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4 Deep and Lasting Ways to Alleviate Imposter Syndrome

Don't let insecurities hold you back.

Key points

  • Naming both sides of the conflict helps loosen the grip of imposter syndrome.
  • Naming your underlying core emotions can alleviate some anxiety and clarify the experience.
  • Giving compassion to yourself softens physical tension.
 Prateek Katyal/Pexels
Source: Prateek Katyal/Pexels

Imposter syndrome,” or feeling like a fraud, is a common experience. It’s a form of insecurity and a natural part of being human.

The tendency when we feel like a fraud is to avoid doing what we feel insecure about. In the short run, avoidance helps us feel calmer. In the long run, however, we don’t want a negative belief to stop us from trying new things that enrich our life.

My training as an accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapist has taught me three ways to effectively loosen the grip of imposter syndrome:

  1. Make room for the part of you that feels like an imposter and the part of you that feels valid.
  2. Get to know your imposter part.
  3. Find, validate, and tend to the underlying core emotions triggered by the circumstances that make you feel like an imposter, like fear, for example. The Change Triangle is a great tool to understand emotions. I use it myself and teach it to all my patients.
  4. Relate to your imposter part and your emotions with unwavering compassion and love, like a good parent relates to their scared and insecure child.

Below is a little more instruction on each of the four suggestions.

Making Room for the Conflict

Our mind is made up of multiple parts that hold varied thoughts, feelings, and memories. I use the word “part” to refer to a discrete aspect of our experience.

For example:

  • A part can refer to each side of a conflict. For example, A part of me was afraid, and a part of me was excited.
  • A part can also refer to a childhood experience that lives on in the brain as a memory or as a trauma. For example, A part of me feels 10 years old.
  • A part can be an emotion, belief, image, or thought. For example, A part of me believes I am the worst, and another part of me feels I am superior to everyone. Or, A part of me believes I am an imposter, and another part of me knows I am experienced.

Imagine you and I are together in my office. I remind you we are not here to judge you, merely to support you and help you get to know yourself. I encourage you to suspend judgments of yourself and to relate to yourself with curiosity and as much compassion as you can muster. You tell me you feel like a fraud. And I say, tell me why you are a fraud.

Can you write what makes you think you are a fraud here?:

___________________________________________________________

___________________________________________________________

Now, I ask you, “Does any other part of you feel differently? (Even if it is only a tiny part of you.)

Write all the evidence you are not a fraud here:

___________________________________________________________

___________________________________________________________

Can you imagine holding or visualizing both of these parts of you in your mind and body? Imagine space in between the parts as you hold them together in your mind.

Congratulations! You are holding a conflict in your mind. That's an accomplishment.

Just notice what that is like. Does it feel better? Worse? Just validate your experience.

Getting to Know Your Imposter Part

With some practice, we can gain awareness and talk directly with the imposter part of us.

Can you bring up your last memory of feeling like a fraud? Just let whatever images come without questioning their validity. Some people are not so visual, so they struggle to imagine parts of themselves. That’s fine! Working with emotions and feelings is a very creative endeavor. Another approach is to notice where in your body you feel the imposter syndrome. I feel it as anxiety in my core. My whole torso feels like it is vibrating and there is no solid ground underneath my feet.

Where do you feel your imposter syndrome physically?

___________________________________________________________

Now imagine talking to that part of you, whether you see a visual image or just sense that part inside. Ask it some questions:

  • When was the first time you felt like an imposter?
  • How old were you?
  • What was happening at the time?
  • Who was there to help you feel better?
  • How did you get the idea that you were an imposter—was there actual evidence or just a feeling?
  • Does the imposter part feel young like a child or like an adult?
  • If the part of you that feels like a fraud had an image, what would it look like?

For example, when Nicole, a successful coach, thinks about public speaking, she panics and thinks Who am I to coach others? I don’t really know anything. What if people find out I don’t know what I am doing?

Imagining this part of herself, she saw an image of herself as a little girl. The little girl was small in stature and overwhelmed by fear. A memory came up from childhood when she had to recite a poem in front of the class and she forgot her words.

Once we get some sense of that part, we can communicate with it. Yes, I am suggesting talking to yourself (not out loud), and even more so. We can connect deeply with our imposter part. We can give it compassion, love, and kindness and talk to it like a loving parent would talk to a scared child. Judging or being harsh to insecure parts of us only makes them feel worse and get stronger. We want to create a safe space to reflect on our vulnerabilities just like we would do if we were talking to an upset child.

Naming and Validating Your Emotions

When we validate our emotions, we feel better. We have two main categories of emotions. We have inhibitory emotions, namely anxiety, shame, and guilt. Under those lie our core emotions of sadness, fear, anger, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement.

When you feel like a fraud, try validating all the emotions you notice that go with your imposter syndrome. Let’s use Nicole from above as an example. She validated that she was scared to do her presentation. She was also happy that she was asked. She was also angry that she didn’t have more support from her family.

Think about a time when you felt like a fraud and see if you can name all the core emotions that go with that feeling. There can be more than one. They can also be conflicting emotions happening at the same time like fear and excitement.

Just putting words on emotions helps us relax.

We can listen to what the feelings are telling us and then think through actions we should take on our behalf. For example, if you feel scared, ask your fear, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Then listen and see if that could really happen. For example, Nicole’s fear told her that someone might humiliate her by standing up and saying, You don’t know what you’re talking about! Once she said that out loud, she realized nobody would be that rude. But I helped her plan a response to her worst fear to prepare just in case.

Giving Your Insecure Parts Compassion and Love

Offering compassion to ourselves when we feel fraudulent helps us feel better. But, for many of us, compassion doesn’t come easily, especially if we were treated harshly as a child.

Compassion immediately softens tension. So, let’s try it. First access a loving, compassionate part of yourself. You can do this by remembering how you lovingly cared for an animal, child, aging parent, or good friend. From this loving, calm, and compassionate part of you, try to see, feel, and connect deeply with your imposter-feeling part. Give it compassion with a warm look, kind words, a hug, or anything else that feels right for you. Judging or being harsh to insecure parts of us only makes us feel worse. We want to create a safe space to reflect on our vulnerabilities just like we would do if we were talking to an upset child.

Feeling like a fraud is natural and human. It’s how we validate, work with, and deal with those parts that makes a real difference. The definition of true courage is doing something we fear. Be with your fears, give compassion to your insecure parts, and go out there and make it happen anyway!

References

Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books

Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working The Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House

Schwartz, R. & Sweezy, M. (2020) Internal Family Systems Therapy 2nd Edition. New York: The Guilford Press

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