The first time Brian remembers feeling like an imposter, he was in the third grade.
“That was the year we started getting letter grades instead of ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory,’” he tells Inverse.
When he got a B on a test for the first time, it was devastating for him. A teacher asked what was wrong; Brian said it was the B.
“He reassured me that I did well, and a B was a good grade,” Brian says. “My response was something like, ‘Yeah, ‘but a B isn’t as good as an A.’”
Brian has imposter syndrome. He’s now a 44-year-old living in Maryland (he requested Inverse use only his first name) and has worked hard since childhood to shake the feeling he isn’t quite good enough. Back then, it wasn’t just some schoolroom insecurity: It was the beginning of a life-long battle between who he is and how others perceive him and how he perceives himself.
James Marrugo, a therapist who works with high-achieving men to manage stress and anxiety due to work performance, tells Inverse imposter syndrome is a type of anxiety characterized by “fear regarding feeling inadequate about your own capabilities.”
Initially thought to affect women, there is now a mountain of evidence that men experience imposter syndrome just as much as women.
The research also suggests men are more likely to have more severe anxiety due to that feeling compared to women. A 2018 study suggests gender can “potentially exacerbate the negative effects” of feeling like an imposter at work.
It’s essential to understand and address the underlying causes of imposter syndrome, says David Reiss, who is a clinical psychologist and trauma expert, because it’s often a symptom of a more serious issue — low self-esteem.
Here’s how to know if you have imposter syndrome, what causes it, and the one question you need to ask yourself to start breaking free.
What is imposter syndrome?
First described by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, “imposter syndrome” is the name given to the feeling when a person, despite their objective successes, has persistent self-doubt and anxiety about being exposed as an “imposter.” They believe they are “unworthy” of their position and others’ positive perceptions.
It’s this core issue that demands attention, Reiss says, because “low self-esteem can, in a vicious cycle, engender increased anxiety and depression.”
For Brian, alcohol played a starring role in that vicious cycle. When his imposter syndrome was at its worst, Brian self-medicated with booze. His problem with drinking really took off in his 30s, he recalls.
“My drinking got worse in my 30s due to increasing job responsibilities and the resulting stress,” he says. Hangovers started to affect the quality of his work, which only made him feel like even more of an imposter — exacerbating the issue.
Common signs of imposter syndrome
Because the root causes of imposter syndrome can be complex, different people might experience the sensation differently. But most people share similar underlying feelings of inadequacy.
Marrugo says common fears associated with imposter syndrome are:
- Fear of not being good enough for a job or task
- Fear of failure
- Fear of some loss (loss of income, employment, relationships)
Who is most vulnerable to imposter syndrome?
High-achievers are often most susceptible to imposter syndrome, Marrugo says. But that isn’t the only factor at play.
“Groups that are vulnerable to overt or covert system social degradation, withholding of acknowledgment, or opportunity are more likely to develop issues and conflicts regarding self-esteem,” Reiss explains.
“Do I have a reasonably objective view of myself and my abilities?”
Depression, anxiety, and imposter syndrome — Research suggests people who have depression and anxiety are particularly vulnerable to imposter syndrome. Indeed, Brian sees his self-esteem problems as a “manifestation” of other mental health conditions.
But how Brian learned to deal with those feelings didn’t help. Raised in a blue-collar family in the 1970s and 1980s, Brian says he was “absolutely raised to keep a stiff upper lip, keep your problems to yourself, and don’t ask for help.”
Brian’s belief that he had to swallow his problems tracks with Reiss’s professional experience.
“Issues of anxiety and depression may arise from personal family issues like trauma, social pressures, [and] biological susceptibility to emotional instability,” Reiss says.
“Any one of those situations may lead to the experience that we call imposter syndrome.”
How to deal with imposter syndrome
Reiss says the most critical question someone who feels like an imposter has to ask themselves is this:
“Do I have a reasonably objective view of myself and my abilities?”
Once you ask yourself this question, next turn to a trusted friend, family member, mentor, spiritual adviser, or therapist to fact check whether your perception of yourself is in line with reality.
Marrugo agrees with Reiss: It’s vital someone not “bottle up” how they’re feeling.
“Talk to someone who supports you and when needed, seek out professional help,” he says.
Jim Michaels — a 28-year-old in Illinois— says checking in with friends helped him with his imposter syndrome. He asks his closest friends to give him an “honest read on my thoughts and feelings.”
What causes imposter syndrome?
While talking to a friend about one’s self-perception can mitigate imposter syndrome, Reiss stresses the importance of working on the root cause of the problem.
“A person might be able to learn to suppress their low self-esteem in certain situations, but if they stop at that point, they are likely to avoid identifying more deep-seated conflicts,” he says.
Reiss believes a more holistic and effective approach to tackling imposter syndrome is to explore the underlying issues in therapy — whether be they anxiety, depression, or other issues that affect self-esteem.
“Those issues are more likely to be ameliorated or resolved by a full understanding of the basis for low self-esteem,” he says. “There is no one specific treatment approach or modality, nor one specific corrective action that might be effective.”
Brian has been in therapy for 15 years. He’s learned strategies for combating “the negative voices” and how to ask for help. But ultimately, “the most helpful thing has been honesty,” he says.
“I’m upfront with everyone regarding my mental health and sobriety, and I’m better at telling myself that my expectations aren’t the same as everyone else’s,” he says.
Imposter syndrome can cause immense distress, but there may be a silver lining to it. Unlike other mood disorders symptoms like lethargy or the inability to enjoy pleasurable activities, distress is hard to ignore. If you feel like you aren’t good enough, take it as a sign that you need to talk to someone who can offer you guidance, support, and a more balanced perspective.
DETOX is an Inverse series that answers the biggest questions about men’s mental health.
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