, I believe this framework can support strategic personal development growth outcomes.

For three years I've worked as a High Performance Coachand an Inner Communication™ Method Coach. During this time, I've documented the relation between performance and 'self-identity' issues. For many of my clients, 'Impostorism' was not the reason to seek professional guidance from me. However, a deeper analysis and exploration revealed a correlation with this theme. Both theoretical and clinical research reveal that individuals experiencing Impostorism regularly have feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and chronic fear. These emotions, as Langford & Clance (1993) explain, result as a consequence "from pressure to live up to one's successful image and fear that one will be exposed as unworthy and incompetent." But, what about individuals who feel unworthy or incompetent, but do not necessarily need to 'live up to a successful image'?

The Impostorism construct encroaches upon a person's self-identity, thus, shaping their core beliefs. Heightened levels of Impostorism have been associated with individuals who define themselves as introverted or less interactive. It may be less likely for individuals to associate their destructive feelings to the framework of Impostorism on their own. Clance states that this condition is "shown to be associated with such characteristics as introversion, trait anxiety, a need to look smart to others, a propensity to shame, and a conflictual and non-supportive family background." Two common notions reinforcing Impostorism are repetitive ‘negative self talk’, and fatalist, 'whats the point' thinking. There is evidence that both women and men equally experience feelings of impostorism alike. Both groups reporting feelings of insecurity, fear, doubt, and increased low self-esteem. Therefore, also leading to a degraded sense of self-confidence, or lack of conviction in one's own performance and abilities (efficacy). 

Understanding Impostorism as a behavioral and cognitive construct has been most helpful. For most of my adult life I've experienced the nagging emotions associated with this condition. At first, I didn't recognize my irrationally deep concern for what people thought and perceived of me. This excessive 'type' of caring creates feelings of fear and anxiety about losing face, stature, and respect from others. Most of all, fear of being criticized or exposed as a fraud, inadequate, or as just plain dumb. Truly, it does not help to grow up in a modern society or family archetype, that measures personal worth and success on the basis of achievement. This sounds almost as a character profile from 'Falcon Crest.' Yep, this was me, and I was comfortably hiding beneath layers of hurt, shame, and guilt as a result. So, I set out to expose the root cause behind this psychological masquerade I'd created...and throw away the mask protecting the faulty definition of my self-identity.

I attribute much of my behavioral and cognitive transformation to understanding the value of dynamic personal transformation strategies For transformation to occur, one has to first identify the cause creating the condition one wants to transform and change. Therefore, toxic psychological responses can of course be unlearned, but the idea of change was the difficult part for me. Especially when it involves changing habits rooted in erroneous psychological constructs, hence, change becomes that much more difficult. This is where people (including me), will often experience the greatest sense of resistance. So when, did I begin to explore the citadel of Impostorism? For me, the trigger was my all-consuming corporate career. Let me be clear, I have no contempt for the corporate establishment, it's just that the lifestyle was no longer working for me. Long story short, I excelled as part of a corporate communication & management environment; I was climbing the ladder and truly enjoyed it at first. I was able to provide my family with a lifestyle they enjoyed, office tenure, and the respect of my peers. But at what cost to me and my family? At the height of my career I was putting in 65+ hour per week, including holidays, my kids birthday's, and forfeiting sick days...that was just me being me. Inevitably, the day came when I consciously stopped to reevaluate the bigger picture and design for my life. So, I asked this simple question: "Why do I sacrifice so much?" The answer was revealing and it shaped my exit strategy from the corporate setting. A year later, I resigned to rebuild my own definition of life, my own source of confidence, and my personal story.

Professor Clance's research among others, has helped me explain my deep motivation to challenge these toxic psychological tendencies: "The impostor phenomenon [is] seen as a result of seeking self-esteem by trying to live up to an idealized image to compensate for feelings of insecurity and self-doubt." This is what so many of us do! I was doing it...I had been doing it since childhood! How did this start? Why was I was out to impress everyone I could? Sensible questions, right?. The research points to some of the following life-conditions. Many children without adequate family and peer support, begin to feel they do not have a voice. This paired with demanding rules, where self-expression and communication are not encouraged, ultimately make a perfect storm. This leads children to develop a pseudo-psychological structure that enables the mask of Impostorism to gradually form. I was able to identify the inception of this process in me. Meaning, I was desperately trying to compensate for the unrealistic expectations I'd placed upon myself as a child. This led me to create an erroneous definition of my own self-identity which extended into adulthood. While I was writing this article, I asked myself this question: "would've I openly shared this experience with others if I still hid behind the mask of Impostorism? The answer: no. I am deeply grateful that today I can share this point of view.

As mentioned earlier, I believe the application for Impostorism transcends beyond the workplace. These feelings can be triggered by new professional, academic, and relationship settings. Knowing that Impostorism stems from developing temporary coping mechanisms as a child, you can do something right now to transform this coping mechanism, and start to enjoy who you truly are. Luckily, desiring to change and be better in life is also a learned habit. Thus, it's necessary for you to rid yourself from this nagging condition in order to move forward! Not doing something about it, will come with a high price tag. This is where Impostorism finds its renewed power in you; by flaring unchallenged beliefs that do not serve your desired future. Think of it this way, external conditions always change faster than your internal belief structures. So, I developed this process because transformation is possible for everyone who wants it. The next step is to remove the cause generating this behaviors from your thought and feeling process. I've been able to do just that and systematically breakdown my own 'internal' structures of the Impostor I no longer identify with. This is the result of countless hours of self-exploration, research, and the application of my concepts in a professional practice.

This 5 key formula is part of a transformative coaching framework designed to guide you towards recognizing and effectively deconstructing unwanted psychological coping mechanisms keeping you stuck. 

5 Keys for Resolution:

1. Acceptance: Start today by reinforcing who you are, rather than who you are not.

2. Empathy towards Self: Develop an open mind and heart towards your true inner self. Start to define what makes you unique and special.

3. Genuine Honesty: You must strive to define situations as they are, and not as you want them to be. Especially when you feel challenged and

4. AffirmationsAs you  separate from the grip of this psychological tendency, you will need to update you own definition of ‘self’. Write down 3 affirmations in sentence form, and begin to write, and say them out-loud. This will train you and assist you in strengthening  the belief in your 'true' inner self.

5. Accountability: Document your daily experiences on a journal, to gauge the advantages and disadvantages of using the old tendencies vs. your new approach.

*Develop patience and consistently take daily action to stay on your new transformative journey!

Begin to implement this formula today. You’ll start to create the inner dynamics to realize more clearly your true value and who you are without the mask. Literally, you are starting a brand new conversation with your unattended you. Parallel to this, a deeper process of understanding will start to develop, each time the old tendencies resurface, so have courage. This will empower your will and determination throughout the process. Knowing that you are not what you DO or what you HAVE, sets mechanisms in both the body and mind that further support your inner-transformation, vitality, and well-being.

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