Have you ever felt like an imposter or fraud? You’re not alone. Particularly in a professional setting, people may have this feeling, but lack the words to describe it. This is called imposter syndrome, which means feeling like a fraud due to the self-doubt and lack of confidence. It stems from low self-esteem that makes us afraid of being discovered and judged inadequate or incompetent. We’re convinced that we’re really an “imposter,” just tricking everyone. In an intimate relationship, we’re afraid of being found out and left.
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist. She is a relationship expert and author of “Codependency for Dummies” and “Conquering Codependency and Shame: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You,” as well as five ebooks. She has worked extensively in the field of addiction and codependency. Her work is informed by training in Self-Psychology, Voice-Dialogue, Dream Analysis, Jungian Therapy, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Somatic Work, EFT, and Hypnosis. She has also previously supervised other therapists as an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and practiced law as an entertainment attorney.
The consequence is that even when we excel―get high marks, accomplishments, raises, promotions, or compliments, we feel so undeserving due to deep shame that it doesn’t change our opinion of ourselves. We’ll make excuses or discount our successes. It’s normal to exaggerate or emphasize our strengths on a resume or job interview. However, an “imposter” really feels unqualified in comparison to other candidates―wants the position, but is half terrified of getting it.
The deep underlying shame stimulates fault-finding thoughts when compared to our high expectations of ourselves and others. We also compare ourselves negatively to other people who appear to have it all together. When others make a mistake, we might be forgiving, because we have double standards, judging ourselves more harshly than others.
When we feel like an imposter, we live in constant fear of being found out―that a new boss or romantic partner will eventually realize he or she made a big mistake. Insecurity mounts with every task or assignment about whether we can satisfactorily complete it. Every time we have to perform, we feel like our job, career, family security―everything―is on the line. One mistake and our façade will crumble, like a house of cards. When something good happens, it must be a mistake, luck, or a warning that the other shoe will soon drop. In fact, the more success we have or the closer we get to a new mate, the greater is our anxiety.
Positive acknowledgement is felt undeserved and is written off with the belief that the other person is manipulating, lying, has poor judgment, or just doesn’t know the real truth about us. If we’re offered kindness or a promotion, we’re more than surprised. We wonder why―why would they want to do that? If we receive an honor, we feel like it was a mistake. We dismiss it as being routine, very easy, low standards, or no competition. Additionally, when we do well, we’re afraid that we’ve now raised others’ expectations and will likely fail in the future. Better to have a low profile than risk criticism, judgment, or rejection.
Though other people might like us, inside we feel flawed, inadequate, a mess, a disappointment. We imagine others are judging us for things that in reality they didn’t even notice or long forgot. Meanwhile, we can’t let go of it and even judge ourselves for things we can’t control―like a computer glitch that delayed in completing something on time.