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Michael Bader: Overcoming the imposter syndrome

At some point in their therapy, many of my patients admit to having felt like frauds.

After getting a big promotion, a patient recently confessed to me that she felt like an imposter and that she didn’t really deserve the status and power that she’d actually worked quite hard to acquire.

There are dozens of self-help books out there describing “the imposter syndrome” and offering up strategies for overcoming it.

From celebrities like Ben Affleck and Kate Winslet, Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayer, and business leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, to ordinary people like you and me, the fear of being exposed as a fraud is quite common.

Even Albert Einstein might have suffered from such a feeling.

Near the end of his life, he is reported to have said, “The exaggerated esteem in which my life work is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

Some authors argue that feelings of being an imposter are especially apparent in upwardly mobile women or people of color, but my own experience is that these feelings are observed often enough in both sexes and all racial and ethnic groups.

What causes this affliction, this “imposter syndrome,” so frequently mentioned in and out of therapists’ consulting rooms? Why is it so common? And what can someone do about it?

A fear of fraudulence derives from the secret belief that our actual success is undeserved.

One patient described feeling as if he had somehow snuck into a special club and expected to be found out at any moment and asked to leave. Such people feel like pretenders or poseurs. They fear being shamefully exposed as such. I have seen this dynamic in people who appear to the world as supremely self-confident, but who privately admit that they fear that they are one mistake away from total disaster and failure.

Feelings of fraudulence are often revealed in the various strategies that people use to escape them. Some people affect an exaggerated, even arrogant confidence, thereby attempting to squash private feelings of insecurity (Donald Trump, perhaps?). Others fear appearing too confident, and assume a posture of exaggerated modesty. They keep themselves small. Others become perfectionists, convinced that if they make any mistakes, the walls of their pretense will come crumbling down.

There is no single cause of the imposter syndrome. For women and minorities, of course, there may be social factors, since positions of power, wealth, and authority tend to be the preserve of white men.

The fear that one is “breaking into a club” may, in these cases, be realistically justified.

More often, however, I have found that feelings of fraudulence arise from unconscious survivor guilt, a term originally coined to describe the guilt that survivors of trauma feel—seen, for example, in Jews who survived the Holocaust, or soldiers who, by sheer luck, escaped an IED that claimed the lives of their buddies–the survivor guilt to which I’m referring and which I often see in my clinical practice involves more than physical survival.

This type of guilt is found in the usually non-conscious belief that we aren’t supposed to have more of the good things in life than our caretakers and loved ones. The “good things in life” may involve external success, financial resources, social status, authority, or power. When we do better or acquire more than people we love, our accomplishments can begin to feel unreal.

We are vulnerable to feeling illegitimate, that we’ve landed some place we’re not supposed to be, that our apparent success is fraudulent, or that there is something “ill-gotten” about our gains. And so we act in ways that diminish ourselves so as not to feel such guilt. We might even undo our achievements, shoot ourselves in the foot, or downplay our assets in order to lessen the degree to which we’ve surpassed and outdistanced those we love and upon whom we’ve depended.

The first step in overcoming a fear of fraudulence is to recognize it, to become compassionately mindful of what is really going on. Try to get in touch with any hint of discomfort you feel about your success, any discomfort about compliments or deference that might be paid to you.

Try to catch hold of your impulses to disown the success you have.

Let someone else know that this is an issue for you and ask him or her for reassurance and a clear view of reality. Try to correct the false notion the success you’ve attained comes at someone else’s expense.

Marianne Williamson said it best when she wrote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

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