Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

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Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

I Feel Like A Total Fraud – Imposter Syndrome

I Feel Like a Total Fraud – Imposter Syndrome

 I have written 11 books but each time I think “uh-oh, they’re going to find out now.
I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

 ~Maya Angelou

Have you ever felt like that?  If so, you’re not alone.  While researching this topic I read in several articles that over 70% of people in this country have experienced the feeling at least once in their life.  Maybe you have a bunch of degrees.  You’ve been promoted many times.  You’ve been on TV.  You have a podcast that people listen to.  You’ve published many articles and several books that sell like hotcakes.  Your music is downloaded so many times the number looks ridiculous.  You’ve been successful in your field for decades.

Or maybe you’re not quite a mega-star, but a well-respected member of your profession, someone who has presented a paper at a conference, or published one in your profession’s journal.  Or maybe not even that.  Just someone who has been doing what you do for a long time, and been told by many people that you do it well.  And since you’ve been doing it for a long time, clearly you must know what you’re doing or you wouldn’t be there.  But sometimes you still get the feeling that you’re a fraud and one of these days you’ll be found out.

So what’s this all about?  Its technical name is “Impostor Syndrome.”  The California Institute of Technology Counseling Center defines Impostor Syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”   And this happens despite all evidence to the contrary.

Ironically, high achievers are more likely to suffer from this than those who do well enough, but don’t stand out.  They indulge in self-criticism.  Experience deep fear being unmasked.  Believe they don’t deserve their success – it was a “fluke,” or worse yet, “a stroke of luck.”  Or it only happened because they “had connections.”  Impostors are uncomfortable with praise.  They don’t think they deserve it.

To the public they put on a brave face and appear confident.  But internally, they discredit themselves, feel inadequate, feel pressure to achieve even more, beat themselves up for that one weensy mistake that no one in the world but they will have noticed, and begin to panic that they will be discovered as complete fakes.

Where does it come from?  If you are one of these so-called impostors, you won’t be surprised if I tell you that it may have started in your childhood.  You may have been labeled “the smart one” by your parents, and then, having heard it over and over with every A+ you earned, internalized the message, and have now spent the rest of your life feeling like you have to live up to it.  So you also won’t be surprised that Impostor Syndrome is linked to perfectionism.  It’s never good enough – it has to be even better next time.  It has to be perfect.

Quick sidebar:  If you are or ever become a parent, do your kids a favor and don’t overuse the phrase “Good job!”  It should be saved for a true achievement, not, for example when a kid is simply obeying the laws of gravity by going down a slide.  Say “Wheeeee!” instead.

Or, the source of Impostor Syndrome could be the exact opposite.  You learned the (incorrect) lesson that you were worthless, and “would never amount to anything.”  So you spent your formative years proving everyone wrong, going on to achieve what no one ever expected you could and made sure you knew it.  And so again, in order not to be uncovered for the fraud you secretly believe you are, you work harder than most people to continue to prove yourself, over and over again.

At the same time as feeling like total frauds, some Impostors have an overabundance of self-inflation, and think they’re more important and better than everyone else.  That’s a trap, too.  And like any inflated balloon, it will eventually deflate and leave you feeling mired in insecurity, and the cycle starts all over again.

So what to do?  It’s going to take some adjustment in your thinking.  It’s not easy, but it can be done.  Do a reality check.  Look at your achievements, not your failures.  Understand that we’re all human, and we all make mistakes, and making a mistake does not make you a phony.  Stop comparing yourself to your friends, colleagues, people you read about.  There will always be someone who is better than or worse than you.  And if you’re in the hot-shot category, get over yourself.  Recognize that

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