The Imposter Syndrome

IMG_3847When I do something well and have success, I feel like it’s a fluke.”

“I walk around feeling like a fraud. I don’t trust that I’m honestly capable of doing the things that I do.”

“I have this nagging sense that I’m going to be found out, like I’m a fake.” 

A fluke. A fraud. A fake. The imposter syndrome. Thanks to the Internet, most people have heard of this insidious and demoralizing way of walking through the world, but few people know how it forms and what to do about it. Moving through life feeling like we’re going to be “found out” leads a subtle but chronic sense of anxiety. As such, it’s worth spending some time unraveling the elements that comprise this painful way of regarding oneself.

These are the common personality traits of those who suffer from the imposter syndrome:

  • Highly sensitive
  • High achieving
  • Perfectionist
  • Self-doubting
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Prone to anxiety, intrusive thoughts
  • Scared to fail

Sound familiar?

These are people who don’t know who they are, who don’t deeply value themselves and, ultimately, trust themselves. These are the people who Google their way to my work as they’re being dragged down the rabbit hole of anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and doubt. And, as you know if you follow my blog, they (you!) are among the most compassionate, creative, insightful, caring, and beautiful people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.

Sadly, this beautiful sensitivity wasn’t honored early in life. It was judged and then pushed deep, deep down, where it could only mutate into anxiety. The message absorbed from a young age – likely pre-verbally – was this: Your self-worth is dependent on how perfectly you achieve. And if you succeed in the external world, you will be happy. This message may not have even come directly from parents (although it may have) as much as from the culture at large. The message is everywhere, and if you were a highly sensitive person who aimed to please, you would have absorbed it from a variety of sources.

Inherent to this message is a complete abdication of your core sense of self, which then creates a sense of unreality. If you don’t know who you are, you won’t be able to value your achievements as being genuine expressions from your true gifts and intelligences. At the same time, if the only measure you have of your worthiness is from external achievements, you will mis-assign meaning to the achievements as evidence of your worthiness as opposed to expressions of who you are. This is what leads to feeling like a fraud: the sense that your achievements and successes aren’t really coming from your core self but are attempts to try to gain approval and validation for your core self. It’s a bit confusing to wrap your mind around, so I suggest you read this paragraph a few times until it starts to sink in. The mind resists a new way of thinking because it’s unfamiliar. But once you’re able to metabolize this new way of viewing yourself and life, everything starts to shift.

Let me say it succinctly: True worthiness has nothing to do with anything externals. When you learn to claim who you truly are, you will be able to embrace your achievements as natural extensions of the gifts and skills that emerge from the full of well of Self that lives at the center of you. You will take pride in your successes, not from small-minded and approval-addicted ego but from a solid sense of recognition and gratitude.

The key is to learn to connect with your immutable qualities, the parts of you that are intrinsic to your wiring, your being, your soul and will never change. Because we’re a culture that upholds externals as the sole measure of success and applauds endless acts of doing, we don’t learn to value our internal being: our creativity, our natural and varied intelligences (as opposed to the left-brained, school-smart form of intelligence that the education system rewards), our compassion, our caring, our sensitivity. And let me say that a bit more emphatically: Not only do we not learn to value these aspect of our being, we learn to judge them, criticize them, shame them, and ultimately sequester them into a tightly sealed box deep in the recesses of self.

It requires courage to reverse the habit of externalizing our sense of Self and placing our authority in the hands of others. It takes courage to turn inward and face the black box of shame that lives at the center of you, the box that will remain black until you shine the light of consciousness into its contents and find that it starts to shimmer. Your gold lives in that box. Your self-trust rests like a shimmering crystal at its center. When you retrieve that self-trust, everything shifts. When you learn how to know yourself and love yourself, you will know how to be the captain of the ship of your life, and your will embrace your successes for what they are: expressions of your immutable gifts from your true self.

Are you ready to begin this process of reclaiming what is rightfully yours? Please join me for my next round of Trust Yourself: A 30-day program to help you overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt, which will begin on August 1st, 2015.

35 comments to The Imposter Syndrome

  • Alma

    This is beautiful. Yet again, the right article at the right time! How could you possibly know this is exactly what I journaled about today. I was having trouble seeing my mistakes in perspective. I have the tendency to let make my mistakes, and my shame about them, cloud my vision of Self, they make my core feel so dark. I was not sure how to put mistakes into the equation of being a good person.

    “You will mis-assign meaning to the achievements as evidence of your worthiness as opposed to expressions of who you are”. This is such a beautiful way of putting it! The vision that really helps me grasp this concept, is imagining myself as planet Earth, with a creative, warm, moving core inside of me. Now and then volcanos (achievements, expressions) show a glimpse of what is inside of me, creating fertile soil creating space for growth and life. Mistakes are now just movements on your surface, in no way effecting your core. The opposite, approval-seeking vision is this one: you are a meteorite, with a cold core, dancing around the sun, hoping a single beam of sunlight will bring warmth for a brief period of time.

    Just wanted to share, I thought it could be helpful to others 🙂 Thanks Sheryl! You really helped me move forward with this.

  • Zoe

    This is incredible, on so many levels. I will try and iterate why this touched me:

    For one, doing your work on engagement anxiety I kind of can relate this article to it. For example lack of trust in oneself will lead to doubting decisions i.e. engagement and ‘choosing the right person’. There are plenty of confident people I see who continuously make not so great decisions but they do it with pride. It really has very little to do with what you decide but rather, how you feel about yourself in general.
    For two I find I am always having to prove myself to people, like they are judging me so I will have to give them a reason not to but in reality I am giving myself a reason to not judge myself. I am talking to my unconscious, not the person in front of me. I HAVE to do well, if I don’t then hell breaks loose and I will start explaining to people why I didn’t do so well. This is obviously done in a subtle way but I can see myself doing it.

    I am not sure if you find this with clients you work with but I was just wondering whether they flit from being very confident but can snap into a self-doubting, self-loathing being? At times I feel so elevated about myself and so proud but anything can hinder it. So I wonder whether the elevated period is just very superficial pride. But like ‘real’ love, the deepest satisfaction is when you don’t always notice it, but it continues to be there, whether you are aware of it or not.

    In short this article really made me think.

    Thanks so much Sheryl

    • Thank you for sharing these reflections, Zoe. Yes, when you’re truly filled up from the inside and live from a solid sense of who you are, you don’t waver from confidence to self-doubting. The pendulum swings are reflective of the unsteady place inside that feels “confident” when you’re doing “well” in outer life and self-doubting when someone or something external brings you down. True self-worth is basically an unwavering, steady state (with perhaps minor ripples along the surface of your inner sea).

  • jamie

    This came at exactly the right time for me. I have suffered with imposter syndrome for my whole life, and today, reading your article, can finally pinpoint that this is what I’m dealing with. I first heard about imposter syndrome in graudate school about 8 years ago, when we discussed it in a class, regarding women in academic positions. This has played out in my entire life, most recently my wanting to move to a larger city where I feel happy with the culture, I think there would be career opportunities and potential partners, whereas I’m trying to please my family (mother especially) to move to a city the complete opposite of what I feel called to do, because “it’s what people your age do!” (I’m 31 and single.) So I never want to rock the boat, and she and I have been having the same arguments over and over for years. it’s a lonely experience, because as a child, she’s the one that praised me for doing everything right, especially as it came to academics. This imposter syndrome has also shown up in romantic relationships, as I could never feel comfortable committing to one guy, and I always thought “why is he with me, when there are so many other more amazing women he could be with?” Thank you for sharing this wonderful post.

    • Yes, having a mother who praised you for achievements commonly leads to imposter syndrome. And apparently women in academic and high-career positions commonly suffer from this as well, so I’m not surprised you learned about it in graduate school.

  • Ashley

    Sheryl,
    Your blogs have been a life saver over the past few months for me. Finally someone GETS ME! I want to join the Trust yourself program, but I know I can’t put my full attention to it as I’m getting married mid August! I will stay tuned for the next one because this is something I’ve needed to work on for so long. Just finding your blog and reading it has allowed me to start down a better path! Thank you!

  • Angela

    My beautiful Sheryl, what a important and inspiring read. What has helped stop my intrusive thoughts is breathe just breathe.. Your wise and helpful advice and journaling is a must for me also. It helps that i like to write candidly and spontaneously of what i feel and whats happening in my days. Thats who I am .. I am Spontaneous always have been

  • Rita

    Perfect-and SO TRUE. I’d like to recommend the book “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. It has, in addition to finding your work Sheryl, been an epiphany for me. I believe it’s insights help us sensitive, perfectionist types to shift our mindset to a healthier way of being. Thank you for all you do. Much love
    Rita

  • Anne

    I can’t wait to begin the course! Almost every time I read one of your posts, I feel like it’s written for me. You have NO IDEA how much your work has already transformed my life and how it positively influences my interactions with my family.

    Do you have insights or resources on how to help very small children honor their sense of self?

    • I’m so glad you’ll be joining us, Anne. The best way to help small children honor their sense of self is to model it yourself. Second to that, it’s doing everything you can to honor their rhythm, needs, and preferences without interjecting what you think is best (except when it’s appropriate to do so). You’ll learn a lot more about this throughout the course.

  • Lauren

    Sheryl,
    Since November of last year, your blog has been a great help to me. I have been struggling with intrusive thoughts about my relationship since then, and really feel as if I’ve reached my breaking point. I have done enough inner work to realize the thoughts are not about him, but about me… Yet they still frequently take over and consume me and I just feel lost. I haven’t ended the relationship but I feel like it’s the only way out of all of this.
    Would this program be for me? As I said, I have done much inner work but clearly I’m not doing something right. I think I’ve found the core, I think I’ve figured it out… I’ll have a few days of peace, and then the thoughts come back stronger. I haven’t eaten in two days and yesterday worked myself up to the point of becoming sick. I’m desperate for help.

  • Angela

    This round of trust yourself program the same as the last one I wisely chose to participate in? I am still going through the last one,, I am making a commitment to listen to it everyday. Your voice is so soothing Sheryl, your so inspiring to me. I feel such a connection that it doesn’t feel like I’m not forcing myself to change my old external mental habits. I am willingly and ready to find my true core self, my North Star. I feel one day I will find it. And you my dear friend will be the first person to know

    • Yes, Angela, it’s the same course. And I’m offering a discount for Trust Yourself graduates who would like to go through the course again and receive my guidance, as this will be last time I’m offering it as a live course. You should have received the discount code this morning via email.

  • Kim

    Hi Sheryl,
    I’m not sure if the Trust Yourself course would be appropriate for me – right now I’m REALLY struggling with feeling like I SHOULD be doing more and that every time I get an idea for something I ‘should’ do I need to pursue it. It’s this constant feeling like I’m not amounting to much or that everyone around me is doing so many awesome things except myself. I recently left my job of almost 8 years as a Nutritionist @ WIC to move to Ireland for 6 months with my fiance. Your work helped me get the place that I am now (engaged!!!). My fiance is absolutely fine with me taking care of the apt, cooking meals, and just hanging out. The problem is all this free time has my mind going in circles – should I do this, should I do that, am I wasting my time, etc, etc, etc. I just can’t learn to relax. I read recently that happiness starts from within – if you can’t cater to yourself and your needs you’ll never really be happy. I just don’t understand why I feel so much pressure to constantly be striving for more – why can’t I just be content ‘being’. And why do I always feel like a failure. Thanks Sheryl <3

    • The course would be ideal for you, Kim, as one of the foundational principles of the course is learning how to connect to being. The doing arises from the being, so if you don’t have that strong core of being, the doing will feel empty and meaningless.

  • Beautifully described.

    Myers Briggs can be a useful starting point for looking at true essential qualities in ourselves (as the ‘functionalities’ in this system are considered part of our ‘wiring’ rather than learned or environmental traits). This is especially true if you find you are one of the rarer types (which sometimes can intensify feelings of outsider-ness. Being an HSP in itself puts us in a minority which unless owned, can undermine our sense of reality and belonging.) Once these traits are claimed as inherent and unique to each of us – and therefore beautiful – everything shifts.

  • H

    Hi sheryl,

    I went on vacation with my boyfriend two months ago and everything was amazing and k was so sure he was the one, and very excited for our future together. But when we got back but I started to feel scared about the thought of marriage and moving in with each other. I couldn’t stop thinking what if he’s not the one? What if you don’t love him anymore? What if you move in and break up? What if you let him down and disappoint him? Etc etc. is this actually fear? I get a fluttering of love feelings every now and then but not all the time. But when I do feel those feelings I feel better because I know everything is okay. I also journal and write down when o felt those feelings of love so if I have a day when I’m having doubts then I look back and see that is was only a couple of days before that when o felt love so then I know it’s not the relationship it’s me. But I am so terrified of moving in with each other in case we don’t make it to marriage etc, it’s such a risk and I’m more worried about my feelings changing than his! But when I’m not excited or scared of moving in and buying house hold stuff I begin to panic again because I think that perhaps I should be feeling excited?? I don’t know, I’m just so scared that I can’t seem to enjoy the present moment much.

    I was just wondering what you thought really?

    Best wishes

    H

  • Rachel

    Wow Sheryl, you have just described me!

    All my life I have achieved things but always put them down to luck or some other external reason. I am scared of failure and after the end of a seven year relationship, I am scared of another one going wrong. I felt like a failure when we split.

    But now I have met an amazing man who is everything that I have ever wanted and we are now moving in together in January.

    I don’t know how I would have got through the horrific three months of anxiety I had without this blog. I am not quite there yet, but most of the anxiety has abated and I am now clear headed and able to enjoy the moments I spend with my partner! Thank you so much!

  • Stillwaters

    I find I am the opposite. I so easily take on other people’s thoughts and ideas that I often don’t know what is mine and what is theirs. It can happen in an instant and means I lose track of my own thoughts during an argument because I’m so open to absorbing other people’s ideas. I am very prone to this and am discovering just how little self confidence I actually have. I’m in a transition where I feel like the old me has gone but the new has not yet arrived, I just feel totally unsure of myself. It’s a weird place to be. But I guess a I come to realise that I am loved, the real me will gradually emerge.

    • This is such a common experience, Stillwaters: absorbing other’s thoughts to the point where you don’t know where you end and they begin. Knowing what I know about you, however, I have no doubt that, with time, you will be able to touch down more and more into your true and confident self.

  • Angela

    Sheryl, I know people that actually look like there so confident in themselves they think there high achievers and want there kids to be high achievers. They always say things like that are so positive everything is great. Please dont get me wrong I am not at all envious because having it all together all the time and being happy all the time is not life. These type of people are the ones that thrive of reputation and worry what people think. They dont want to fail, thats a hard image to maintain. We all fail and its ok we all mistakes and its ok. Those type of people i only worked with. My real friends are simple, genuine honest about how they really feel. I dont like fake people. Im so glad im not fake at all. I love who I am. I just need to find my north star and i will grow into a even more humble woman.

  • Stillwaters

    Thanks Sheryl. The reason I put that comment on here is because I totally lost sight of myself when I was engaged. I could not find anything inside on which to base my decision. One second it was Yes the next No. It became too traumatic for both of us. We had to break it off. It’s as if I could find no solid ground in myself on which to make a decision and being that close to someone seemed to just obscure my own thoughts and ability to discern what I really wanted. I totally lost my bearings. I just don’t seem to know and I think a great factor is this sense of self doubt which I’m discovering in myself. I just don’t seem to be able to get in touch with what I really want. And I thought that all related to your course. Right now, I’m completely perplexed at why it was so hard and so traumatic, yet she is such a wonderful woman.

  • Mary

    Can you also experience this syndrome during your relationship anxiety? I Otten have the thoughts and feeling that I am just a fraude and fooling everything and everybody including myself. When I am doing well I am relieved, but I do not assign it to my hard work of the last time. And when it’s going worse I talk the good times down, like: I am just making it up and exaggerating it. Or at other times I think that I am just fooling everybody with my anxiety, while I am really just over my relationship and should move on like ‘ real’ people do.
    I can’t let these thoughts go, but i can’t let go of my relationship either, while thinking about literally everything my only clear and dominant thought is that I can’t imagine life without HIM and that I don’t want to imagine life without him…

    thank you for your great blog

  • Scared

    Do you think that maybe we set ourselves up? Believe that we can’t love someone so we don’t? Like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was fine with my boyfriend, thought that I actually cared deeply for him, but questioned why there was no passion and came to believe that I don’t care for him anymore.

  • Stef

    Hi sheryl,

    Just wanted to say that your website has really helped me since finding it a week ago.
    I have been in a relationship with another women for 3 and a half years now and have struggled with anxiety for almost 2 of those years.
    We had a great ‘honeymoon period’ until I was anxious about her leaving me or cheating on me or finding someone who is more fun than me. It’s now turned into anxiety regarding me to not loving her enough, or her not being the right person, or if I’m with her because I can’t be alone or the biggest trigger ‘if I’m not actually attracted to girls and only convinced myself to be with her regardless of her gender only because i liked the attention’. The list goes on of intrusive thoughts and feelings that have crippled me for the past few years.
    Lately my thoughts have been based around if I might have separation anxiety. I find that some days I’ll have the anxiety around if she’s going to leave me and other days it will be the opposite as to if I want to leave her.
    For example today she said she was going to go out with her friends for a going away party of one of her friends. I have work early so I need to rest and am unable to go. This spiked my anxious thoughts about not wanting her to be away from
    Me or going out without me there.
    This makes me feel like I have an anxiety about being away from her and then gives me thoughts that maybe I’m only with her because I have this seperate on anxiety and don’t want to be alone.
    I am not an attached person usually. I am not attached to my parents and can be totally fine if I don’t see them for a few days. I have been a traveller in my life so far and have been away for months at a time and never had any problems what so ever with these feelings before.
    This girl is my first serious relationship, which also sometimes triggers me because I can feel at times like I haven’t tried enough to explore other people and so on. But because she is my first it makes it hard for me to know what’s real about my anxieties because I don’t have any other serious relationships to compare it to..
    It’s so confusing to go through because the thoughts change every day and don’t stop. Your website has been a great help in easing my stress but of course it is still there..
    I sturggle with trying to look into the anxiety because it is so up and down and I can never pin point what it’s trying to tell me because it goes from one extreme to the other..
    I wonder if anyone else is in this confusing place.. I get the feeling I’m not alone.
    Regardless, thanks for having this website and updating your blog regularly! It’s a great help!

    Stef xx