The imposter life-trap

If you feel like you are an imposter, despite your successes in life, you are not alone, says Iain McCormack.

Feeling like you are an imposter, despite your successes in life, is a surprisingly frequent life-trap that is most commonly found in high achieving women, according to researcher and psychologist Pauline Rose Clance.

Despite a history of academic and professional success these people express the view that they are not bright enough for their current job level and have fooled everyone who thinks otherwise.

This life-trap syndrome is a long-standing repetitive pattern of unhelpful behaviour that is hard to shake.

Often the “imposters” have one of several different patterns of family, school and work history.

The first group often has a sibling whose family thinks is very bright. The “imposter” on the other hand is told that she is sensitive or socially skilled or something similar and, by implication, not very bright.

The person is torn between believing the family myth or disproving it. So she typically works hard at school, university and in her profession, so achieving a great deal, in the hope that this will prove the myth wrong.

However this does not happen as the family continues to celebrate the success of the other sibling and to reinforce the “imposter’s” other qualities.

So the person tries harder but is never able to disprove the family myth and so the life-trap is set.

At work the person is given lots of praise but is often suspicious about their manager’s motives or simply feels that it is overstated.

In the second family dynamic the person is told that she is bright, attractive, talented and has a wonderful personality. She is often told stories about how early she achieved developmental milestones such as walking and talking.

In the family’s eyes she is almost perfect. At school she typically does well but realises that success takes hard work.

This raises important doubts in her mind about just how perfect she really is, after all. These doubts can grow into a belief that she must be an imposter.
As life continues the individual can unknowingly reinforce the life-trap.

A typical response to the trap is to become even more diligent and hard working, driven by the fear of being found out.

This leads to success and temporary positive feelings but it is always tinged by doubt and the odious confirmation of being an imposter.

The life-trap can often be reinforced by the person developing a friendliness and charm that helps her to readily win over teachers and managers.

At university the person will be very keen to work in the professor’s favourite research area and at work she will take on projects that make her manager look good.
She will use both her ability and charm to outwardly succeed but inwardly these victories will be hollow.

What to do
So what can an individual do to start to counter this life-trap? The place to start is to realise that this is very difficult to deal with alone – the person will need assistance from a very good friend, a mentor, coach or psychologist.

The reason for this is that the life-trap is self-reinforcing as success leads to a greater confirmation of being an “imposter” which leads to trying harder, more success, more doubt and so on.

The next step is a brutally honest and objective assessment of whether the feelings of failure are accurate or distorted.

The individual with the life-trap will typically struggle to accept the objective assessment of their friend or coach. Often it can take months to digest the reality and self-doubts will almost certainly spring up in times of stress or anxiety.

However without an objective understanding of the reality of the life-trap, progress is very limited.

Next the person needs to get in touch with the child inside and the sense of failure, hurt and deception.

This can best be done by trying to recall memories of the pseudo praise for being sensitive or of the unrealistic levels of praise for being perfect.

A very good sign at this stage is if the person, in a private safe environment with the support of a friend or coach, can experience these memories and feel the anger and sadness that the unintentional family dynamics have caused.

Writing a series of ‘never to be sent’ letters to the parents, teachers or managers who reinforced the life-trap can be very cathartic.

Sometimes the parents, teachers or managers can be talked to directly although this takes a lot of courage and the information is often met with flat denial.

If the parent or teacher is no longer around then get a photo of them and tell the person how you feel. The confrontation with this pain is an essential part of healing.

After this the “imposter” is typically ready to undertake a more accurate assessment of her talents, abilities and accomplishments. Again it will take a good friend or a mentor to help provide an accurate and balanced view in this area.

Making a list of your talents and achievements can be a very useful exercise. This step will continue the process of changing the mindset of the “imposter”.

Next it can be very helpful to write a personal history starting from the very beginning. This can include a description of the early days, primary and secondary school, university and work.

The aim is to write it without any review or censorship in order to get the essential raw facts down on paper.

Useful questions to ask are:

  • How did my parents, teacher and managers deal with my successes and failures?
  • Did I learn to avoid tasks that challenged others’ views of my success?

Then step back and look for the patterns in your personal history.

  • What happened to you time and time again?
  • How did you deal with it?
  • What were the reactions of the other important people in your life?

Very often a strong pattern of escape from the pain of imperfection will emerge. The “imposter” will believe that the way to escape from the possibility of not being good enough is to bury the feelings and work harder – over and over again.

Once the recurring pattern has been identified it is critical to develop a plan to change it. A key step is to face the tendency to escape or avoid the pain and reality – perhaps doing something that is unimportant in a way that is not quite up to standard and telling others about it, is a good place to start.

Feeling what it is like to fail – even in a miniscule way is vital. Spending time several days a week letting go of the need to cover up imperfections is important.
Some people find that mindfulness meditation is helpful in experiencing these painful feelings but not pushing them away.

Many different approaches work and the art is finding the right combination for you. There will be setbacks. It will take time, support and persistence – but it can be done. The rewards of minimising the life-trap are huge.

To take an “Imposter Assessment” and to read more from a specialist in the area see: 

Dr Iain McCormick enables senior executives to experience fulfilment in their work life and he develops fun high-performance teams that people love to be part of.  

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