Something’s Missing: A Look at Imposter Syndrome

Woman sitting and man sleepingA woman I’ll call Jill came to therapy to talk about her malaise. She described feeling lucky: a good job, a devoted husband, two great kids, and a beautiful house. But something was missing.

This feeling of something missing had been with her for her whole life. She’d used this feeling to propel her into motion at college and later at graduate school. She’d always excelled at work and in relationships, and now, in the midst of everything going well, it was still there. She talked about how she thought she should be happy, but wasn’t. She felt worried a lot of the time, was rarely able to appreciate her achievements, and often focused on times when she’d made mistakes.

As we talked, she realized three things:

  • The feeling of something missing often emerged when she compared herself to others, especially on Facebook. The more time she spent on Facebook, where others tend to report the positive things in their lives, the worse she felt about her own life.
  • The feeling arose from the sense that she wasn’t doing things right: that she should feel happier. She frequently felt pressured to feel happy. We found that when she just relaxed and didn’t pressure herself to feel one way or the other, she was able to experience greater happiness.
  • She felt as though things just happened to her: that she lucked into having her wonderful husband, kids, and house. The feeling of being “lucky” prevented her from taking ownership of what she’d created in her life. She felt anxious about being “found out” that she didn’t deserve all she had, and worried that others might not regard her as intelligent and therefore, worthy.

Researchers call this imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome was first studied by two female psychologists at Georgia State University in the 1970s, and typically affects high-achieving people, both men and women.

For most people who experience it, imposter syndrome prevents happiness. Jill couldn’t relax because she didn’t feel she was responsible for the good things in her life. She felt that while her life “looked good on paper,” her successes were luck and her mistakes were her fault. She was in constant “striving” mode.

The Relational-Cultural Approach

As a relational-cultural therapist, my focus with clients is on increasing connection and empowerment. I work by identifying the ways and reasons that clients, ironically, hold themselves back in relationships in an attempt to preserve the connection. This pattern makes them feel less authentic and less “known.” In other words, if a family dynamic needed for you to be the hero in your family, you might continue acting selflessly for others, but have trouble asking for what you need. This may give you the feeling that others only stick around because you’re giving and they don’t really know you.

Relational-cultural therapy emerged in response to psychodynamic theory and arose out of the multicultural and feminist movements. It encourages authentic expression within the context of a warm and supportive connection with the therapist, views the person within her context, and strives to help people feel more authentic, connected, and empowered in their lives.

Relational-cultural therapy emphasizes:

  • Focusing on strengths.
  • Increasing the connection between therapist and client and using that connection in order to understand other relationship patterns.  This is about the real connection experienced by the therapist and client and the things that get in the way of that connection, either in session or with others. It is not based on projection (transference/countertransference as in psychodynamic theory).
  • Identifying the exceptions to the client’s usual relationship patterns: what was different that made authenticity more possible?
  • Focusing on the expertise that therapist and client each bring to a session: the therapist’s psychological expertise and the client’s expertise towards her own life.
  • Personal responsibility: the client is asked to really take a look at her life, while the therapist takes responsibility for her own responses and responds with openness and spontaneity.
  • Finding ways to savor success while staying in connection with others.

As we worked together, Jill was able to realize how her pattern of dismissing her accomplishments was affecting her relationships and her capacity to experience happiness.  Shifting her attention, practicing appreciation of herself and working on her openness with others increased her confidence, satisfaction, and ability to experience joy in her life.

Further Reading:

Clance, Pauline Rose, & Imes, Suzanne. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Georgia State University. Retrieved from http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

Carey, Benedict. (2008, February 5). Feel Like a Fraud? At Times, Maybe You Should. The New York Times. Retrieved from  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/health/05mind.html

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  • Gwen

    Gwen

    May 29th, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    I am so glad that I have a healthy self esteem that obviously this patient did not have. I grew up in a family that celebrated your accomplishments but used failures as a way to teach and not a way to berate. Perhaps this is the kind fo family that Jill grew up in and maybe not. The key to her success though is to learn to take ownership not just of the failures but of the accomplishments too. We have to be proud of the things that we are able to do, and not be down over ourselves over the ones that maybe didn’t go so well. You have to be able to let go of the bad and focus on the good.

  • India S

    India S

    May 29th, 2012 at 5:24 PM

    aaahhh the downfalls of Facebook
    You spend way too much time worrying about what others are thinking about you and how you are measuring up in their eyes.

  • Alexander

    Alexander

    May 30th, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    You state that when Jill is able to just relax and be herself then she did not have such conflicting emotions about who she is and how she feels about herself.
    But that’s a big jump from feeling so down on oneself to getting to where you can relax and be at peace with who you are.
    How did she get to that point? In one session or over an extended period of time?
    I think it is critical to realize that this is a possibility with therapy, but there is nothing magical that can get you there. I am sure that Jill and anyone else who has been through this will let you know that it is a process that takes time to get to this point where you can relax and not feel so pressured by what others think about you.

  • Dr. Heather Schwartz

    Dr. Heather Schwartz

    May 30th, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    Thanks, everyone for your thoughts! Gwen, how wonderful that you were always encouraged! India, yes, so true. Social media can inspire competition. Alexandra, thank you for helping me to clarify. Yes, the therapy lasted over a year. And, no I don’t think therapy solves everything or is magic. Changes occur when there is a good fit between therapist and client and when the client, who is the expert on her or his life, actively works on the issues outside therapy. In Relational-Cultural Therapy, there is a great focus on helping the client cultivate positive relationships outside the therapeutic one which help to support the ways of being the client is growing towards. In addition, active work on changing the tendency toward perfectionism, the twin of the Imposter Syndrome is important. I wrote this paper with simplicity in mind, but I did not mean to imply that simply relaxing creates change. It’s one factor in many. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Dr. Heather Schwartz

    Dr. Heather Schwartz

    May 30th, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    My apologies. Alexander, thank you for your thoughts and my apologies on misspelling your name.

  • kristi

    kristi

    May 30th, 2012 at 12:40 PM

    Thanks for your input, Dr. Schwartz. I learned a lot form this because I felt like I was reading my own life story! I have spent far too much time comparing ,yself to others or what I think that my life should be by now, and really it always makes me feel very down instead of inspiring me to do more and make something out of it. But reading about this client offered me hope that there is room for change, and that I am not going to wake up one morning feeling that change. It is something that I will have to constantly work on the get to the place in life where I want to be. Life is too short, I have learned, to constantly compare what I have or don’t to others.

  • Dr. Heather Schwartz

    Dr. Heather Schwartz

    May 31st, 2012 at 9:18 PM

    Kristi,

    I’m so glad the article was helpful. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others when our society promotes competition. It sounds like you’ve done a lot of hard work and continue to do so!

  • Diane Malesky

    Diane Malesky

    June 1st, 2012 at 9:48 AM

    Thank you very much for this extremely informative information. I have been searching for over 25years for this. Read many self help and have started therapy. 4 sessions so far. I’ve been keeping a mood, emotion journal. I am all over the place due to comparing, low self esteem, etc… Never developed social skills. So sick of cringing in my skin and Fear that has developed over the last 5 years. I was never real confident. I believe I need to have mind discipline when these negative thoughts come upon me. It’s like a tidal wave some days.

    I’ve had a very hard up bringing. My mother commit suicide 8 yrs ago after years of trouble and my father who abandoned us is now back in my life. Everyone is a regular functioning person. My father was an extremely successful businesman. He’s extremely hard to communicate with and very cruel. Long Story. He’s rich but alone. His wife and he have separate houses. I can’t let his dysfuction bother me any more. It’s very difficult because he’s an alcoholic and a pathological lyer as well. I had guilt for not honoring my father so have tried to have him in my life. At times, I think I am just wanting that “American Dream”. I need to focus on my wonderful husband of 22 yrs, good friends and my small sign business instead. We didn’t have kids. Too much mental illness on both sides. We need to Keep the energy suckers at bay. It’s a matter of survival. I suppose Alanon would help. I have to get through my denial first. I’m 43…. it’s time to live and start liking myself. Over these last few years it’s been pouring down and I finally saught help. It’s paralyzing and I think I’m totally stuck and almost used to the chaos. How embarrasing & sad. I realize it’s going to take time, discipline and education to learn how to change my thinking patterns.

    I found an interesting process on line called The Paradox Theory. It’s all about unwinding those negative tapes in your head. Getting rid of them. This must be a common challenge for sensitive people such as us. Thank You everyone. Keep on Fighting!! We are worth it! So are our loved ones. Even if it’s not the conventional “American Family”. I believe that’s all propoganda anyway. Just accepting now. Serenity Now! ;)

  • Dr. Heather Schwartz

    Dr. Heather Schwartz

    June 1st, 2012 at 6:48 PM

    Diane, you’re brave to be facing everything after so long: good for you! I haven’t heard of Paradox Theory (I’ll have to look for that).

    Have you read anything by Brene Brown? She talks a lot about shame and vulnerability. I recommend her TedTalk, too.

    I work extensively with adult children of alcoholics who, like you, really understand what it is like to live two lives: one that looks fine and a hidden one that feels awful. I highly recommend the book, Struggle For Intimacy, by Janet Geringer Woititz. It’s an excellent book that explains a lot about self-esteem and alcoholic parents.

    Given recent research on our brains, it is never too late to have a decent self-esteem and positive connections (which increase our self-concepts).

    Hang in there, Diane, and know that your efforts, over time, can increase your comfort and joy. All the best to you!

  • Diane Malesky

    Diane Malesky

    June 4th, 2012 at 12:38 PM

    Thank you. I will look into those 2 books. Best to you as well. It’s a wonderful thing here what you are doing here on the internet. It’s really making a difference in the world. Thanks again.

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