Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
Do you know the old Rock n Roll song from the 1950s?” A few of the lyrics are: “Oh yes, I’m the great pretender, pretending to be what I’m really not…!” The song is by the Platters and nicely describes the psychological concept described in this article. Pretending:
1. Secretly worrying that others will find out that you’re not as capable as they think you are.
2. Avoiding challenges because of self-doubt.
3. Attributing successes to being a “fluke,” “no big deal” or that people like you.
4. Hating to make a mistake and being less than fully prepared to do a project, assignment or test.
5. Feeling crushed by criticism even when its constructive.
6. When successful, believing that it was luck.
7. Believe that other people, especially competitors, are smarter than you.
9. Living in fear of being found out that you are a fraud.
Sound familiar to you? If so, you are suffering from the “Imposter Phenomenom.” This syndrome is not listed in the DSM. However, it is all too common.
How many people I have known who are promoted at work and are then seized for overwhelming fear? Now, you might say that its natural to feel nervous after being promoted. You would be right but that is not the issue here.
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During the years if my private psychotherapy practice, I met doctors, lawyers and teachers who suffered from believing they were frauds.
According to cognitive psychologist, Judit Beck, the characteristics of this syndrome are:
1. “They don’t attribute success to their own positive qualities. “I got this far by luck.” “I was in the right place at the right time.” “I do well only because I have good people working for me.”
2. They don’t dwell on their achievements and keep raising the stakes higher. “I got that research grant but now I have to start thinking about the next one.” “That performance went well but I have to do even better next time.”
3. They have tunnel vision. They notice every instance where they think they should have done better or where they made a mistake. They then put a great deal of importance in what are usually minor flaws in their performance. On the other hand, they fail to notice, or fail to put sufficient importance on what they do well.
4. They discount their accomplishments. “I got a lot of applause but I didn’t deserve it.” “I made a lot of money but I should have made more.” “I got an award but no one realizes how little I deserve it.”
5. “They compare themselves unfavorably to others. Frequently they pick out the most outstanding people in their office or even in their field and judge their own performance accordingly.”
What is awful about this is that it is accopanied by feelings akin to a terror that afflicts the life of the sufferer. Regardless of any success, the conviction is that It was just an accident or an act of deceipt. Understand that this has nothing to do with false modesty. The person with false modesty does attribute their success to their efforts but try to hide it to spare others. Of course, while they may think they are sparing others, they are really behaving in ways that are superior and patronizing. Contrary to this, the impostor is convinced that they fooled everyone. They feel ashamed of themselves, embarrassed and like liars.
What to do if you suffer from the imposter phenomenom? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is probably the best approach because, through it, one learns to recognive the faulty thinking that drives this. It also helps by replacing these negative thoughts by examining successes and leaning to attribute them to yourself.
One way to start, is to use one of the many self help books on CBT, or to go to our self help section on Mental Help Net.
Basically, the cognitive approach involves learning to say, “yes, this other person performed excellently but so did I.”
An additional approach to practice self affirmations each day in order to reinforce the idea that you are capable.
Do you live in fear of being unmasked? Do have a loved one, child or adult, who suffers from this syndrome? Your comments, experiences and questions are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.
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