Dr. Paul Hokemeyer on Imposter Syndrome

by Chris Jackson

Dr. Paul Hokemeyer

Last week, I received the following text message from a former client, a female millennial, who received a substantial promotion and was transferred from her home in Istanbul to her company’s headquarters in Geneva:

“I’m thrilled with the promotion and with the opportunity to lead a team, but I’m having panic attacks…I did some research online and I came across something called the, ‘imposter syndrome’. I’m definitely suffering from it. I’ve become so insecure and even a little challenge is scaring me. I have no idea the root cause for this. Can you help me?

The sort answer to her question was yes. The longer answer would require her to internalize a new message of self-competency that would expel the external one she’d adopted along her developmental path.

The imposter syndrome is a psychological concept that was identified by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe a pernicious and persistent belief among successful women that in spite of their successes, they feel at deep in their core that they’re “not intelligent, capable or creative.” These researchers and clinicians went on to observe that while the women they studied were ‘highly motivated to achieve,’ they also ‘live in fear of being ‘found put or exposed as frauds.”  

As I note in my book Fragile Power, although not officially recognized as a clinical diagnosis, psychologists find it’s a phenomenon that isn’t just limited to women. It’s a highly prevalent phenomenon that affects approximately 70% of the general population regardless of gender, race, and socio-economic class.

Over the years, I’ve found it exists at both sides of the success bell curve. Most of the “failure to launch” patients I treat, people with great potential but who can’t quite get it together to pursue their dreams, suffer from it in equal measure to the people who present as ‘having it all’, crowing on about their talents and successes.

As I alluded to in the beginning of this article, the imposter syndrome manifests in people’s psyche on both the conscious and unconscious levels through messages they internalize along their developmental path and from the dominate culture that surrounds them. These messages turn into beliefs which in turn manifest in limiting and destructive behaviors.  The net result is that the Imposter Syndrome constrains a person’s ability to enjoy peace of mind, to claim their rightful place in the world and to be seen as a human being of value and substance. It also prevents them from producing their best work by causing them to operate from a place of deficiency rather than abundance, weakness rather than strength.

In my work, I’ve found the most common signs of the imposter syndrome are as follows.

  1. Having nightmares of being unprepared and shamed: Chances are that if you’ve ever had a dream where you can’t get to where you need to go, find it’s time for an exam for which you’re totally unprepared or shamed in some other way for being deficient or not fitting in you suffer from IS.
  2. An inability to accept and hold a compliment: People who suffer from IS find it difficult to accept complements with grace. Rather than saying ‘thank you’ for praise directed their way they feel uncomfortable by it and discount or deflect it. 
  3. Feeling their success is based on luck rather than talent: Generally, people who attain success express gratitude for the events outside of their control that added to it. But people who suffer from IS discount and discard their hard work, talent, grit and resilience in attaining their goal.
  4. Deflecting their success on to someone or something else: Humility and graciousness are important, but so is owning one’s accomplishments. Success doesn’t occur in isolation. Other people, places and things, play significant roles in success, but people who suffer from IS disregard their hard work, innate talent and drive in its attainment.
  5. Rejecting professional labels: Holding the label of executive, lawyer, doctor, photographer, author or designer is weighty. For people who suffer from IS, the weight is more than they can bear.
  6. Being hyper critical of external markers of success that showcase their talents: People who suffer from IS are quick to cover up their insecurities through arrogance and condescension. They criticize commercial validation of their work as ‘selling out’, preferring instead to maintain their ‘integrity’ and distain the thing they cannot have.
  7. Self-Sabotaging their success: At the last minute, the are compulsively pulled into self-destruction.  They fail to show up at a critically important event or pick a fight with a person on their team.

What I hope you realize by learning about these traits is how IS is profoundly influenced by unconscious motives. For this reason, recovery requires a deep and holistic dive into the three levels of our human existence. These include:

  • the socio-cultural,
  • the interpersonal and
  • the intrapersonal aspects of our being.

First, we must understand the messages we’ve internalized by the govern cultures in which we exist and that we’ve internalized from our family of origin. At every step along our developmental path, we’ve internalized distinct messages of what our society and culture believe to be true about how we look, who we love, what God we worship and what zip code we reside in. By articulating the messages we’ve received, we can reject those that perpetuate destructive stereotypes, crawl out from under their weight to embrace the liberation of self-actualization.

The second area we need to explore is the geography of our interpersonal relationships. We need to spend time mapping out what we learned from our families of origin about success, what it means, the costs it entails and who is entitled to it. In addition to taking a historical look at these messages, we need to evaluate our current relationships. Many people who suffer from IS have relationships with people who feel threatened by their success and actively and passively work to sabotage it. Finally, we need to dig deep into our own psyche to find what motivates and makes us feel deep in our core like a person of value, worthy of being seen and heard.

The best way to do this work is in partnership with a safe and compassionate other, a person who you trust with your truths and with whom you can be strategically vulnerable. It’s also important to create a record of your work. To do this I advise my patients to create a simple, but powerful document that records their beliefs and sets out your goals for the future. An outline of this document is as follows:

  1. Success means the following three things to me:
    1. ___
    1. ___
    1. ___
  2. I’m limited in attaining these three things because:
    1. ___
    1. ___
    1. ___
  3. To be successful I need the following three things to occur:
    1. ___
    1. ___
    1. ___
  4. The personal traits that I will bring to bear on my successful are:
    1. ___
    1. ___
    1. ___

In approaching this project, pay attention to your resistance. If you discount it as ‘stupid’, ‘worthless’ or ‘a waste of time’ recognize that what’s speaking to you is your IS, not your authentic truth. Then push through. The work, while admittedly time consuming and basic will be worth it. Through it your will be able to identify and banish the most pernicious and self-defeating messages that tell us we’re unworthy of being happy, joyous and free while building a foundation upon which your success can flourish.

Paul L. Hokemeyer, JD & PhD, is a therapist and author. Dr. Paul, as he’s better known, works with families and individuals across the United States, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, and European Union; he is also a founding principal of Drayson Mews International.

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