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Feel like a fraud? Coping with the impostor syndrome

"Everyone knows that I am a fake, that I really don’t deserve what I’ve achieved."

This is the characteristic automatic thought of someone experiencing the impostor syndrome, which is the attribution of your success to other factors, such as luck, thus discounting your own abilities.

Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou once said, "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out'."

How the impostor syndrome works

The person who dismisses their own capabilities believes that their skills are insignificant, no matter how good their achievements are. This type of person isn’t using information relevant to the situation, but choses (out of awareness) to ignore their merits.

Feelings of unworthiness like these are therefore related to the difficulty of attributing past and current success to your abilities. You could say that you have a tendency to over-internalise failure instead of success.

The APA (American Psychological Association) states that, although this phenomenon is not an official diagnosis, it is acknowledged as a "real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt".

Additionally, it seems that individuals may generally experience feelings of anxiety and depression as a consequence.

Who is most likely to experience the impostor syndrome?

It’s no surprise that the types of personality most likely to experience the impostor syndrome are those driven by the ideal of perfection.

Society of course plays a big role in putting a lot pressure on achieving. Appreciation and love seem conditional to what we achieve in life.

Think about how much the concept of success and achievement influences how individuals perceive their identity, with the risk of feeling inadequate if the social expectations aren’t being met.

On the other hand, it’s also not uncommon to secretly fear success. It can be scary taking on board the responsibilities and pressures that come with it.

The impostor syndrome and expats

The impostor syndrome seems to be more common among people who are embarking on a new challenge, such as a new job or moving to a new country.

Initially it's exciting to be an expat. Feeling like an outsider takes the pressure off of trying to fit in and gives you freedom from social expectations.

In this space it's also easier to step out of the roles that defined you in your previous (social, work, family) environment and to try a different, perhaps more fitting and authentic, self.

However, at some point you may start to feel a yearning for belonging and to fit in. You will need to interact with others in a different manner and you'll receive different reactions from people around you.

Perhaps some of the skills that proved effective in your previous country don't get the same result now. Or perhaps your new way of presenting yourself becomes increasingly uncomfortable, feeding your insecurity and leaving you with a lack of trust in your abilities or even a sense of worthlessness.

How to cope with "impostor feelings"

Living with the fear of being "found out" is draining. Besides seeking professional help if you feel that the fear has gone too far, there are techniques you can embrace to deal with the impostor syndrome.

Identify the intrusive automatic thoughts that make you feel "like a fake"

As usual, awareness is the precursor of change. Stop for a second and ask yourself some questions about what triggers your insecurity:
- Is there an old pattern or is it something I’m experiencing since I moved here? Is it my "be perfect" driver?
- In which situations does it usually happen?
- Does it happen more often when dealing with a specific person or type of person?

Seek support

Sharing your feelings and your fears with people you trust and who can empathise with you will make you feel you are not alone. It will also provide the reality check that can allow you to put things into perspective.

Although it’s easier to empathise with people coming from your own country, it can also be enriching to speak with a local Dutch person.

Practice a reality check of your beliefs

Reality check questions to ask yourself include:
- What is the evidence that supports this idea?
- Is there an alternative explanation?
- What is the worst that could happen? How could I cope with it?
- What is the best that could happen?
- What is the most realistic outcome?

Don’t believe everything you think

There can be a difference between reality and feelings. If you feel inadequate it doesn’t mean that you actually are. Ask yourself two questions:
- Am I blowing some parts of reality out of proportion?
- Am I blocking out some parts of reality? If the answer is yes, you might be falling into the same old pattern.

Avoid comparing yourself to others

Think about it, when you compare yourself with others it’s a paralysing thought. What’s worse, most times it puts you in a state of passivity and makes you feel like there is nothing you can do about it.

You are good enough, you have your own and unique resources.

Challenge yourself

It makes sense to begin with actions that are not too difficult for you to perform. Try acting as if you already believe in your skills, or as someone you know would act.

You may feel slightly uneasy during the exercise, as you have not yet changed your belief. However, this kind of behaviour will eventually work as a positive reinforcement.

Dealing with the impostor syndrome

There is huge pressure to avoid what society considers failure and therefore to achieve what is commonly defined as success.

But what can you sincerely define as failure and what is really a success? Isn’t it just a matter of perception after all?

Melania

Author

Melania Zampieri

I am a licensed psychologist and support internationals living in the Netherlands. I run my private practice in Utrecht, in Amsterdam and on Skype both for English and Italian speakers...

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