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“There are arguments over the cause of imposter syndrome as some believe it has roots in anxiety, while others contend it’s due to family influence or other external factors,” writes VOX ATL’s Emma MacDonald. “Some argue it’s not a syndrome at all, and rather just a part of being human.”

Art illustration by Emma MacDonald.

What the @%#! Is Imposter Syndrome and How to Shake Off Those Feelings of Inadequacy

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With a mom who’s a former social worker, close family members and friends who have struggled with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and my own personal battles toward striving for a healthy and fulfilling mindset, it’s safe to say that mental health has been a prevalent topic throughout the majority of my life. Despite the grip that topics surrounding mental health have on my adolescence, I’ve come to realize that there are always new things I know nothing about or have never even heard of — the most recent being something called “impostor syndrome.”

The term came up when I was grabbing coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in a few months. When she was filling me in on everything happening in her life, at some point the conversation turned to mental health, therapy, and success.

“It Feels Like I’m Lying All The Time”

She discussed her own doubts about herself before proceeding to shower me with compliments on how “put together” I always seemed. In a moment of uncommon vulnerability I confessed that, though I appreciated her kind compliments, I felt that they were unfounded. I then continued to try and explain:

“I’m so lucky to have so many wonderful people in my life who support me and try and uplift me by telling me how well I’m doing at school/work/etc. and I feel terrible sometimes because for some reason my mind is telling me that I really just convinced this person that I’m something good when I’m not. The entire thing just feels like I’m lying all the time because I don’t believe most anything they say to be true of myself, even when I know they are being sincere.”

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“Huh, sounds like impostor syndrome,” she said, to which my mind immediately responded with:

“What the f**k is impostor syndrome?”

She admitted that the only reason she had ever heard of it was because of the song “Impostor Syndrome” by Sidney Gish. Through further research, however, I found that the definition is “a false and sometimes crippling belief that one’s successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill” or being “unable to internalize achievement.” The phenomena was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, and while this isn’t something you’d find in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), one quick Google search will show you the growing popularity of the term.

There are arguments over the cause of imposter syndrome as some believe it has roots in anxiety, while others contend it’s due to family influence or other external factors. Some argue it’s not a syndrome at all, and rather just a part of being human. In my experience, however, I don’t feel that it matters how “real” a term is. Sometimes just having a phrase to attach to a feeling or set of emotions can make it more tangible and easier to deconstruct and address.

Combating Feelings of Inadequacy

So, now the real question is: How can you combat these feelings of inadequacy when you have a perfectionist mindset? While there is no “cure-all” way to completely dissipate these thoughts, there are some ways to practice shifting your mindset to alleviate the burden these notions may cause. Here are some of them that my friends and I have found helpful:

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1. Accept compliments as they come. If someone says something you did or created was amazing say thank you!!! Don’t shut them down by saying it could have been better. Then, you’re putting down yourself and the person supporting you!

2. Don’t let your mind run wild with “if only.” Often, after finishing a test or project I’ll find myself saying that “if only I stayed up a few hours later I might have figured it out,” or “if only I didn’t go hang out with these friends I could have gotten extra credit.” Driving yourself crazy with theoreticals isn’t going to make your situation any better. You can’t change what has already happened.

3. Focus on the present and the future. (This is taking the last step to the next level.) After you are able to stop hyper-analyzing the past, try looking at new ways to achieve your goals. What is happening right now that you can control? What can you prepare for in the future so you can get where you want to be?

4. Find various sources of happiness. If you find that the only time you feel good about yourself is when you do well at your job/school or when you hang out with a specific person, you may want to try and find a hobby or extracurricular that interests you, so your fulfilment in life isn’t dependent on one thing alone. Try drawing, hiking, running, baking or gardening. There are tons of great ways to find little moments of satisfaction without all the pressure that may come with a formal commitment to something you enjoy. (Bonus: often times you can find a community of people that enjoy the same things.)

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5. Try your best to not self-deprecate! As hard of a habit it may be to break, try your best to eliminate negative speech toward yourself; it makes it way harder to internalize your successes if you won’t even verbally accept them. While it may be hard to move from negative language (example: I hate how crooked my teeth look) to positive language (example: I love my smile), I’ve found it a lot easier to practice using neutral language to describe myself (example: my teeth allow me to eat the foods I love). Other people I know use the tactic of creating a character to represent those negative internal thoughts, like some old racist white dude named Hank. If you wouldn’t let Hank call you an unproductive waste of space, then why the hell should you let yourself?

How To Get Help

Overall, if you think you may be struggling with symptoms associated with imposter syndrome, the most important thing you can do is to take some time to reflect on these feelings of inadequacy and try to recognize which thoughts are unfounded/irrational. If you find that these feelings are greatly decreasing your quality of life or have resulted in symptoms associated with anxiety or depression, you may benefit from talking to a therapist. (You can easily find and research therapists near you using this website.)


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