A Cure for Impostor Syndrome that has been around for Decades
Famous psychologists and philosophers may have been on to something…
Do you ever wonder what Freud and Nietzsche had to say about impostor syndrome? No? Of course not. Neither did I. Until I started studying counseling psychology.
Impostor syndrome, for those few who are blessedly unfamiliar with it, is the belief that you are not as competent as others believe you to be, thus you feel like a fraud or impostor. This is not a psychological disorder in the DSM-5, like OCD or anxiety, however it is estimated that 70% of people will experience it least once in their lives(Sakulku, Alexander, 2011).
Although impostor syndrome isn’t currently diagnosed in clinical psychology, it was formally introduced in 1985, and likely experienced by the masses even earlier.
What would the big names in psychology have to say about this phenomenon that so many of us are too familiar with? Maybe within their wise words and theories we can find a way forward that leaves the fraud feelings behind and helps us see ourselves more clearly.
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
Although Freud has some questionable ideas about human development (he’s known as having some controversial ideas regarding women and sexuality), there is a reason he’s one of the most well-known names in psychology.
Much of his work is the basis for modern-day psychodynamic theory, as well as so many other theories that took his basic concepts and ran with them in more palatable directions. Specifically, the structure of personality, the use of defense mechanisms, and the importance of unconscious thoughts are some of Freud’s most relevant contributions to the way we understand human behavior today.
If you have an unconscious belief that you aren’t capable of doing as well as your coworkers, you are bound to think you suck at your job, no matter how much effort you put into it. You can’t logic your way out of a deep unconscious belief that you simply are not good enough.
Alfred Adler (1870–1937) Adlerian Theory
Maybe you feel inferior because of your birth order? Big expectations placed on your shoulders as the eldest? As the youngest, were older siblings always outshining you no matter how hard you tried to improve?
Adler was a big believer in the early influence of birth order on later in life behavior.
Adler also stressed how an inferiority complex (the presentation of the person to himself and others that he is not strong enough to solve a given problem in a socially useful way) in early childhood years from a number of things. According to Adler, an inferiority complex can come from a physical disability, or from parents that spoil their children or neglect them.
Spoiled (or as Adler put it, ‘pampered’) children, don’t know how to function on their own as adults. On the other side of the spectrum, neglected children may try to avoid responsibility later on in life, not believing they can handle it.
But before you go ahead and blame your parents (who have the terrible task of finding that perfect sweet spot between spoiling you and giving you too little attention), let’s talk about a productive path for self growth.
Adler believed social factors played a huge role in feelings of inferiority. Systems of cultural oppression, sexism, physical limitations, and family dynamics play a role in how a person sees themselves. He stressed the importance of challenging what he called “private logic” or “fictive notions” about oneself in pursuit of the truth. ‘I can’t do this’ becomes ‘I can do this’.
Easier said than done sure, but is entirely possible to change the script inside our head through therapy. A good therapist helps us change our negative scripts into positive, more realistic ones, which also helps us in our social relationships, which then leads to further growth. A positive upward cycle if to take us out of the downward negative cycle of impostor syndrome.
Giving and receiving encouragement helps us overcome impostor syndrome. Not only through the in the moment words of affirmation we so desperately seek from others, but also because of healing power of feeling closer to other people.
The more supported we feel in our lives, the more we feel like we have a network of people to turn to when we need help, the more that internal script will change from ‘I suck’ to ‘I just need a little help right now and this has no bearing on my personal worth’.
Other people need us just as much as we need them. Recognizing this throws inferiority out the window and allows us to take comfort in our close relationships.
Evolution shows us the power of the pack for survival. This applies to our emotional health just as much as it does our physical health. If we have people we can count on when we’re feeling down, we’re much more likely to come out on the other side of those dark feelings and strengthen our resolve for dealing with negative self-talk in the future.
Soren Kierkegaard & Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) Existential Theory
If life is meaningless, why bother worrying about how well that job interview went?
Okay, so existentialism might not be that simple or that bleak, but there is comfort in the idea that meaning is what we make of it, and we get to decide what we stress out about.
There are a few big names in Existentialism, but Soren Kierkegaard is known as the grandfather of existentialism for his books on conflicts and problems of the human existence. Kierkegaard viewed individuals as desiring to be eternal but having to deal with the fact that existence is temporary. Dealing with this uncomfortable notion is central to what it means to be human, but also a source of anxiety.
Many other existential philosophers write about the anxiety that comes from having our existence thrust upon us, and becoming ‘inauthentic’ in trying to navigate our concerns in life by adhering to the conventional ways that other people think and act, rather than being authentic and true to our own moods and feelings.
Karl Jaspers was a psychiatrist who was influenced by Kierkegaard’s work, and wanted to encompass the struggles of the human condition into his therapeutic approach. He felt being-oneself was a state in which individuals depend on awareness of themselves and their assertion of themselves through choices and decisions (so, not doing what everyone else is doing on instagram). Becoming ones authentic self requires developing your own view of the work through self-awareness and through communication with others on all topics to help form your own opinions about the world.
Striving toward authenticity is something we can easily forget when caught up in the moment. Following what other people are posting on social media and striving for the traits and accomplishments our peers view as desirable is an endless path with no guarantee the final destination will be happiness and fulfillment.
There is a lot to unpack with existentialism, but existential psychology essentially helps people achieve authenticity by addressing their place in the world.
Existential psychology embraces the concept that individuals are responsible for their own life plans and choices, which can be both terrifying and liberating. There is something quite anxiety-relieving to the idea that meaning is only what we make of it. Outside forces may try to sway us to become someone else, but ultimately we are in the driver’s seat.
Carl Rogers (1902–1987) Person-Centered Theory
Empathy above all else was the Rogers way. If we model empathy for each other, we will finally be able to have empathy for ourselves.
What does self-empathy look like?
Self-empathy looks like not being so hard on yourself when you make a mistake. Self-empathy looks like letting go of black and white thinking and catastrophizing. Your life goals will not come crashing down from taking a mental health day.
For many of us it can take a long time to reach a state of genuine empathy for ourselves, but fortunately for all of us, the journey is the destination. Once we decide to be more empathetic with ourselves, we’ve done a huge amount of the work. From there, it gets easier over time.
So is there a cure to impostor syndrome?
It depends on who you ask. But if you want to take an integrative approach to blend these theories, there are a few best practices to leave imposter syndrome behind for good:
- Address the unconscious stuff you know is there but you don’t want to deal with. Whether that’s therapy (advisable for those of us who have been through trauma) or a friend (or journal) who you can confide in, express to someone why you feel inadequate as an employee, partner, friend, etc. Take a look at the history of those feelings. Free associate when you need to in order to get to the stuff hiding below the surface.
- Realize that the role you played in your family doesn’t need to be the role you play out now. Write a letter to your adolesence self and let that all go.
- Make sure you’re embracing your connections with others. Focusing on others and taking comfort in our relationships not only creates a space where we forget to think about our insecurities, but it also alleviates them through changing our perspective on what matters most in life.
- If you find comfort in the idea from Existentialism that ‘meaning is what you make it’, next time those ‘fictive notions’ about what a fraud you are bubble up, remind yourself that you are the only one bringing meaning into those thoughts, they genuinely do not exist if you stop providing them with fuel.
- Decide to approach yourself with more empathy. It won’t feel natural at first, but overtime it will get easier as your brain rewires and it becomes your automatic response.
There are no quick fixes in mental health, but hopefully reorienting yourself around the idea of impostor syndrome with the concepts from these psychologist and philosophers will help move your brain in a positive direction.