Working in higher education, I am pretty fortunate to be running with a well-educated crowd. Therefore, it always surprises me when people confess that they have the imposter syndrome. MD. PhD. DDS. Pharm.D. JD. It doesn’t matter. No matter how successful one might be, they could be thinking, “someday someone will figure out that I shouldn’t be here.”
The imposter syndrome is frequently associated with the failure schema, according to Tara Bennett-Goleman, author of Emotional Alchemy. People who harbor the failure schema believe that their successes are undeserved and they feel like a failure despite their successes.
Like many schema, the failure schema can drive someone to be an overachiever to compensate for their feelings of failure. It’s almost as if they are trying to prove to themselves that they are successful, but never really manage to do so until they learn to manage their schema and challenge their core, and sometimes subconscious, beliefs.
This is true of all schema, by the way. We will continue to view our world and ourselves through our schema filters, coloring all of our assumptions and beliefs, and inevitably becoming self-fulfilling prophecies unless we challenge those beliefs.
I confess I have not thought much about the failure schema since I’m usually surprised when someone says they have the imposter syndrome. To me, they’re usually just fabulously successful people. But among these fabulously successful people are also people who cannot get off the dime on certain tasks. They don’t exert themselves in certain areas. They don’t speak up for themselves. They don’t take risks. They don’t reach for or take opportunities outside of their comfort zone. They seem like they’re perfectly happy letting things ride or letting others take the lead. Sometimes it may seem like they’re trying to undermine everyone else’s efforts.
I don’t mean to say that everyone who has trouble getting started on tasks have a failure schema. That would be too easy. Nor do I mean to point fingers. After all, we ALL have schema, and if you were to deny it, it would make me think you have a perfectionism schema. Ha! Don’t you love the circular logic?
Thankfully I don’t have the failure schema. I feel like I’ve earned my successes and my failures. And now that I’ve been through a masters program in a subject I’m passionate about, I can also see that I’ve been somewhat of an underachiever myself in certain areas. So I’m not here to judge. I’m trying to understand the various ways we flawed but amazing humans interface with each other and the world. I’m here to try to understand how I can be more supportive of others on their journeys, as they have been of mine.
In fact, I think the strengths approach (e.g. StregnthsFinders, VIA) provides great tools to help those with imposter syndrome learn to value themselves for who they are, as opposed to what they’ve accomplished. Perhaps that can provide a toe-hold to internalizing a sense of wonder and appreciation for oneself instead of criticism. Then maybe they can see what I see in them: a freakin’ amazing person!