By Melinda Lavine, Duluth News Tribune
Adelia Kindstrand is a full-time student. She’s made the dean’s list at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She’s scheduled to graduate with honors in December. While she’s doing well “on paper,” she has a nagging feeling her abilities aren’t valid.
“I feel like I’ve just found a way to fool everybody and that, at any time, people are going to figure out who I really am,” she said.
When she processes that, she knows it’s not true, but: “It’s very hard to feel that in the moment.”
Impostor phenomenon is something she’s struggled with for a long time. When she was introduced to the term in a social work class, the 31-year-old Beaver Bay woman was relieved her feelings had a name and to learn it was common.
Impostor phenomenon was first identified in the 1970s, and it affects 70 percent of men and women, said Dr. Ashley Thompson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
What distinguishes impostor phenomenon from general anxiety or insecurity is the idea that you are a fraud, that you don’t belong where you are and somehow you got the job or the accomplishment out of luck, deceit or because someone felt sorry for you.
While impostor phenomenon is not recognized by the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals in the U.S., Dr. David Plude said he does see impostor feelings in patients in the form of anxiety, low self-esteem and obsessive compulsive personality.
Some hallmarks of impostor phenomenon are perfectionism, performance-based self-esteem, minimizing successes and magnifying failures, said Plude, a licensed psychologist at Arrowhead Psychological Clinic in Duluth.
An example of perfectionism is taking several hours on a project that would take an average person an hour to complete. That might indicate the person could use encouragement to limit themselves, he said.
This can also be cyclical. Someone with impostor feelings may stress, overwork and achieve success, and as a result, can become superstitious about that process, thinking it necessary for achievement.
Impostor phenomenon can also be problematic when your self-worth is too strongly attached to 100 percent success. When you encounter failure or criticism, it can lead to more anxiety.
Additional mental health outcomes are depression, avoidance and even immobilization, Plude and Thompson said. Examples are not showing up for a speech at school or to a board meeting.
Avoidance indicates a person doesn’t have enough confidence in their ability to succeed, Plude said, and this can snowball. “When it really interferes with your ability to make it to work or keep a job, to stay in school, when it really interferes with your relationships, that’s when it’s at the problematic level,” he said.
Those affected with impostor syndrome are typically high-achievers, CEOS, leaders in academia and the community. It’s a phenomenon Thompson “constantly” sees on campus, she said.
For Kindstrand, sensing impostor feelings means taking action.
“I fear so much that I’m inadequate that I tend to overcompensate,” she said. “I have to be ready.” To accommodate, she’ll research topics at length to ensure she’s knowledgeable in case someone “calls her out.”
And when hard work comes to fruition in good grades or praise, Kindstrand will temper it with self-criticism, such as “I probably should’ve studied harder, and I just got lucky,” she said.
“It seems no amount of success or doing well seems to satisfy.”
While impostor phenomenon can lead to increased productivity and knowledge, it can lead to burnout and procrastination, Thompson said. If a person thinks they’re not worthy of being there, that can lead to decreased efforts and lessened productivity.
For Kindstrand, impostor feelings can help motivate her, she said, but it’s a double-edged sword.
“I push myself harder than I probably should which is both a blessing and a curse because it makes it very hard to have boundaries and …. I make things harder for myself,” she said.
One belief is impostor experience is part of the developmental process, Thompson said. Comparing is a learning tool, so it’s a natural progression when starting a new venture.
Also: “We don’t talk about how much effort we put into something, but we talk about how much we have achieved,” she said. This and social media can exacerbate comparing and inflame feelings of inadequacy or impostor experience.
Pam Solberg-Tapper agreed. We compare the best of someone else to the worst in ourselves, said the Duluth leadership coach. “Then self-judgment comes in and so we come up with these self-defeating thoughts. … and those negative judgments about ourselves.”
Solberg-Tapper of Coach for Success works with professionals of all levels in organizations in the Northland and across the U.S. Of impostor syndrome: “I see it all the time … no matter what level the person is in the company,” she said.
One cause is people look for external validation, she said, and when we don’t have evidence of what people think of us, we naturally make it up and it’s often not complimentary.
Kindstrand decided to address her feelings in therapy when positive feedback prompted fraudulent feelings at home and at school. Today, she focuses on self-care and being aware.
When impostor feelings pop up, she doesn’t respond by adding tasks, though it can be a struggle. “I seem to be addicted to the chaos,” she said. Before increasing commitments, she runs it past academic mentors and supervisors.
She also does mindfulness exercises and prioritizes spending time alone with her children and her husband. Her tips: “Give yourself as much love as you give others.” Open up and share with people who are safe and who care — and talk about it.
“Knowing that it had a name was healing,” she said. It helped to see she wasn’t alone.
“Having a sense of community … is a really important step,” said Thompson, who experienced impostor feelings early in her career — and even today: “It’s still something that plagues me,” she said.
Solutions can vary. Some suggest it will pass. In therapy, Plude works with patients to embrace their strengths, he said. It can help to focus on accomplishments big and small and how far you’ve come, Thompson said.
And not all parts of impostor experience are bad, they added.
On some level, feelings of doubt allow an openness to information and change, Thompson said.
Impostor feelings can create a chance to reflect and look at where you can learn and grow, said Solberg-Tapper (who tempers these feelings with “I ran a marathon in the North Pole. If I can do that, I can handle this”).
“If we look back at our lives, it’s those situations that were our biggest challenge, where we have the biggest fears or we had the self-doubt, and we worked with ourselves to move through it … those are the ones that we’re most proud of,” she said.