When is Impostor Syndrome Actually Career Dysmorphia?

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Why do we have such a problem accepting our accomplishments? I’ve meet too many successful people who suffer from Impostor Syndrome. These are individuals who despite the evidence, remain convinced they are frauds who do not deserve the success they have achieved. Comedian Whitney Cummings is one such individual.

If you have even a casual knowledge of the stand up scene, then you know Whitney Cummings. She’s had her own prime time network show, appears in the wildly popular Comedy Central Roasts, is co-creator of the CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls, and sells out every stand up gig she books. Yet in a recent interview, she stated:

I have Career Dysmorphia, also. I think I’m a complete failure. I see myself as an open mic-er who is a phoney and I don’t see myself as a success at all. I argue with a lot of people about that.

Cummings is not alone. A few months ago, Valerie Young wrote an excellent article on Impostor Syndrome where she mentions a number of successful people who, as Mike Myers put it, still expect the “no-talent police” to come and arrest them. Such high profile performers as Tina Fey, Don Cheadle, Kate Winslet, Renee Zellweger, Jody Foster, Rachel Maddow, and producer Chuck Lorre have all spoken openly about their inner fraud feelings.

Like most self-described imposters, Cummings does not deny the significance of her accomplishments. She simply de-values her role in achieving them by chalking it up to chance and feeing as if she’s tricking others into thinking she’s better then she is. To explain this mentality, one study found that where many people “own success as attributable to a quality inherent in themselves,” imposters “project the cause of success outward to an external cause (luck) or to a temporary internal quality (effort) that they do not equate with inherent ability.”

If you consider yourself to be an imposter, there’s good news – you can do something about it. Here are a few ideas:

  • Stop acting as if you’re afraid of success. You have attacked your goals and achieved something to be proud of. People who are afraid to succeed don’t do this. So if anything, you are already a success and are afraid to accept it.
  • Accept that you have a role in your success. As mentioned, some feel like a fraud because they are unable to internalize success. You can either act as if you’ve been “given” an opportunity or you can look back at all you’ve done to get where you are today.
  • Take others off their pedestal. Some imposters have an unrealistic image of what it means to be a success. They idolatrize their heroes instead of seeing them as the humans they really are. Peal back the façade and you’ll quickly realize that nobody knows what they are doing. Confidence may serve to hide insecurities, but we are all working with a hopeful ignorance of the future.
  • Get a support system. Find people you respect who are willing to listen to your self-doubts and can help you come to grips with your success.
  • Admit you’re a fake. This is actually a therapy technique where you role-play the opposite of “I’m not competent.” The idea is to act out being competent so you can unveil a part of your self-image that lurks beneath the self-doubt. You can then work through your fears and guilt and move toward a more realistic view of your abilities.
  • Admit you’re really a fake. If all else fails, accept that you’re a fraud and use this insecurity to push yourself to work even harder. Maybe being an actual imposter is the fuel you need to fuel future efforts.

It’s a shame Whitney Cummings, Mike Myers, and the rest of us can’t appreciate what we’ve achieved. Fortunately, there’s no “no-talent police” to arrest you for finally being found out. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in a state of career dysmorphia. You work too hard to find yourself delusionally rejecting your accomplishments. The sooner you can accept this, the sooner you can put your efforts into earning more wins.

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