Case Studies: Feeling Like a Fraud–Imposter Syndrome
By Elyce Kiperman-Gordon, MS, LCMHC, NCC, owner of The Feeling Expert®, an evidence-based and holistic psychotherapy practice, located in Boca Raton. She is a Board Certified, licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, offering a range of therapeutic approaches to treat anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues. Elyce is an Internal Family Systems Specialist (IFS) and a Certified International Integral Sound Healing Therapist. She can be reached at (844) CAN-HEAL or Elyce@TheFeelingExpert.com.
Disclaimer: Names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Jessica, a divorce attorney in her fifties, came to me because she was having problems at work and in her personal life. She was constantly concerned about her performance, and couldn’t accept when others told her that she was doing well or complimented her. She recently started at a new firm, which added to her stress. She believed they had high expectations of her and was struggling to feel confident. As the stress increased, her beliefs about being unqualified for the position caused her to lose faith in her abilities. Anytime someone would compliment her on her work, she assumed that they were just saying that to make her feel better. She constantly worried that she would be exposed and that someone was going to call her out on it.
Jessica, a high achiever, has always set impossible standards for herself, so even when she received compliments from others, she couldn’t seem to believe them. She was routinely assigned a large number of cases at her firm and produced excellent results, but she became overwhelmed and feared that she would fail and unable to get through the workload and complete assignments. Her expectations of meeting the needs of her clients had become slim and she was putting a lot of pressure had on herself.
During our conversations, Jessica noted that she had negative feelings about herself, that she was never good enough, and that she felt guilty for taking this job because she had no idea what she was doing. She also shared that she always wants to help others, has people pleasing tendencies, and wants to be there for everyone. She was now feeling burned out, overworked, in a rut, and with no social life. She admitted she doesn’t have a boyfriend since she doesn’t have time. She tried dating, but she gets overwhelmed when it becomes too much for her and avoids dating entirely. She brought to my attention the fact that she was literally biting her nails down to the ground due to the stress and pressure she was experiencing.
The fears Jessica shared are hallmarks of imposter syndrome, which prevents her from feeling confident or recognizing her own abilities.
Negative thinking, self-doubt, and self-sabotaging one’s own successes are characteristic behaviors of those suffering from imposter syndrome. They often attribute any success they have achieved to luck or perfect timing. Imposter Syndrome is a self-perpetuated doubt and conflict about how you see yourself, despite academic and professional achievements and you feel undeserving of any type of success. Her beliefs about her abilities were not congruent with reality or with the thoughts and actions of those who believed in her. Her feelings of not feeling good enough stem from cognitive distortions and irrational thinking, which made her anxious and tense.
We began with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help her restructure her thinking and perspective of the world. The goal was to provide her with a current perspective of what was going on in her life so she could separate her feelings and emotions from the facts and why she had Imposter Syndrome. We worked on her ability to take note of her accomplishments, allowing her to measure them and change her perspective of herself and how others perceive her success more realistically.
We also explored the fundamental core beliefs she had about herself and the world. She shared moments in time during undergrad and law school, when she realized that every time she changed schools, she became very critical and hard on herself. Her core belief was that she needed to know everything or she was failing. Jessica started to compare herself to her classmates and saw herself as inferior to them. She allowed the anxious, self-critical stories to ruminate in her mind, and they became real to her. During her treatment, she recognized how her beliefs kept her trapped in that cycle, causing feelings of anxiety and being burdened, exhausted and burned out, and constantly question herself.
We used mindfulness strategies to help her become aware of her responses, so she could distinguish between when she actually had the experience and when it was a story she was telling herself. Jessica had to develop a new routine of challenging her thoughts and determining if any of what she perceived was true or if it was irrational thinking.
We also did exercises to teach her how to self-validate, become more aware of how she can create new perspectives on her experiences, and let go of her resistance to seeing other perspectives. For instance, when she “needed to know everything,” we were able to shift her awareness to see everything she was doing and accomplishing. This was an attempt to not limit her anxiety, but show her how to use it in a healthy way to provide her with the motivation she thrives on. To center herself and feel more grounded, I introduced breathing techniques she could that would help reduce her anxiety. The goal was to help her be aware of the reactions she was having and when her anxiety about a situation was approaching extreme levels, so she could regulate it and respond in a healthy way, especially if she was making a mistake.
By going to therapy every week, Jessica was able to recognize the patterns she had been using where she was doing too much. It allowed her to release some of the pressure she put on herself, and accept the praise and accolades from her peers. She can now move through tension and find ways to manage her anxiety when she feels it coming on, preventing it from becoming too intense. She still suffers from some effects of Imposter Syndrome but is learning to manage it and not let it debilitate her or hold her back.