Have you ever had that feeling like you’ve fooled everyone in the room into thinking you’re good at what you do? Maybe you just got a promotion and you think, “This is a mistake. Jones should have gotten this promotion. I didn’t do anything to deserve it.”

For the longest time I would look at my doctoral diploma and wonder how the hell did that get there? Haha, I sure fooled them! Only it’s not funny. It feels awful.

My friend Rob Dee, writer, fly fisherman and depression survivor, wrote this comment on a post a while back, To Build Self-Esteem: Take a Compliment. He said:

I like reading your stuff because it always makes me think.

As an example, I write mostly for myself and if I can help people along the way, then yay me. I really don’t consider myself a writer at all, let alone a good one. Of course one thing I strive for is for people to enjoy reading my stuff, whether it be about fishing, suicide or working out. Writing for myself helps me get it out. Why does it make me uncomfortable when people tell me how much they love reading my stuff and how much they consider me a good writer? Why do I feel like a fraud? It used to be the same way when I played in a band that used to travel overseas too. Signing CD’s,and hanging out with and taking pictures with fans is what I strived to do, but when it happened, it made me feel odd. Why is that?

Feeling like a fraud can hit the best of us. Therapists are not immune, at least not this therapist. On and off throughout my life I have wrestled with that feeling Rob describes, the “If only they knew I’m not that person they think I am,” feeling. By the way, men feel the sting of imposter syndrome as much as women, trust me on this. We’re just more vocal about it.

You won’t find Impostor or Fraud Syndrome in the DSM-IV, that bible of psychiatric diagnoses. It is not a diagnosable mental illness. It is, however, a collection of feelings or symptoms that together may serve to hold you back from fulfilling our potential. Imposter Syndrome is when our self-esteem is fragile or low to begin with and then we achieve some success. Our old core beliefs that kept us questioning our self-worth in the first place, goes in to over-drive. The critical voices that kept us feeling low, “You will never amount to anything,” denies the achievement. Success doesn’t necessarily cure a low-self esteem. It just gets translated into, “You still don’t amount to anything. You just fooled everybody into thinking you did.” Imposter Syndrome.

Does this sound like you? Take this Impostor Syndrome Quiz:

  • Do you secretly worry that others will find out that you’re not as bright and capable as they think you are?
  • Do you sometimes shy away from challenges because of nagging self-doubt?
  • Do you tend to chalk your accomplishments up to being a “fluke,” “no big deal” or the fact that people just “like” you?
  • Do you hate making a mistake, being less than fully prepared or not doing things perfectly?
  • Do you tend to feel crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your “ineptness?”
  • When you do succeed, do you think, “Phew, I fooled ’em this time but I may not be so lucky next time.”
  • Do you believe that other people (students, colleagues, competitors) are smarter and more capable than you are?
  • Do you live in fear of being found out, discovered, unmasked?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. In fact, many very intelligent, successful, accomplished people feel exactly the same way.

Where did that overly critical voice come from? Often it’s one or both of our parents. For some of us, there is no denying that our possibly well-meaning parents did a number on us. Without realizing it, my Dad expected perfection from his kids. He built me up with praise with one hand and kept me in my place with the other. That left my self-esteem feeling confused and diminished.

What helped me more than anything was using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that I learned in my therapy and my own training to build self-esteem on sound evidence and reasoned thinking. For instance, I would look at my diplomas and concientiously remember they weren’t handed to me. I worked damn hard to earn them. Now whenever I get that nasty, ‘Oh God, who do I think I am?’ feeling, I breathe through it, to calm down my fight/flight response. Then I ask myself if it is reasonable, given my experience and training, to assume a level of expertise. With a relieved sigh, I can say yes.

Your reason for feeling like an imposter may be different from mine, but the antidote is probably the same. Here are eight tips that might help you:

1. Be aware of when your body triggers anxiety when you have “I’m just a big imposter!” thoughts. Keep your nervous system as calm as possible. Breathe.

2. Identify the critical voice that is doubting your authenticity. It’s not You. So who is it? Separate yourself from that ‘other’ voice.

3. Write down the steps you took to earn the success you achieved. Did you spend all night in the library studying for the Bar exam? Did you practice that grande jeté until your legs went numb before the dance performance? Did you submit hundreds of applications before you got the acceptance letter? Remember it all. I read somewhere that a movie star finally gave up reminding people that he had been in the business knocking on doors for ten years before he became an “over-night sensation.” The important thing was that he remembered how hard he worked even if the media forgot.

4. Create a supportive mantra for yourself. “I worked hard for this. I deserve this,” is a good start. Say it to yourself even if you don’t believe it. Eventually you will.

5. Celebrate! Let your friends and family praise you. Stand still for it. Take some of it in. Let it touch your heart.

6. After you celebrate, you will probably remember that no matter what you achieved, chances are there is more to do. That can be humbling which is healthy, and important to distinguish from the unhealthy internal put-downs.

7. Give yourself permission to be proud. Being proud can be a very good thing, and nurturing to your self-esteem. Being proud of an accomplishment is not the same as being self-centered or an ego-maniac.

8. Give yourself a little time to grow into your success, especially if success came seemingly quickly. Sometimes our new promotion or status just needs to settle. However, if you think Impostor Syndrome is keeping you from getting out of life what you deserve, and what it deserves from you, you may want to find a supportive therapist who can help embrace your success with enthusiasm and say “Mine!”

It sounds simple, but, of course, it’s not. Being reasonable with yourself and breaking through the habit of putting yourself down takes exercise and work.

Trust me, you genuinely are smart, capable, competent… A Rock Star! If you listen closely you will hear your heart telling you the same.

Photo courtesy of WhitneyGH via Flickr