The Fraud, The Imposter and The Syndrome

Probably one of the worst things that could happen is people finding out and declaring to the world that you are not what you seem-you are a fraud. You’ll be the laughing stock and your reputation will be torn apart. They’ll throw around labels like untrustworthy and undeserving, and pick apart at every achievement in your life. Life as you knew it will come to a startling halt.

This situation sounds quite morbid doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this is a very real irrational fear of many people out there, who in reality, aren’t frauds and neither will they find themselves facing such an accusation. But it still keeps them up at night. If you’re one of these people, maybe you should know what the imposter syndrome is.

The Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome was first identified by psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Chance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978. They theorised that the feelings and discomfort that arises from not being able to accept your achievements because you don’t believe that you deserve them is the imposter phenomenon, which is what it was called initially. In their paper, they had concluded that this phenomenon is a struggle that high achieving women face in male dominated workplaces due to gender stereotypes, early family dynamics, culture and attribution styles. But in the more recent years, imposter phenomenon or now, the imposter syndrome is believed to affect all genders regardless of culture, profession, age, etc. It can happen to anyone.

People that are suffering from this syndrome are likely to label themselves as “phoney” or a “fraud”. No matter how far they go in their achievements, there’s a nagging feeling that can come in the form of guilt, fear or criticism that they don’t truly deserve this and people are going to find out that they aren’t as smart or brilliant as people perceive them to be. They tend to attribute their success not to their hard work or skill, but to sheer dumb luck. This gives rise to a number of maladaptive behaviours and cognitions such as self doubt, unrealistic goals and expectations, self berating and an inability to assess your skills and competence in a realistic manner.

The Thought Process

As a therapist, I tend to gravitate towards cognitive-behaviour therapy which basically emphasises how our thoughts can influence our actions and behaviour. A lot of times the negative, self defeating thoughts that we have on a daily basis, stem from some core beliefs that we have formed quite early on. These negative thoughts become cognitive distortions which are basically errors in one’s thinking. To explain it quite simply, these cognitive distortion’s act like a type of lens that you’re seeing the situation or event through. Let’s go through a possible conceptualisation of the imposter syndrome:

  • Core Belief: Core beliefs are our very deeply held assumptions about ourselves, the world or the future. They are very basic in nature and are usually formed through early experiences. A core belief in the imposter syndrome could be, “I am undeserving.”
  • Dysfunctional Assumption: These are the assumptions that are in the form of “if” or “should” statements. They’re usually rigid, overgeneralised and not flexible. Stemming from the example of the core belief above, a dysfunctional assumption could be, “I must be good at everything I do, or people will figure out that I’m a fraud.”
  • Negative Automatic Thought: These are the thoughts that are easily available and that we are consciously aware of. They are usually negatively tinged appraisals or interpretations based on what is happening around us. These are a product of the core beliefs and dysfunctional assumptions, and what appear on the surface level, and present themselves in the form of a cognitive distortion. An example of these thoughts in our case could be, “I didn’t deserve this award. I haven’t done anything extraordinary. Anyone could’ve won this.”

What Can You Do?

Still speaking from a cognitive-behaviour therapy perspective, there are a few things that you can actively do if you feel like you’re suffering from the imposter syndrome.

  1. Identifying Your Thoughts: Make a conscious effort to identify the negative automatic thoughts or dysfunctional assumptions that arise, and when they do as well. These are fairly easy to identify because they’re the thoughts that pull you backwards rather than letting you take a step forwards. All your “musts, and shoulds” should be identified and recognised.
  2. Disputing: Disputing these thoughts basically means gathering realistic evidence and weighing the possibilities of these thoughts or worries coming true. Is the thought accurate to the situation? Does it have any proof backing it?
  3. Restructuring: Once you dispute these negative thoughts, you’ll realise that they’re quite baseless and are enabling you to see the situation in a more negative light than it truly is. The thing is, a thought doesn’t have any physical properties, so you can’t stop it from appearing. But what you can do is modify it or restructure it in such a way that it changes the lens from negative or unrealistic to positive or realistic. For example, if I think, “Why are they praising me? All I did was finish my work.” Now I’ll change this same thought to “They are praising me because I was able to do the work efficiently.” Do you notice the shift in mindset?

Identifying, disputing and restructuring the negative thoughts or cognitive distortions is a process that takes a lot of time. Mainly it takes a lot of introspection and self awareness. There are plenty of ways that you can practice this on your own. For example, you can maintain a thought diary or journal (read our article on the different types of journaling) in which you can write down your thoughts, make a list of evidence supporting it and the different possible ways of restructuring it. In the same diary you can monitor the change in your emotions or feelings before and after you restructure your thoughts. Lastly, don’t hesitate to contact your nearest mental health professional and seek help.

Remember, you aren’t the imposter. You aren’t the fraud. Your thoughts are what are tricking you into perceiving yourself and the situation in a distorted way. It’s time to wipe those glasses clean.

Until next time,

Sneha

(M.A. Clinical Psychology, PGD Counselling)

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