“Do I belong here?” “Who am I to be doing this sort of work?” “I feel like a fraud, though I’m not doing anything wrong, but sometimes this feels wrong.”
Dealing with imposter syndrome can be confusing. Someone who is feeling like an imposter may have these thoughts and emotions, one side telling you that you’re a fraud and the other working to rationalize the situation.
Note: Imposter syndrome is not an official psychiatric diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM-5).
Who can be affected?
It’s common to have these thoughts of feeling like a fraud in an academic or work setting. Many people, both women and men, including experts in their field, will experience it. People in the helping and healing fields, like mental health professionals, also go through this. They may think something along the lines of, “why do people come to ME for support with their issues?”
Graduate students may experience this imposter sensation because they are at an in-between phase of professional development. They tend to feel unprepared and don’t fully acknowledge their strengths as they begin their career.
Why does this happen?
People will feel like they’re lacking a certain skill to get the job done. Realistically, people who are working in a constantly evolving field are sharpening their skills and learning new ones quite frequently to keep up with new technologies and research findings. There is an infinite amount of information to learn and an equal amount of skillful work to be done.
Remember, nobody is perfect and mistakes will be made, especially when someone is stepping into a new career. Not only should people acknowledge that their skills need dialed in, people need to also acknowledge their strengths.
The people who don’t acknowledge their capabilities and efforts tend to attribute their accomplishments to external causes, like luck, good timing, or effort that they can’t regularly expend.
If you are having difficulty pinpointing your strengths
If someone is struggling to recognize their strengths, a good way to figure out what those are is to schedule some time with a pen and paper and reflect on times that you handled something well.
- What was the problem?
- How did you handle it?
- What were your strengths?
- How can you use those strengths now?
Another way of finding strengths is to list achievements.
- What short-term goals have you accomplished? These can be as simple as time management or maintaining a weekly schedule.
- What long-term goals have you accomplished?
- What were your strengths?
- How can you use those now?
Journaling about talent that you use in school or on the job may be useful.
If someone is still having difficulty thinking of their strengths, they can ask someone whom they are close to, who knows them well, and are comfortable asking that person to list three things that they are good at. Next, the person should take those three things and journal about times they used those characteristics, and lastly, how to apply them in the present. Everyone has things they’re good at.
Recognizing expertise is important. People tend to be overly self-critical, on a level that is self-defeating or unhelpful. Over time, this behavior is destructive and likely smothering out productivity. If someone is working in Information Technology (IT) and they recognize a weakness in a skill, instead of playing into unhelpful thoughts, remembering what what one does well and playing to their strengths will combat this.
It’s important to strengthen the weaker skill, but the person also must recall that they are good at. If the IT worker has strong communication and group work skills, then simply highlighting those should help. One can’t always be good at everything. Then, they can communicate to their team where they need assistance in getting the job done.
Pressure to achieve
Pressure to achieve comes from many places. People experience pressure to perform at a higher level from their peers, colleagues, managers, themselves, and messages from society (Think about the American culture, where it is practically a badge of honor to be overworked. This is an unhealthy habit). Society’s message is that we must always achieve.
Research shows that certain people are more susceptible to fraudulent feelings stemming from their family’s beliefs on achievement and how parents praised or criticized their child.
One thing to be mindful of when going through imposter syndrome is perfectionism. People will attempt to do everything perfectly and might have an “all-or-nothing” mindset. Being aware and weary of perfectionism is important because it can lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety. “All-or-nothing” thinking is a cognitive distortion and should be reframed.
Change your thinking by checking your irrational thoughts and practice reframing them. Read about cognitive reframing.