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Feeling Like a Phony? Why We Have Imposter Syndrome

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistSeptember 17, 2020

I’m such a phony! A fraud! They’re going to figure out I don’t belong here! Most of us have probably had these types of thoughts –- the hallmark of imposter syndrome -- at some point in our professional lives, even if we’re highly successful.

We worry that it’s only a matter of time till our incompetence becomes apparent or someone finds out we’re unqualified, and we’ll be dismissed from our academic program or demoted from our job. Or we might fear that we’ll make a catastrophic mistake –- or even be sued. These thoughts can make us feel insecure about our abilities, stressed out, and defensive as we hope against hope that we won’t be found out.

The good news is that, as powerful as these thoughts are, they’re probably not true.

One reason that we feel like imposters is that, even though we’ve moved up to the next level, we still feel like the same person we were before it happened. The road we took to get there –- all of the experience and knowledge we gained –- happened gradually, but the shift into that new higher role happens overnight. And this can be jarring: How are we suddenly different the day before vs. the day after we got a promotion, were admitted to Stanford, became an attorney, had a baby, landed a book contract, opened a cake shop, or became president? Are we really ready for a bigger role and more responsibilities?

We know what we look like without our uniform, when we’ve just woken up in the morning with sheet marks on our face. We see the doubts and vulnerabilities that we manage to keep from others. We know that beneath the trappings of our position we’re just a naked human being.

It may help to think of your age. Most of us don’t feel like our actual number of years, especially as the decades pile up. When my mother’s father was in his final year, he asked her how old he was. “You’re 83, Dad,” she told him.

He was stunned. “How did I get to be that old!” He felt like an imposter to his advanced years. I feel like an imposter among the middle-aged, though the math tells me I’m truly 45. The fact that I feel early-thirtyish doesn’t change my age any more than your feeling like an imposter makes you inadequate.

Feeling like an imposter is a sign that you’re stretching, growing, and doing good things. You could have stayed on the bunny slope, but you had your sights on bigger runs, on the mountains that would challenge and temper you. You met the edge of your comfort and kept going.

Try not to fight the feeling of being an imposter. Instead, roll with it. Besides, we kind of are imposters, imposing our presence in a new area. We’ve never been a manager before, or an author, or head of HR, or a med student, or the first female or minority member of our group. We can treat the imposter voice like noise, without disputing it. It will do its “You don’t belong here” thing, and you can do yours -- continuing to excel as you push the boundaries of your abilities.

 

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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