Imposter syndrome is a popular and lay term for reoccurring, persistent, and impaired beliefs in oneself, one’s own capabilities, and one’s own potentiality.
From a clinical perspective, when someone presents with “imposter syndrome” what we’re really seeing is someone with a strongly reified and usually maladaptive set of neural pathways.
A neural pathway is a connection between a number of neurons (nerve cells) in different parts of the brain which are connected by and communicate with synapses. The more those certain neurons fire and communicate, the stronger the neural pathway becomes.
Think of it like this: Imagine you’re in a local forest and a bit lost finding there’s no clear pathway to get back to the main trail. You start bushwacking through the forest, creating a new, faint tracked path where there was none before. You just created a new neural pathway. If you kept going back over this path, again and again, deepening your footstep treads into the ground, you would be strengthening the appearance and also ease of access to this pathway.
The same thing more or less happens in our brain’s neural pathways when we act or think in repeated manners.
Every time we think the same thought (whether it’s a positive or negative thought), or act in the same way (whether it’s something small like cracking an egg or larger like taking the subway across our city), we deepen the neural pathways in our brain which more firmly establishes habitual thinking or behavior patterns (for better or for worse).
So if you struggle with chronic negative thinking, with imposter syndrome, the reality is that your brain is literally crafted and shaped by this thought habit of yours.
So in other words, someone presenting with persistent imposter syndrome has usually told themselves a story – over and over again – about themselves (e.g.: “I’m not smart enough to be here with all of them.”) which has led to strong neural pathways forming in their brain that makes this thought (and thought pattern) feel almost automatic and very intractable.
Why does imposter syndrome happen?
Like with all of our cognitive beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world, none of us form in a vacuum.
We form in relationship to those around us, specifically our closest earliest caregivers, and also in response to our early environments (including peers, churches, etc.). We absorb messaging and beliefs and introjects from the people closest to us, but/and we also absorb messaging from the other spheres of influence we grow up in (Christianity, Capitalism, the Patriarchy, etc). All of this contributes to forming and shaping our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world.
When and if we are told – implicitly or explicitly – a maladaptive perspective about our capacities and if that belief isn’t actively challenged but is, instead, re-inforced over time (for instance, a mother saying “Girls aren’t as smart as men, honey, so you’re going to have to work harder.” and then teachers in elementary schools operate with gender bias and call on boys first in the classroom), our neurons fire together to form a neural groove – a belief, a thought, a way of being – and unless we or others actively challenge that maladaptive thought, unless we actively attempt to create new and different neural pathways, we can repeat that maladaptive thought, behavior, or belief which just serves to reify and strengthen that neural pathway.
But imposter syndrome isn’t intractable. It’s not something anyone just has to learn to live with.
Why? Because neuroscience and magnetic resonance imaging have been able to show us in the last several decades is astonishing: the brain is “plastic.” We have the capacity to change and grow our brains by creating new neural pathways throughout our life.
Here are the tips I provide my therapy clients with to help them combat imposter syndrome and challenge their chronic negative thinking about themselves:
- Step One: Bring awareness to the negative, automatic thought you’re having about yourself in the first place.
- Step Two: Bring your awareness closer and closer to the moment where the negative thought happens.
- Step Three: Challenge your thought and substitute something different, something more supportive and esteemed.
- Step Four: Repeat, repeat, repeat.
In more detail…
Step One: Start to notice that imposter syndrome is even happening for you. That each morning you wake up and think to yourself, “I’ll never be able to get promoted on the team, why even bother?” And that a few minutes later you feel grumpy and maybe even a little tight or sick in your belly.
Step Two: Start to notice sooner and sooner when you have that thought, ideally in the moment when it is starting to happen. That as soon as you wake up, that thought is starting to fire through your brain.
Step Three (the hardest step!): Challenge your thought. Catch it, substitute something else instead, notice it, let it go, refocus your attention and mind onto something else, ideally a thought that’s more positive. Ideas for how you can challenge and substitute your imposter syndrome thoughts include:
- 1) Actively thinking the very opposite of that thought. Example: “I actually have all the tools and capabilities to be promoted. I’m as capable as anyone else on the team.” And then repeating this over and over to yourself.
- 2) Stepping outside yourself and into the perspective of a mentor, pen-and-paper hero, or someone you dearly admire who seems to have great confidence. Then think what they would have to say at that moment. Example: “What would Kamala Harris have to say about her own odds of getting promoted? Probably that it’s inevitable.”
- 3) Untwisting your thinking: For every imposter syndrome thought you have, challenge yourself to write a list of 10-15 reasons why that thought/belief isn’t true, why you are capable/worthy, etc. If it feels hard to find reasons to combat your negative thinking, look for even the smallest kernel of truth to support some other, more supportive belief (e.g.: “I don’t think I’m as smart as they are.” can be challenged with “I scored 1500 on my SAT’s. I was the first in my family to go to college, the Ivy-League no less. I didn’t get in on legacy, I got in on my own merits. They may have a Ph.D. but I have a masters.” and so forth).
Finally, rinse and repeat all of these thought challenge exercises over and over on a daily basis. And then repeat some more.
Again, it took time for your neural pathways to develop and deepen as they have, for your potentially chronic and habitual negative thinking patterns to develop, for your habit of feeling like an imposter to become as consistent as it has. It will take some time and some effort to learn to do something different, to form those new neural grooves, and to have more accurate, self-supporting beliefs about yourself and your capabilities become more habitual. So be patient with yourself.