For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write something about Impostor Syndrome, and — more than a little ironically — what’s stopped me up until now was the thought:
“I’m not even a qualified psychotherapist or a psychiatrist, why would anyone care what I have to say about the subject?”
And when a particular subject or theme reoccurs repeatedly in my client-work and in my own life, I have an idea this means I have something I want to say about it. So here’s what I want to say.
I imagine I’ve been dimly aware of the meaning of ‘Impostor Syndrome’ for most of my adult life, so I surprised myself when I Googled the origin of the term and discovered it was only officially coined in 1978 by Dr Pauline R. Clance in an article she wrote entitled “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. Her later book ‘The Impostor Phenomenon’ I judge to be an excellent pragmatic and comprehensive one, full of interesting case studies and examples of interventions she has found helpful. It also includes — at the start — a useful scoring system for figuring out just how badly you yourself might suffer from IS.
According to Dr. Clance: “if the score is between 41 and 60, the respondent has moderate IP experiences; a score between 61 and 80 means the respondent frequently has Impostor feelings; and a score higher than 80 means the respondent often has intense IP experiences.”
When I took this test for the very first time, I scored 91.
It probably won’t surprise you then to know that Impostor Syndrome has affected me for most of my life, although for the longest time I called it lots of other things. I think I told my first therapist that I suffered from ‘an intense doubt in my own abilities’, despite all the evidence that I was actually pretty capable of most things I tried.
I told him that I was continuously filled with a dread of being discovered to be somehow less than I was, and so I constantly lied to convince others I was smarter, better informed, that there was no single subject I didn’t know at least a little about. I talked about my desperate need to please people, avoid conflict, how I had told outrageous lies to clients, friends, family just to avoid the possibility of disappointing or angering them. I had spent over a decade picking apart my own behaviour and journaling about my thoughts at this point, and saw my problem — very simply — as a chronic need to be liked and to avoid conflict.
And although we discussed my habitual lying and fear of being ‘found out’, I’m fairly sure he never suggested to me that all of this behaviour could be lumped together under one big umbrella term: Impostor Syndrome. It wasn’t until a good friend, who I’d talked very honestly and openly with at length about my issues, personally identified with something I’d said and replied in an email -
“I think maybe, possibly — going out on a limb here — maybe you’re someone who was taught that for you to be worthy of love, any semblance of love or worthiness, you must be the wisest, bravest, kindest, cleverest, most talented girl that ever lived, and if you’re not, then you’re not good enough.”
And something in me felt like it broke open. My chest started to ache and I started to shake and cry, because that is exactly what I believed, what I had always believed, and what I now saw was how I had been hurting myself for so long.
I simply did not believe that the ‘real me’ was worth a damn, or that anyone could love me if I showed who I really was.
One of my favourite parts of our Radical Honesty Workshops is at the start when — during the introductions — the person introducing themselves reveals the “something you don’t want people to know about you”. The first time I attended an RH workshop in 2014 I knew this question was coming, because like a very smart girl I’d read up about it so I wouldn’t be surprised by anything and risk ending up looking stupid.
As we went around the circle introducing ourselves though, I began to make myself more and more uncomfortable. I knew that, if I genuinely wanted to be “radically honest”, I had to tell the group something that was really hard for me to reveal. And yet — at the same time — my chronic Impostor Syndrome was also telling me that the revelation had to be something brave or funny or clever, something that made everyone else in the room say “wow” and instantly warm to me.
Then suddenly in the middle of my inner turmoil, a thought popped into my head. Something that I instantly judged would be a totally disastrous thing to say and was — in my experience at least — the most unattractive, awful, self-important arrogant thing I could say, and so without allowing myself time to change my mind, I just said it:
“I think Radical Honesty is a terrible book. I think it’s really badly written and disjointed and confusing, and…I imagine I could have done a much better job.”
My face was burning with heat, and my arms and legs shook. I looked down at the floor, and then forced myself to look up again. Brad Blanton — author of Radical Honesty and our workshop leader — was looking at me at the time, and grinned wolfishly, and I had a sudden thought that he must really detest me.
“What do you feel in your body right now?” he said.
“Very hot in my face. Shaking in my arms and legs. My throat is very tight, and I feel tears in my eyes. And I imagine that you hate me, and think I’m arrogant.”
Brad grinned wider,
“Any other imaginings?”
“I imagine everyone hates me right now. I imagine everyone is thinking I’m an arrogant prick and that I’m full of shit.”
“Well, why don’t you look around the room and pick someone and ask them?”
I looked around the room at people’s faces, and to my surprise most people were smiling at me, some were even grinning like Brad. I picked someone who I judged was looking at me more seriously, and I said:
“Do you judge me as arrogant for saying I could do a much better job?”
And the guy shook his head and laughed,
“No, I think that’s funny. I judge it’s a pretty confusing book too.”
And suddenly I felt all the tension in my throat leave. I felt warmth in my chest, my hands stopped shaking, I felt loose-limbed and like my skin was buzzing. The thought came into my head ‘I told everyone this ugly arrogant thought and no-one hates me, I always thought they would hate me’ and I started to laugh.
“Well, I think it’s pretty good. I mean, I sold a bunch of copies,” Brad grinned at me kindly when I finally stopped laughing, “But maybe…I’ll ask you to help me edit the next one when I write it!”
Revealing myself to be (sometimes) an arrogant self-important prick, was maybe the worst thing I could think of at that time in 2014, but since then I’m happy to say that I’ve found — and am still finding — many new ways in which to reveal myself to be anything but the ‘cleverest, most-talented girl alive’. Catching myself in a self-aggrandising lie or a lie designed to make me seem wiser, more well-read or more experienced is still a fairly common occurrence, but it’s not one I experience the same anguished, unpleasant sensations around any more.
More often than not, I remember our “top dog/bottom dog” workshop exercise, in which we suggest that the third chair — the observer — is where the real power lies, and instead of having a judgement about my lies I grin at myself inwardly, and think “oh there I go again, trying to be all impressive and shit”. And out loud I say something like: “that was bullshit and actually I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about” which — instead of the outrage and rejection I always used to expect — normally elicits delight and surprise as well as (I like to imagine anyway) an almost immediate sense of warm connection.
Because that was me just then.
Revealing myself to you as a total bullshit artist.
And I have a story that — deep down — that’s something we can almost all identify with sometimes.
Law Turley is a BACP Registered Integrative Therapist and Certified Radical Honesty Trainer living and working in the south west of the UK.