I remember a client I had many years ago -- an executive in a large aerospace firm -- who complained about a little voice in his head that was constantly criticizing almost everything he did. He never felt that he deserved his successes, including his current executive position. He even had frequent thoughts that he was stupid.
At some point he mentioned almost as an incidental piece of information that he had received a Ph.D. from Harvard.
"You have a Ph.D. from Harvard?" I exclaimed. "How could you possibly get a Ph.D. from Harvard if you are stupid?"
His answer convinced me I was dealing with someone afflicted with the Imposter Syndrome: "I was lucky. I conned my way through school."
What is the "imposter syndrome"?
Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., one of the psychologists credited for first identifying the imposter syndrome, describes it this way:
Most people who experience the Impostor Phenomenon (IP) would not say, "I feel like an impostor." Yet, when they read or hear about the experience, they say, "How did you know exactly how I feel?" And how do they feel? Even though they are often very successful by external standards, they feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke or luck or great effort; they are afraid their achievements are due to "breaks" and not the result of their own ability and competence. They are also pretty certain that, unless they go to gargantuan efforts to do so, success cannot be repeated. They are afraid that next time, I will blow it. -- http://paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon.html
Joyce M. Roche, author of the book, The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success, puts it this way:
Impostor syndrome is the fear and self-doubt that causes people to question their abilities -- even in the face of success -- and to constantly search for external validation. Simply put, it makes it difficult to recognize and celebrate one's strengths and accomplishments.
Far too many people are plagued with this problem and are unable to enjoy what they have achieved. Many of the people who are envied for their achievements do not feel as good as most people assume they do. In fact they constantly worry that people will find out they don't really deserve their success and it will be taken away from them.
Does this description sound familiar? Are you unable to enjoy your successes because you think you don't deserve them?
One source of the problem
One belief that could explain the doubts experienced by successful people is I'm a fake, a fraud and a phony. Sometimes this belief is formed in childhood when parents or other significant adults acknowledge you frequently for things when you don't think you deserve the praise. An example could be parents who say: "This is a beautiful picture you drew," when you don't think it is beautiful at all. Or: "You are such a good boy," when you know you did things that would make them angry if they knew.
This belief can also be formed as an adult after you have become successful if you have a number of negative self-esteem beliefs and feel you couldn't possible deserve your success given your negative opinion of yourself.
Another belief that could cause the imposter syndrome is I'm not deserving. This belief is almost always formed in childhood when parents say: "You don't deserve to have [something you want] because you didn't do what you were told." Or: "You should be ashamed of yourself." Or: "Your sister deserves the present because she was good and you weren't." You then conclude: "If I'm bad or if I did something wrong, I don't deserve to have what I want. I guess I'm just not deserving."
Insecurity can either inhibit success or undercut success
It is important to distinguish between the imposter syndrome and merely feeling insecure much of the time. People who often feel insecure much of the time generally have a difficult time achieving success. People with the imposter syndrome may have achieved success, but feel they don't deserve it.
Insecurity usually is a function of negative beliefs about yourself, such as I'm not good enough, I'm not important, I'm not capable, I'm not competent, and I'm powerless. People who succeed and feel they don't deserve their success often have many of the same negative beliefs. The difference is that people with the imposter syndrome often will also have the survival strategy belief: What makes me good enough or important is being successful.
What is a survival strategy belief?
A survival strategy belief is formed early in life to compensate for the feelings of insecurity and anxiety that arise due to negative self-esteem beliefs formed earlier in life. For many people who have formed negative self-esteem beliefs, something happens from time to time that makes them feel good about themselves when they usually do not. Here's the progression: They notice they don't feel good about themselves, then something happens that makes them feel good about themselves, so they conclude: What makes me good enough or important (or whatever other negative self-esteem belief they may have) is...
Perhaps the most common survival strategy belief is what makes me good enough or important is having people think well of me. Other common ones include: being successful, taking care of people, and doing things no one else can do. In fact, if you believe I am not loveable and every time you are sick you get love and attention, you could conclude: The way to get love is to be ill.
So people could find themselves driven to succeed by their survival strategy belief and then feel that they don't deserve their success because of their negative beliefs about themselves.
You don't need survival strategy beliefs
The solution to a general sense of insecurity that prevents success is not to form better survival strategy beliefs. That might help you achieve some level of success, but it would be a success you couldn't enjoy because you would feel you don't deserve it and that it could be taken away from you at any minute.
It should be clear that the solution to the imposter syndrome is to eliminate the beliefs that make you feel you don't deserve your success. When you do your anxiety will be gone and you will be able to enjoy your success.
Thanks for reading my blog. Please post your questions or comments about the imposter syndrome and its cause. Your comments add value for thousands of readers. I love to read them all and I will respond to as many as I can.
Morty Lefkoe is the creator of The Lefkoe Method, a series of processes that improve the quality of people's lives. One revolutionary process, the Lefkoe Belief Process, permanently eliminates limiting beliefs. To actually try that process, go to http://recreateyourlife.com/free. To read more of his posts, visit his blog at http://mortylefkoe.com.
Copyright © 2014 Morty Lefkoe
Follow Morty Lefkoe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mortylefkoe