“No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point when you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’” – Actor Tom Hanks (NPR, April 26, 2016)
“No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point when you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’”
Have you ever felt like a phony? In spite of the fact that you have achieved something and received recognition, you don’t feel that you deserve it.
Like actor Tom Hanks, many people have felt like a phony at some time in their lives. According to a scientific review published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (April 2020), at least 70% of Americans have experienced this feeling.
The phenomenon, called the “impostor syndrome,” was coined by psychologists P.R. Clance and S.A. Imes in 1978 (Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice). It can be described as an internal psychological experience of feeling like a phony in some area of your life, despite any success you have achieved in that area. There is a disconnect between how others see the person’s achievements and how the person views these achievements.
In my clinical practice, I have seen that many of these individuals suffer from low self-esteem and/or a deep narcissistic emotional wound, which has resulted in the person’s perception that he/she is not worthy or worthy enough to be given the recognition that he/she has received.
Jon, a highly successful hi-tech marketing executive, turned to therapy because he felt undeserving of the recognition he received at work and was unable to take pride in his accomplishments. As a child, Jon never received any praise from his father. In fact, his narcissistic father was competitive with Jon and often minimized the value of any of Jon’s achievements. In spite of these negative messages, Jon was an excellent student in school and excelled in his army service and academic studies.
However, despite his many successes, there was a deep emotional wound that Jon carried within him throughout his life. No matter how much he succeeded, he could not feel pride. Unfortunately, Jon didn’t receive praise from his mother, either.
When Jon was promoted to a top management position in marketing, he became overwhelmed with repetitive bouts of anxiety and kept thinking that he would be found out to be a phony and then get fired. Jon became extremely self-critical as he struggled to learn the role demands in his new position.
While psychological insights helped Jon understand the etiology of his problem, it did little to help him change. In the psychotherapy field, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be the most efficacious treatment to help people overcome these issues.
CBT techniques to help Jon
1. Find the evidence.
CBT challenges the client to find the evidence to support negative beliefs like those that Jon was feeling. Did Jon have any proof that he did not deserve his promotion or that he was sure to fail at this new job promotion and be fired?
Actually, when Jon thought about it, he actually succeeded in climbing the ladder to get to this high position, with praise and great feedback. Why would this new position be any different? Examining the evidence gave Jon a more realistic view of himself and his success. People with impostor syndrome usually see themselves as failures. However, when challenged, the evidence does not support the negative assessment.
2. Be careful of perfectionistic goals.
People who think they will be found out to be a phony often expect perfectionistic performance from themselves so they can prove their value. Jon was coached to avoid this type of behavior. Instead, I helped Jon to focus on his successes. Maintaining a standard of perfectionism can compromise enjoying any positive accomplishment.
3. Share your feelings with a colleague you trust.
I encouraged Jon to share his impostor beliefs with a colleague he trusted or a friend in a similar industry. When you share your insecurities with trusted people, they can give people like Jon objective feedback. Actually, Jon had one friend who had a similar type of job at work. Jon opened up to him, and his friend reassured Jon that he was well received by the marketing team and that they believed in his abilities.
4. Remember and celebrate good feedback.
People who struggle with impostor feelings tend to brush off and minimize their successes. I told Jon that every time he gets a positive report from a colleague or manager, he should make a mental note of it. I strongly suggested that he keep a record on his computer or in a notebook so when those negative feelings arise, he could look at the evidence record to counter his automatic negative thoughts.
5. Visualization imagery.
I told Jon that one way to combat feeling like a phony was to visualize himself as successful in meeting the new demands of his new job. I instructed Jon to close his eyes and visualize himself as a successful person and to imagine his colleagues all patting him on the back and giving him lots of positive feedback and praise. In fact, Jon enjoyed the imagery technique very much. It relaxed him and gave him the feeling that he had some control over the way he saw himself with his work colleagues.
IN CONCLUSION, although feeling like an impostor or phony can happen to anyone, there are many psychological tools that are useful in overcoming these painful and lonely feelings.
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in Jerusalem and Ra’anana and also provides online video conferencing psychotherapy. [email protected]