Thinking about the Impostor Phenomenon and the Inner Critic

A friend sent me a link to a Radio 4 programme today called ‘The Impostors’ Survival Guide’ which was a radio programme about ‘impostor syndrome’,  the feeling of being a fraud.  Impostor syndrome is the feeling of inadequacy or that you’re somehow just ‘faking it’ despite being successful at whatever it is you’re doing, and that one day someone’s going to find you out.  As they point out in the programme, it’s fairly common and most, if not all, people have experienced the feeling at some point in their lives.

In the programme, they used the impostor phenomenon almost interchangeably with the ‘inner critic’ which I found really interesting because of the way I’ve been trying to externalise critical thoughts recently and identify the ‘bitch in my head’ (see previous posts, particularly Inside my head…).  To me, the impostor phenomenon is separate to the inner critic- I see the bitch in my head as a bully who’s trying to make me feel bad by criticising me, manipulating my thoughts and emotions, imposing strict ‘rules’ to apparently protect me and making me feel guilty ALL THE TIME whereas the impostor syndrome seems to be more of a ‘delusional’ (not in the psychotic sense) belief that you are not good enough or that you don’t deserve the position you’re in, or your achievements.  It’s more of a generalised feeling I think or an insistent belief rather than a specific ‘voice’ which is how the inner critic feels to me.  I could be wrong though- everyone’s experience is different!  I found that I could only partially relate to the radio programme because all the people mentioned genuinely are successful or good at what they do but feel like a fraud or that they’re just “winging it” whereas I KNOW that I’m not successful and that I fail probably ten times more than I actually complete or succeed at anything and my only real ‘strength’ is that I’m relatively resilient and don’t easily give up or stop trying.  So I relate a lot more to the inner bully concept who’s definitely taken residence in my head and I’m trying to learn to acknowledge, accept, talk down and (hopefully, in the probably distant future) befriend at the moment…

I also found it really interesting how they linked the concept of the impostor phenomenon to perfectionism which is a separate issue but often crosses over.  In the programme, they defined two types of perfectionism- ‘normal’ perfectionism where people set high standards but feel pride or pleasure when they meet them or ‘maladaptive’ perfectionism where people also set high standards but don’t seem to get any sense of accomplishment or pride from reaching them and it’s the ‘maladaptive’ perfectionists who are most susceptible to the impostor phenomenon.  They go on to explain that the issue isn’t the perfectionism itself, it’s the “belief that they can do everything perfectly” and they talk about the feeling of shame that both perfectionists and people experiencing the impostor phenomenon feel when they see themselves as failing at something.  I found this really interesting- I tend to feel any intense negative feeling as ‘guilt’ but I’ve realised over the last couple of years that sometimes what I think is guilt is actually a form of empathy and it’s not impossible that guilt at failing at something could actually be shame (which I’ve always seen as the same thing but apparently they’re not?).  I’m not a perfectionist at all but I do experience guilt (or shame) very intensely when I don’t get something right, which is a lot of the time!  So maybe there’s a link in there somewhere…

The final part of the programme talked about how to manage the feelings of being a fraud and the bit I found most interesting was that they said that feelings are always the last thing to change, and that you have to change your thoughts (even if you don’t believe them) to be able to change how you feel.  I find challenging thoughts incredibly difficult, partly because I find it hard to accept something I don’t believe and partly because the bitch in my head is constantly reinforcing them, but I know the concept of thoughts triggering emotions is very powerful and can be really helpful for a lot of people.  I’m trying to find a way around it at the moment by reconceptualising the bitch in my head (aka inner critic) and seeing her as an external ‘person’ to try to accept that what she’s saying might not be totally accurate, and it’s the same concept in a different form.  I found the idea that emotions are the last thing to change weirdly reassuring because it’s intense emotions that I find hard to manage and maybe not always being able to deal with them directly isn’t a ‘failure’ and maybe working on/with the bitch in my head and how I react to or deal with what she says might eventually affect how I’m feeling.

Going to end with a DBT skill which I think is relevant to this- opposite action, which is where you act in a way that’s directly opposed to the behaviour you naturally want to use in response to an emotion, such as putting on upbeat music and dancing when you feel sad instead of hiding under a blanket or talking slowly and calmly when you’re angry instead of shouting or hitting things.  The opposite action for guilt and shame could be to stand tall, talk openly to people, speak in a strong and calm voice instead of hiding or avoiding the situation and I think this is really relevant to the impostor phenomenon.  The concept behind opposite action is that by acting on urges, you make them stronger and more intense but by acting opposite, you help to regulate them and maybe even neutralise them and I think this could work too with the feelings of inadequacy or being a fraud that are associated with the impostor syndrome.  Opposite action takes a while to get used to but it really can help!  From someone who’s just spent half an hour dancing around their bedroom to Disney after experiencing the usual 7pm mood crash… :p

[Link to the radio programme if anyone’s interested- The Impostors’ Survival Guide]


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