The Impostor Phenomenon #3: But Why Do I Have These Impostor Feelings?

By: Betty Bickers, LCSW Posted On Jul 26, 2017

Betty's Office 2.3:   "But Why Do I Have These Impostor Feelings?"

First of all, this isn't a blame game and it's not all your parents' fault.  This third article on the Impostor Phenomenon looks at how insecurity develops in many of us despite our parents' best efforts to instill in us "confidence".   Dr. Valerie Young, a psychologist who has written extensively on the Impostor Phenomenon, identifies that being raised by flawed humans is, in fact, the primary source of this inner insecurity.  

So it is your parents' fault, after all!  Family beliefs about achievement, success and failure are learned early in our childhoods.  These beliefs run deep and follow us into adulthood.  What is typical  in these family dynamics that undercut a child's confidence?

Way too much criticism and too little praise by parent figures may work for future Marines, but most of us kids are just kids when we are children.  As a therapist, I see kids in my practice underachieving in rebellion to a overly-critical parent quite frequently.  I also have seen kids who are stressed out and over-achieve in order to try to please a critical parent.  Even kids who get positive validation from teachers, coaches, and peers can still be confused about their "real value" if they perceive themselves as being "less than" in the eyes of their critical parent.  

But as life would have it, there is risk for the development of Impostor feelings for those kids who are given way too much praise and not enough reality-based feedback. Praise progress in a child, not perfection.  Genuine confidence stems from one's ability to master skills while tolerating frustration over time.  Over-protective parents can, with good intentions, undermine their child's natural need to fail.  Older kids can also start to dismiss overly-gushing parental praise as "that's just my mom".

Was a there a discrepancy in how you were viewed by your family versus outside the family?  Were you given a label as a kid (i.e. "the smart one", "the athlete", " the artist", etc.) and felt you had to live up to that label?  Did you feel you had to compromise your own view of yourself to fit into what your family expected?

Was perfectionism a standard expectation in your family? A family's view that anything short of perfection as "failure" is not the same as a healthy drive to excel.  Functional paralysis can occur when one has to constantly maintain incredibly high standards.  

Parenting is a tricky business and nobody gets it 100% right, let's be real.  Parents have screwed things up with the best of intentions.  Some parents really probably shouldn't have had kids in the first place.  But we are here, so we have got to deal with the hand that we individually have been dealt.  

Other factors that contribute to the development of Impostor feelings in highly capable people will be explored in the next article in this series.  If you feel you are a sufferer of the Impostor Phenomenon, start by exploring the messages you were given as a child by your family about your ability to achieve. You will be better equipt in the present to define yourself with your own truth.  

Dr. Pauline Rose Clance (one of the two psychologists who initially identified this psychological phenomenon) has created a test to measure for Impostor Phenomenon  traits with a simple scoring method. This Clance IP Scale is available along with a reprint of this  series of articles in the Betty's Blog section at my website

About the Author
In the field of psychiatry/mental health for over 30 years, I am a "seasoned" psychotherapist who helps teens and adults better navigate their emotional worlds. Your privacy and confidentiality is my primary concern; I keep no clinical notes online. Please visit my website to read more about my practice.

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