NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 31, 2015

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which a person feels that s/he is a fraud, despite many possible accomplishments and accolades.  S/he has a problem internalizing his or her accomplishments and awards, and s/he is afraid of being "discovered" as a fraud.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

People who suffer with impostor syndrome usually develop this problem during childhood, especially if the they feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have been a disappointment to their parents.  These children feel a deep sense of shame.  

Many people who suffer with impostor syndrome find out later in life that they had a distorted view of how their parents and others saw them, and it was only their perception that they were a disappointment--not anyone else's perception.

The underlying issues related to impostor syndrome are often unconscious, so these issues are outside of the person's awareness.  

People who want to overcome impostor syndrome usually don't overcome this problem with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) where the therapist tries to help the client to see the distortions in his or her thinking.  

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

While a client might recognize logically that there is a distortion, this recognition usually doesn't change the way that s/he feels.  Often, this makes matters worse because the client can see the distortion, but s/he feels powerless to change it.

People who want to overcome impostor syndrome benefit from seeing a psychotherapist who uses a type of experiential therapy that gets to the unconscious underlying issues (see my article:  Experiential Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

The following fictional vignette, which includes typical problems associated with impostor syndrome, illustrates how this problem can be overcome with experiential therapy: 

Alan came to therapy because he was having problems at work.  

He recognized that, as a manager, he was irritable with his subordinates and felt resentful that he had to constantly prove himself to his superiors.  

Alan knew that he could barely keep his irritability and resentment under wraps, and he was afraid that he would say or do something to jeopardize his position, a position that he worked hard to get.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

When asked if anything had come up recently to make him feel irritable and resentful, Alan couldn't think of anything.  He was aware that he had been feeling this way for a long time but, when asked, he couldn't pinpoint when it started.  He just knew that the problem was getting worse.

Using a combination of clinical hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing, I asked Alan to think about the last time he remembered feeling irritable and resentful, to notice if any other emotions came up, and to also notice where he felt these feelings in his body (see my article:  The Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Alan remembered being in a staff meeting with his boss and subordinates a week ago and how irritable and resentful he felt at the time.  He sensed these feelings in his chest and stomach.  

I asked Alan to continue sensing into those emotions and where he felt them in his body.

As he explored how he felt during that meeting, he also realized something that surprised him--he was fearful that everyone in the meeting would realize that he was "a fraud" and he didn't know what he was doing, which is common for people with impostor syndrome.

Alan explained that he didn't know why he was feeling this way because he was well educated, he was a seasoned professional, and he was chosen over many other well-qualified candidates for the job.  

In fact, his boss often went out of his way to praise him for his work, and his subordinates looked up to him, so he didn't know why he felt like he had to prove himself.

He recognized that nothing happened in the meeting that day to make him feel like he was a fraud or to undermine his confidence.

As he continued focusing on his emotions and where he felt them in his body, it suddenly dawned on him that he had been feeling like a fraud for a long time, but he still didn't know why.

He was surprised that he had been carrying around these underlying emotions without even realizing it. The relaxing state facilitated by clinical hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing allowed Alan to access these unconscious emotions.

I helped Alan to use a hypnotherapy technique called the Affect Bridge where he could go back to his earliest memory of feeling this way (see my article: Clinical Hypnosis: Bridging Back to Heal Old Emotional Wounds).

As he went back in his mind to his first job, college, high school, and even grammar school, Alan became aware that his feelings of being inadequate were old feelings that had a long history.

His earliest memories of feeling this way were during a time when his father, who was an avid sportsman, coached Alan's Little League team.

Fiercely competitive, Alan's father placed a lot of emphasis on winning every game.  His father's competitiveness made Alan feel anxious and ashamed because, although he made the team, he was a mediocre player, and he felt he was a constant disappointment to his father.

Alan remembered one particular day when his father heaped praise on the team's star player, a boy who was in Alan's class at school.  

Watching his father praise this boy was hurtful enough to Alan, but then his father added insult to injury by saying to Alan, "You see?  Johnny is a great pitcher.  Why can't you be more like Johnny?"

Although that memory was more than 20 years old, it felt fresh and very much alive for Alan.  He felt the hurt, shame and resentment as if it was yesterday.  

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

He remembered silently telling himself, "You suck at this game.  You let dad down. You better work as hard as you can to show him that you can be a star too." As Alan remembered these feelings now as an adult, he broke down in tears.

Alan remembered that, from that day on, he practiced everyday.  He suppressed the shame and anger he felt as his father criticized him, and he did eventually get better.  

One day during a tense game with a tied score, he was next up at bat.  Even though he wasn't looking at his dad, he could feel his dad's eyes on him. He was so anxious that he could barely hold the bat without shaking.  

As the ball approached, he hit it as hard as he could.  Then, he ran before he knew what had happened and made it to first base.  Then, he heard his teammates screaming and saw them jumping up and down.  His father was signaling him to keep running.  It was only at that point that he realized he hit a home run.

As he ran, he had a surreal feeling, as if he was dreaming.  He ran as fast as he could around the bases.  When he slid to home plate, he was shocked that his whole team ran out into the field and picked him and carried him around the field.  He saved the game.

His dad was also standing in the field beaming at him.  It was the first time his father had ever looked at him that way during a game.

As Alan sat in my office, he remembered that, rather than feeling proud of himself, he felt like a fraud that day.  He felt as it was someone else who hit the home run, not him, and it was all a mistake.   

During this therapy session, Alan realized for the first time that on that day when he hit the home run, he wasn't able to enjoy his accomplishment because he felt like an impostor.

He also realized for the first time that, even though he graduated at the top of his class in high school and he had a straight A average in college, he continued to feel like an impostor no matter what he accomplished in his life.  

But he had never really allowed himself to let these emotions come to the surface.  Until then, these emotions got played out in other ways, like feeling that his boss and his subordinates though he was inadequate, which made him feel irritable and resentment.  

But he also realized that his boss and his subordinates had admired and respected him.  So, the emotions that came up for him at work were really from his history and not related to anything going on now (see my article:  Reacting to the Present Based on the Past).

This realization stunned Alan because he had no idea that this is what was happening to him.  

In future sessions, we used Gestalt techniques where Alan imagined himself talking to his father and expressing his hurt, anger and resentment to his father.  

During one of those sessions, Alan realized that his father no longer felt disappointed in him and that Alan was living his life stuck in his memories from 20 years ago.  He realized that he was the one now who felt this way about himself--not his father.  

His father had told him many times in recent years how proud of him he was but, until now, Alan never connected this to his underlying distorted feelings that he continued to be a disappointment to his father and that, no matter what he accomplished, he felt like a fraud and an impostor.

But as we continued to explore these issues, Alan realized that he didn't completely feel this way all the time.  Only a part of him felt this way.  

So we did "parts work" (also called Ego States work) for Alan to experience the part of him that felt like an impostor and the other parts of him that didn't.  

Parts work, which is another experiential type of therapy, allows for emotional integration so that, over time, the part of him that felt like a fraud and an impostor softened.  

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

As we continued to do parts work, Alan no longer felt like an impostor.  He felt genuinely confident in himself.

People who experience impostor syndrome are often highly accomplished men and women who, despite their accomplishments and praise from others, feel like they're a fraud.  They often live in fear of being "found out" and "exposed" by others.

Impostor syndrome is usually unconscious and can begin at a young age.  

People who suffer with impostor syndrome might be able to recognize that their thoughts about themselves are distorted, but knowing this usually doesn't change it.  In fact, it can often create more angst as they try to reconcile what they know logically to what they feel emotionally.  

This is why cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often ineffective in helping clients to overcome impostor syndrome.  CBT doesn't get to the underlying unconscious experiences that are at the root of this psychological phenomenon.

Experiential therapy, such as clinical hypnosis, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR and other experiential types of therapy allow clients to access these unconscious experiences and to work through these issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
Impostor syndrome isn't listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), but it is a real experience, and it is more common than most people realize.

If you feel like "a fraud," despite objective evidence to the contrary, and you fear being found out, you might be suffering with impostor syndrome.

Rather than continuing to live with this burden, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed mental health professional who has an expertise in experiential therapy so that you can live free yourself from this psychological phenomenon.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.