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Denise Cummins, Ph.D. Headshot

How to Feel Real

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In her excellent book The Charisma Myth (Penguin Books, 2013), Olivia Fox Cabane reports a curious yet highly reliable phenomenon. Every year, she asks the incoming class at Stanford Business School "How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?" And every year, about two-thirds of the students raise their hands.

Now this is a curious state of affairs because getting into a top-notch program is not easy. There are many hurdles to clear, including achieving a high GPA in college, scoring high on the GMAT, and obtaining strong letters of recommendation from prominent professors and professionals. It would be difficult to consistently pull the wool over everyone's eyes. Yet the majority of students who achieve their goal of admission to the program seriously doubt they deserve to be there. In short, they suffer from imposter syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome and Lack of Acknowledgement

The telltale sign of imposter syndrome is a disconnect between perceived and actual performance. "Imposters" have ample objective evidence that they are doing well -- good performance reports, promotion history, grades, etc. Yet they feel that somehow they've been faking it or "lucking out." Any minute now, they are going to be ummasked and revealed to be a fraud.

Imposter syndrome has been studied by researchers for more than three decades. (1) One striking characteristic is that although imposters crave acknowledgement and praise for their accomplishments, they do not feel comfortable when they receive it. Instead, praise makes them feel anxious, because they secretly feel they do not deserve it. After all, they think, I'm just faking it -- unlike everyone else here who seems to know what they're doing.

Who suffers from imposter syndrome?

More than 70 percent of people studied report having experienced it at one time or other in their lives, and those who suffer from it are more likely to be high achievers. Both men and women experience imposter syndrome, but they tend to respond to it quite differently. In a study involving 135 college students, women who scored high on measures of anxiety and imposter syndrome also worked harder and competed harder to prove themselves. Men who scored high, on the other hand, avoided situations where their weaknesses could be exposed. Their primary motivation was to consistently appear strong by pursuing activities that were likely to showcase their strengths.

Where does it come from?

Imposter syndrome can stem from a variety of sources. One study discovered that paternal overprotection and lack of paternal care led to a greater likelihood of developing imposter syndrome. In another study, having non-supportive friends was found to be associated with greater incidence of imposter syndrome in both men and women. "Frenemies" can sap your confidence, while true friends strengthen it.

More importantly, imposter syndrome is sometimes considered a "rite of passage," when building one's career. As you move up the ladder in your profession, you will undoubtedly become more skilled at what you do. So you would think that your self-doubts would fade. After all, you must know what you're doing or they wouldn't be promoting you.

As it turns out, the reverse is often true. As you progress through your career, you become more skilled, but you are also given greater responsibility. And with that greater responsibility comes increasing costs for failure.

How to combat it.

While there is no consensus on how to treat imposter syndrome, here are three habits that are frequently recommended to diminish or overcome imposter syndrome.

Own your successes. People who suffer from imposter syndrome don't internalize successes. They are more likely to attribute their successes to luck or help received from others. So own your successes. They are yours, even if you got a little bit lucky or had help from others.

Own your thoughts. Imposter syndrome thrives on self-criticism. The more you find fault with yourself and your performance, the more you create a fertile field in which imposter syndrome can take root and flourish.

To combat this negative self-talk, you need to own your own thoughts, you own mind. The worst way to do this is to combat negative self-talk with negative admonishments, as in "I will not criticize myself anymore." That's just more criticism. The best way to take control of a negative thought is to put a different thought in its place -- one that's you've chosen to do fit the job. Whenever an unhelpful self-doubt threatens to invade your thoughts, shift your focus to one of your strengths or your successes -- and really focus on those.

Understand what those feelings are for. Anxiety, fear of success, fear of failure, fear of being unmasked as a fraud -- these are all very unpleasant feelings. And they are supposed to be. In moderation, they motivate you to do something. Look at it this way: Why do babies cry? Because that noise is so unpleasant that it forces mom or dad to do something about it. The question is what do you do?

Accept that everyone everywhere -- no matter how successful -- experiences the self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome. It is part and parcel of becoming accomplished and successful. There is nothing unusual or wrong about feeling these things. Leave no cognitive space for them to grow, and regain control of your life and your future.

References:

1. Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice, 15, 241 247.

A version of this article originally appeared in Psychology Today on Oct 3, 2013.

Dr. Cummins is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Live (Cambridge University Press, 2012). More books by Dr. Cummins can be found at http://www.goodthinkingbooks.com. More information about Dr. Cummins can be found at http://www.denisecummins.com.

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