Imposter Syndrome

Understanding and Overcoming False Feelings of Inadequacy

Anyone who’s ever experienced a high-pressure situation is likely to be familiar with the gut-twisting feeling of self-doubt. In those moments, when success is more or less demanded, people who lack a strong internal sense of value may conjure up intrusive thoughts like, “Am I qualified?” or “Do I deserve to be here?” 

Without pausing to investigate the source or validity of such thoughts, a self-doubt sufferer can be plunged into a more consuming fear of being exposed as a fraud, a phenomenon better known as Impostor Syndrome.

While it is not formally recognized as a psychiatric disorder, Impostor Syndrome is an important and widely studied condition proven to co-exist alongside anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. To get some insight on where impostor feelings originate from and learn how to support those who experience impostor feelings, we spoke with Anna Downer Youngs, a licensed professional counselor and mental health service provider at The Transformation Center in Chattanooga.

Where does Impostor Syndrome come from?

According to Youngs, environmental factors can give rise to impostor feelings. “If you grew up in a home or environment where you were heavily criticized or controlled and didn’t feel like you could do anything right, you could struggle with Impostor Syndrome,” says Youngs. “Additionally, if you grew up in an environment where no one openly acknowledged struggles or negative feelings, you may have felt like you had to hide those parts of yourself. Hiding parts of ourselves can lead to feelings of isolation and a sense that we aren’t understood by others, which is highly correlated with feeling like an impostor,” she says.

Is it Impostor Syndrome, or something else?

It’s important to distinguish between Impostor Syndrome and recognizing that you have legitimate areas in which you could grow and learn. Youngs experienced this herself early on in her career as a mental health professional. “I was struggling with whether I knew enough to be helping my clients. Someone suggested that perhaps I had Impostor Syndrome. Impostor Syndrome says, ‘You’re a fraud!’ The reality was, I had done everything required of me up to that point in my career. I wasn’t a fraud; I just had a lot left to learn,” she shares. “Allowing myself to sit with my feelings of discomfort and deficiency motivated me to seek out more trainings and information. Looking back, I realized there was a gap in my knowledge and skillset, so it made sense that I was feeling the way that I was!” 

How can you support a loved one who struggles with impostor feelings?

When a loved one expresses feelings of inadequacy about themselves, you may be tempted to contradict them or even scold them. While that response is often meant to be reassuring, it can actually lead to loved ones feeling misunderstood. Youngs suggests using a more validating and encouraging approach. “Remember, we don’t have to agree with their statements about themselves to offer comfort or validation for how upsetting it must be to feel the way that they do,” says Youngs. “A simple statement like, ‘Wow, that must feel so scary. Thanks for sharing that with me. I’m here to listen,’ can be so comforting.” 

How can you overcome your own impostor feelings?

Sharing your feelings with a trusted friend or professional is often the first step in coping with feelings of low self-worth. “We don’t need to wait until we are severely struggling to seek help,” says Youngs. She also suggests writing down what you feel insecure about. “Getting it on paper can help calm down the overwhelming swirl of thoughts in our heads,” she shares. “You could also benefit from finding someone newer in your field to encourage or teach,” suggests Youngs. “Sometimes we don’t realize how much we have learned until we begin teaching someone else.” Lastly, she adds, “Acknowledge when you don’t know something. This is an important part of protecting ourselves from impostor feelings and creating a culture of honesty.” 

What is a healthy measure of self-worth?

According to Youngs, the healthiest way of measuring your self-worth is through the practice of dual awareness – a discipline through which one can acknowledge the things they do well while also acknowledging the ways in which they struggle. Through this mindful and intimate practice, you’ll get to know yourself on a profound level and experience an enduring sense of self-assuredness that impostor feelings cannot penetrate. 

Picture of Anna Downer Youngs, LPC-MHSP

Anna Downer Youngs, LPC-MHSP

Licensed Professor Counselor and Mental Health Service Provider, The Transformation Center in Chattanooga

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