While it’s not categorized as an official anxiety disorder in the DSM-5, the imposter syndrome is a very real, often paralyzing, form of anxiety. It’s not something that’s often discussed, at least not openly. It can’t be. People who experience the imposter syndrome are so anxious, so afraid, of being exposed as incompetent phonies who have no right to be where they are that they are reluctant to disclose having this type of anxiety. If this describes you or someone you know, read boldly on. Recognizing and acknowledging the imposter syndrome is one way you can keep it from pushing you backward.
Imposter Syndrome is Difficult for Others to Understand
When I was in grad school for counseling, part of a group counseling class involved the students actually holding a series of group sessions to properly experience this unique type of counseling. One conversation stands out clearly in my mind:
Student A: No matter what I try, I can’t get rid of this anxiety. I feel like I’m not valued for who I am; I’m only valued for what I do. And what I do isn’t good enough. I’m a fraud, and they’ll figure me out. I don’t belong here.
Student B: What do you mean you’re valued for what you do but not who you are? That doesn’t even make sense.
Imposter syndrome is difficult to understand for those who don’t have this type of anxiety. It made perfect sense to Student A, though, who did experience it. (Incidentally, that remark from Student B isn’t something a competent counselor would say, so maybe she should have worried a bit more that she didn’t belong.)
Signs and Symptoms of the Imposter Syndrome
The fear of being outed as a fraud and the anxiety over the belief that one doesn’t belong where he/she is are hallmarks of the imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome involves other anxious thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, too. If you experience the imposter syndrome, you just might
- be plagued with such self-doubt that it interferes in your mental health and wellbeing night and day
- cringe inwardly with each new accomplishment or project completed,knowing that this is the one, the thing that will cause everyone to reject not just it but you, your very self
- find yourself caught up in the pressure to perform that is so great it become an extreme degree of perfectionism
- have a sense of self-worth that is enmeshed with achievement: who you are is what you do, so if your performance isn’t “good enough” you are worthless
- the belief and fear that nothing you do is “good enough” and a motto you might have is “good enough never is”
- simultaneously experience performance anxiety and social anxiety
What Anxiety and the Imposter Syndrome Feel Like
The imposter system impacts our thoughts, and it affects emotions, too. It can feel crushing. The running stream of thoughts of failure, of being a fake, can make people feel tense, keyed-up, apprehensive, nervous, and exhausted.
Imagine being outside on a windy day, the windiest day you’ve ever experienced. You need to go somewhere very important, and you’re late. You begin to run into the wind. The wind is so strong that it’s a force that you can feel. It slams into you. You can’t move. You push and strain, to no avail. You feel stuck, and you begin to panic. With each fruitless flailing of your arms and legs, you know you’re failing because in your absence, everyone will discover that you’re a fraud.
This fear, panic, and anxiety seem ever-present to the person with imposter syndrome. Therefore, the anxiety that comes with this phenomenon can be debilitating. It doesn’t have to be all-encompassing or paralyzing, however. It’s possible to move forward confidently and to know that you’re not a fraud. Come back for the next article and learn some tips for overcoming anxiety and the imposter syndrome.
Richards, C. (2015). Learning to deal with the imposter syndrome. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/your-money/learning-to-deal-with-the-impostor-syndrome.html?_r=0
Weir, K. (2013). Feel Like a Fraud? American Psychological Association gradPSYCH Magazine. http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx