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  • Christy A. George, LMFT, SEP

Living As a Pretender

impostor syndrome, perfectionist, fraud

Do you ever feel like a fraud? When people of a low ability have “illusory superiority” and erroneously assess their cognitive ability to be greater than it actually is, it is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. When highly intelligent, competent, people believe they are inferior and incapable it’s called Impostor Syndrome. Maybe you are successful at many things and constantly worry one day others will discover you aren’t really good at what you do, you don’t know what you are doing at all or aren’t worth the money, status or recognition you have received and will lose it all at a moment’s notice?

As a mental health professional working primarily with gifted, driven and highly skilled people, I frequently see versions of this phenomenon in my practice at all ages. I see children and teens who are brilliant in school, and see any struggle or failure as evidence of their perceived inferiority, and adults who are masters in their fields who tell me they don’t deserve to be where they are because they are actually “stupid”, “not that good”, or “it came too easily, so I must be a fraud”. In contrast to their self-perceptions, all of these people are highly intelligent and display exceptionality in their own right.

How does this paradox happen where the least competent people believe they are superior and the most capable people believe they are incompetent? One hypothesis, per Dunning, is when people are ignorant they are less capable of assessing their own ignorance. Specifically, he states, “An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.” Meaning, people often acquire useless and inaccurate information they believe to be useful. Some people are not aware that what they believe to be useful information is just clutter, and thus overestimate their actual knowledge and skill level. To the contrary, a highly capable, and informed person, with strong critical thinking skills, may underestimate their abilities because they are more aware of the vast amount of information in the world, and the limitations of any human being.

hiding behind a mask, mask, young man, impostor syndrome

You may also tend to be a deep thinker who is distracted by existential thoughts of being small cogs in the universe. Another part of being a capable person is who you are surrounded by. If you are surrounded by less competent people, you may feel out of place and even be criticized for your differences, and if you are surrounded by intelligent people, you may start comparing yourself to them. Either situation can contribute to feelings of inadequacy.

Another possible cause of Impostor Syndrome originates with the nature of how gifted people learn. Gifted minds tend to learn and assimilate information more quickly than the average person, and may even forget they learned the information to begin with. This is a problem because people may feel unworthy of their mastery because they don’t remember putting in hard work to learn something they are good at, and question knowing it at all. In addition, most highly intelligent people are actually gifted and may be unaware of it, or were identified as children, but due to negative experiences, rejected the idea. Being unaware of their gifted abilities, can feed the belief of being less capable as you may realize you are “different” but not know why or how and internalize it to be something negative.

If you or someone you know has Impostor Syndrome, here are some helpful suggestions:

  1. If you are overwhelmed by expectations, speak up and advocate for yourself. Even though you are highly capable, you don’t have to do everything.

  2. Do not share your feelings of insecurity, or beliefs of being inferior or a fraud in the workplace, with your boss, your teacher or your peers. While you may worry about your performance, sharing your feelings of doubt in a professional or academic setting could cast an unnecessary negative eye on your performance and create undue problems for you at your job or in school. This is not to be confused with asking for legitimate help. This applies only to emoting about your feelings of being a failure.

  3. If you need help or clarification ask for it. It's okay to delegate and to get more information when necessary.

  4. Suspend the judgments of yourself. Instead of labeling yourself, or your performance as bad, less good, lazy, average or whatever negative self talk your brain generates, try to encourage yourself, and stick to the facts. For example, if something isn’t going as planned, instead of telling yourself, “I’m so stupid, here I go messing up again,” identify the actual problem and work toward fixing it.

  5. Allow yourself to accept compliments.

  6. Stay present. Work on what is in front of you and avoid postulating about what could happen. If there are problems, or things you don’t know, make a list and start learning new things. This doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you smart.

  7. Accept failure and struggle as a gift of learning. When people learn quickly they may be used to everything happening quickly and going their way, and struggle and failure can feel like a huge personal blow and cause doubt. The reality is, everyone eventually struggles with something, and while it may be unpleasant, it is an opportunity for growth.

  8. Avoid comparing yourself with others.

  9. Have a good practice of stress management which incorporates self care, connection with supportive people, and fun.

  10. Be patient with yourself and others.

It is also important for you to be able to process your feelings with a safe, trustworthy person in your personal life, or a trained professional who can give you emotional validation, perspective, recognition and encouragement as needed. You don’t have to be ashamed or alone in your feelings. Having appropriate support can help you to recognize your strengths and reach your full potential for happiness.

About the Author: Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. She has nearly 10 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have suffered past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body.

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