The Imposter in Us – part 1: The WHY

Yesterday’s early #gtchat covered a very interesting topic – The Imposter Syndrome (see the complete transcript here). I wasn’t able to participate as my Friday was spent writing a ton of reports, putting out too many fires to name, and sitting in one too many meetings. It was a busy day!

But, as typical, I read through the transcripts late last night.

Imposter Syndrome….

Now that is a great topic. It made me recall a somewhat traumatic event from my early adulthood. A professor at my college – a wonderful, highly gifted woman – committed suicide during my senior year. My mentor professor was her BFF. When we heard about the news, we also heard that she had been struggling with feelings of inadequacy related to her job. She was a highly acclaimed economics professor working on some theories related to women and economics. Her students adored her. Her work was heralded as fresh and innovative….

But to her….

She was a failure.

The epitome of the Imposter Syndrome.

She believed that the accolades weren’t deserved. That her students had no reason to like her the way they did. That she couldn’t and didn’t live up to the “hype.”

Man, I so get those feelings. Not to the point of having suicidal ideations..but to the point of depression and anxiety.

Every successful gifted adult I’ve known – especially women – has felt that feeling at some point. Heck, if you ask my closest friends they’d tell you that I have that feeling more often than I’d care to admit.

Gifted kids experience it too.

Reading the transcript I was left with the same questions as the participants – Why does this happen? When does it start? Is it a self-esteem thing, a perfectionism thing, or something else entirely?

And like the participants, I initially had very few answers.

But, after stewing on it last night, and contemplating things this morning, I think I came up with a few ideas regarding the contributing factors of the Imposter Syndrome:

  • Self Esteem - Many gifted individuals wrestle with esteem, or their overall picture of themselves and their ability to connect with peers and function in the world. Esteem is different from self-efficacy, which refers to a belief in one’s ability to be successful at a certain task. Gifted kids typically have great self-efficacy and lousy self-esteem. I think the esteem difficulties has a lot to do with what it means to be gifted, and goes back to what we talked about last week – the need of the child to develop an INTERNAL sense of self that is positive, and not dependent on outside feedback. All too often we allow our gifted kids to constantly seek approval outside of themselves. As parents, we over-help and maybe even over-protect – all in the name of advocating for our kids. Now, don’t get me wrong – it IS important to advocate for or kids…but he HAVE TO make sure we are teaching and guiding our children to find an INTERNAL positive high regard. That is the best way to develop a healthy self-esteem.
  • Praise - Praise – or rather the type of praise that typically occurs at home and at school – is another factor that I think contributes to this imposter problem. Too often praise is given without being linked to a specific act. We say things like “You’re so smart, Johnny” or “Great job. You just do all of this so well.”  These statements are generic and do not help the child. They provide feedback that is not specific and  while it feels good to hear it, it sets up the problem of searching outside of ones self to find validation. If we connect the praise to specific actions - “Johnny, that is a great picture you drew. I love the detail in te landscape,” or “Becky, thank you for cleaning your room this morning without being reminded. That really helps all of us.” – the chid understands why the praise is given and links it to their actions – not use is as a means to validate their existence.
  • The Nature of Giftedness – And finally, the biggest contributor to this imposter syndrome is the nature of giftedness itself. Having a brain that makes immediate connections between seemingly unrelated things is a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, our brains lie – making connections that are WRONG. Ha! Try convincing a gifted kid of that!!! But it is true. I think some of the Imposter Syndrome comes into play as a gifted child – or adult – begins to see the errors in connections that the brain has made and automatically forms a new connection…mistake = stupid which means I can not be gifted. Another lie from our brain. We have to teach our kids how to discern correct from incorrect information if we are going to help them correct their thought processes on this stuff.

So what do we do about this?

That I am saving for tomorrow – for a special Sunday post!

What do you think contributes to the Imposter Syndrome so many of us wrestle with?

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15 thoughts on “The Imposter in Us – part 1: The WHY

  1. Wow Christine, you just struck a chord with in there in your Praise section. I had been working within the same realm, but hadn’t connected the specifics of the praise as being such a focal point. I had been floundering with how praising gifted kids is all too common and becomes the norm. They know they are smart, so telling them that doesn’t give them the right sort of praise. I really didn’t like the idea of restricting praise to only when it’s for something exceptional, so I’m thrilled you changed the way I was going about it so far.

    I’ve also been working with the concept of how we may try to blend in to be a part of something; how it can feel like wearing a costume. Fitting in without being ourselves and feeling as if we need to keep the persona up, but feeling as if we’re “tricking” everyone at the same time. This form of imposturing leads to feeling any accolades are given under false pretenses even though the achievements are done by us.

    I like the analogy I heard once of a high jumper. If you jump a 6′ bar, you jumped it. You are a 6′ high-jumper. It doesn’t matter if you did it in practice, wearing sweats, or even wearing clown shoes. Nobody can slip and jump 6′ high on accident.

    Initially I heard that analogy from a psychologist when talking about IQ tests. He was speaking on how some IQ tests are more reading/writing based and others were not. This was back in the 70s. I think the concept works for seeing how we should accept the praise of our accomplishments even when we feel we may not have done our “best” or feel we did not show our complete self.

    • Love both analogies. I do think that teaching an internalized form of validation AND giving the skill of being about to talk yourself off the ledge when the internalized validation fails are both things that can help

  2. Painful subjet, Chrisitine !

    I’m still suffering a lot of that syndrome. But my history is quite different. I’ve got a low self esteem because I was NOT recognized as gifted. I was told I was wrong when I was smarter than the adults. I grew up not understanding why I was so wrong with the world.
    But I also grew up without any role model. My “standards” are just the perfection that I cannot reach. I think that “mistake=stupid” or “failure=death” are also bond to the way gifted people live the world (intensity, and above all an über-awareness…). Awareness, knowledge is suffering if you haven’t learnt to deal with it.
    When I’m bright, I just think that I’m lucky…

    What saved my life is my encounter with a psychologist who is also highly gifted. She discovered my giftedness and I can’t express what I feel when I just can be with a true peer. I breathe. I re-live.

    Ok, Christine, you can add Loneliness and Awareness to the contributors of the Imposter syndrome

  3. As an interview guest on his show, Charlie Rose introduced Tilda Swinton: “With her magnetic, ethereal charisma and striking androgynous looks, she has perhaps become most famous for her screen interpretations of cold and enigmatic characters. Her performances are subtle, varied and unique.”

    And yet, she admitted, “I still find it embarrassing when I hear myself referred to as an actor. I expect real actors to stand up and protest: She’s a fraud.”

    From my post Feeling Like A Fraud
    http://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/2010/06/feeling-like-a-fraud/

  4. Christine, I nearly cried when I saw your post. This really puts a lot of things into perspective–for me as a grown adult, and for my daughter who is a gifted child (I also suspect my youngest might be, too). I realize I’m making some of these mistakes, too, not validating for specific things. And I realize that this is ME. It’s not that I don’t know I can do it. I’m pretty sure I can. It’s that I’m constantly seeking validation for having done it, and until I get it, I doubt myself.

    I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s post. (And for your new book!)

  5. This is such an amazing post, Christine! I’ve already bookmarked it and am planning to print copies for some of the teachers at my school. It also opened my eyes as a parent. Thanks for the great, great post! :-)

  6. Ah! Great, thought-provoking post! I work with youth, mostly girls. I really needed this to adjust some thinking not only about them but about me…

  7. Being classed as a gifted child, people always assumed I was smarter than everyone else. Not true! Our minds think differently than the average person, and as you mentioned in The Nature of Giftedness, our minds don’t always make proper connections. Where I live, there was a gifted program where gifted kids in public school went to special class at highschool once a week for more challenging activities than we would get in our regular class, instead of kids skipping grades.

  8. I love this topic! In my case, I remember an incident when I was in elementary school. all the kids in the gifted program would get on the bus one day a week from all the elementary schools in the district and meet at one central location at another school. I always felt like I was at the bottom rung of the gifted kids. One day, the teacher was having us to problem solving exercises–like lateral thinking questions, I think. Everyone seemed to be able to offer something brilliant to the group, except for me. At one point, a boy, referring to me said, “Why is she even here?” saying out loud what I had often been thinking. Another boy came to my defense and replied, “because she can read really good!” This wasn’t the only incident but the one that comes to mind right now. It’s something I continue to struggle with; always wondering why I kept getting picked for the various gifted programs no matter where I went to school, and wondering how they could have made the mistake of picking me.

  9. Yeah, so this pretty much sums me up Lookin’ forward to tomorrow’s post! :D

  10. What a tough topic, but I really appreciate that you bring it up here, especially with regard to the nature of giftedness, and the fact that our brains can make “connections that are WRONG.” Too true, and good to remember. Thank you!

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  12. I really like that you clarified the difference between self-esteem and self-efficacy. I think I *do* have a healthy self-esteem…until I don’t. But I know I have a strong sense of self-efficacy. I *know* when I can do something, even when surface appearances say otherwise. For example, I’ve been out of the workforce as a SAHM for 10 years. Trying to find gainful employment has been rough (thankfully found part-time work) because on paper I’m not qualified for anything. I had to laugh about the “develop an INTERNAL sense of self that is positive, and not dependent on outside feedback. All too often we allow our gifted kids to constantly seek approval outside of themselves.”…I have three music degrees, two of them performance-based. There are few areas in which all success comes from others, and music is one of them. I was only good if someone else said I was. You were only as good as your last performance. There are reasons I’m no longer a professional musician, and it’s not just stress-related injury.
    I never really considered my own giftedness until a couple years ago. I was always in the more advanced classes, but never once considered myself gifted. Now I see it differently, and I know I suffer from Impostor Syndrome. Getting over it is tough, but it’s not terminal.

  13. Pingback: The balance of LD and Giftedness « Hidden Gifts

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