Ever notice how some people breeze through arduous tasks and projects as if they were born to do the work? Meanwhile, others seem to struggle, even admitting how nervous or anxious they feel, constantly seeking support and validation. They might even say things like, “I have no idea how to do this” or “I’m not good enough for this” on constant rewind in their head. If you find yourself identifying with the second group, you might suffer from imposter syndrome.
“Imposter syndrome refers to the tendency of some people to doubt the validity of their success — to somehow believe they don’t deserve opportunities, advancements or accolades,” Dr. Sarah Weisberg, a Maryland-based psychologist, tells SheKnows. “It’s rooted in internal feelings of negative self-worth, self-doubt, and/or insecurity about one’s true strengths and abilities.”
While the concept has been around for a few decades, it’s only in recent years that people are recognizing the signs within themselves. Unfortunately, imposter syndrome appears to be more common than ever, with even successful celebrities, like Tina Fey, admitting to suffering from it. Here are all the ways imposter syndrome is making you sick.
It induces stress and burnout
“If you have imposter syndrome, you’re operating out of fear,” Ashley Stahl, a career coach who helps clients overcome professional blocks like Imposter Syndrome, tells SheKnows. “On a scientific note, fear triggers a chain reaction in the brain that starts with stress, and translates into chemical releases that cause a racing heart, fast breathing and more.”
Adds Dr. Tara Stewart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, and author of The Source, “High levels of the hormone cortisol caused by chronic stress about being ‘discovered” or ‘outed’ or simply fear of failure can lead to irritability, mental exhaustion and burnout, as well as a lowered immunity resulting in everything from weight gain (which adds to negative self image), more colds and flus that last longer, all the way up to heart attacks and cancer.”
It can create social anxiety
“Imposter syndrome can manifest and start affecting your personal life,” Dr. Tess Brigham, a licensed therapist and life coach, tells SheKnows. “You may begin to doubt yourself in social situations and need your friends to constantly assure you they like you and want to spend time with you. This places a lot of pressure on you socially and you may find social interactions difficult. This could lead to isolation and possibly social anxiety, which in turn places a lot more significance on your work, and the cycle continues.”
It affects your relationships
“Imposter syndrome negatively impact relationships when a family member prioritizes career success over time with families or children,” Dr. Audrey Ervin, PhD, a licensed psychologist, tells SheKnows. “Partners and families can suffer when someone spends too much time trying to prove themselves in a professional capacity to the detriment of their personal lives.”
It causes you to doubt your own instincts
Individuals who struggle with imposter syndrome tend to over-prepare for presentations and other work-related projects. “While being prepared is important and shows your dedication, mentally it can prevent you from listening to your instincts and standing back to look at the bigger picture,” says Brigham. “The fear of being ‘found out’ becomes so overwhelming many individuals get caught up in ‘how people will react’ and not ‘what am I really trying to say or share?’ The fear of what other people think becomes so overwhelming that your own intrinsic instincts get lost.”
It can negatively affect your career
“Imposter syndrome can negatively impact careers because people may over-produce to prove that they are capable,” says Ervin. “This can lead to burn out and ultimately be counterproductive. People may also miss opportunities because they do not feel worthy or capable, despite being quite competent.”
It can affect your physical health
Continued untreated, anxiety can contribute to physical health consequences such as problems sleeping, weight gain or loss, fatigue and stress related disorders, says Ervin. In fact, a 2010 study showed that neural sensitivity to social rejection is associated with inflammatory responses. Translation? Psychological stress is related to human health, and can lead to the onset or progression of asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease and depression.
While imposter syndrome have been linked to mental and physical ailments, like burnout, anxiety, depression and emotional exhaustion, Kate Atkin, an expert in Imposter Syndrome, who speaks on and researches Imposter Syndrome, points out that research doesn’t say that the imposter feelings can cause these conditions. “The imposter syndrome isn’t a mental health condition per se and should in fact be termed ‘imposter phenomenon’ as the experiences are not constant, but situational and vary widely from person to person,” she says. “It is also more accurate to refer to Imposter syndrome as ‘experiencing’ rather than ‘suffer from.”
So if you believe you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome, what should you do? Stewart recommends journaling, gratitude lists, mindfulness and acknowledging achievements and accomplishments for milder cases. For more complicated cases, all of the experts we spoke to recommend seeing a professional therapist and/or coach. One simple trick that Dr. Sharon Melnick, a business psychologist and women’s leadership expert, shares is to stop asking yourself “Who am I to ___?” because it puts you in an internal conflict about whether you are enough or belong. Instead she says, “Ask yourself ‘Who am I here to help?’ which connects you to your purpose and will give you courage to take action you wouldn’t be able to if you were just making it about you.”
Ultimately, “building self-awareness, processing emotions, and receiving outside support can be so helpful for overcoming imposter syndrome,” says Weisberg. “Once a person has had an opportunity to work through their self-doubt, look at any negative experiences from the past, own their successes, and build up a more positive sense of self-worth, they are usually able to break out of this detrimental way of thinking. It’s really a matter of getting un-stuck.”
Stahl has a more communal take and believes that workplaces need to become more involved and aware of how they’re treating their employees. “More than ever, we have a workforce culture that appears approachable, and yet is plagued with bosses who use bullying and intimidating to activate their staff. We need stronger leaders who understand soft skills such as patience, communication and kindness.”