In recent years the term “imposter syndrome” has become more and more recognizable. First, let’s define what this term means: Imposter Syndrome refers to the experience of intense doubt about one’s skills, talents, or accomplishments and a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud or a phony. It’s not a mental health condition, but as a common experience in many people with self-doubt, low self-esteem, and a deep sense of inadequacy, it can be involved in many people’s experiences with various other conditions.
People with OCD may be particularly familiar with imposter syndrome—commonly referred to as the “doubting disorder,” OCD often creates doubt about one’s own abilities, values, identity, and even memories. By making people question whether they deserve their accomplishments, whether they belong at their school, or whether their colleagues actually respect them, imposter syndrome is just one of the ways in which OCD could instill doubt and anxiety in people with the condition.
Who is most susceptible to imposter syndrome?
Though imposter syndrome is never a pleasant or helpful experience, it doesn’t always make a severe psychological impact. In other words, imposter syndrome may not impair someone’s ability to function in day-to-day life significantly. However, this may not be true if you also suffer from OCD.
Many people with OCD report feeling like they have fooled themselves or others into believing something; that they are not qualified for their jobs, shouldn’t have been promoted, didn’t deserve to graduate, and so on. People with OCD may even fear that they are manipulating others into believing that they have OCD. The disorder not only causes significant doubt surrounding anything and everything that a person values, but sometimes it tries to convince someone that it’s themself who is misleading others, rather than doubt caused by obsessions.
People suffering from OCD will very often feel as if they are lying to themselves and disqualify any positive aspects about themselves. They may pay much closer attention to anything negative or that they perceive as being a critique, thus discounting any praise or recognition. These thoughts and feelings may lead them to avoid engaging in things that they may otherwise value or be interested in, remaining in their “comfort zone” in order to avoid risk. This can wreak havoc on their careers, relationships, and most importantly, their self-worth.
Why do I feel like this?
Like many human experiences, we do not fully understand the many reasons why someone might experience imposter syndrome. If you were raised in a home where praise is rarely given and expectations are high, then perhaps you can never feel like you are “good enough.” In people with OCD, these feelings can be even stronger. Circumstances that cause one to feel out of place can also lead to these intense feelings. New jobs, schools, relationships, responsibilities, or achievements might cause anxiety from imposter syndrome.
Cognitive distortions are also common in people experiencing imposter syndrome. A cognitive distortion is really just an exaggerated belief or way of thinking that has negative consequences on one’s thoughts and behavior. These thoughts are most often untrue, or at least overinflated and excessive. Here are some examples:
All-or-nothing thinking: This is sometimes referred to as black-and-white thinking or polarized thinking. Perhaps you have just been given a promotion at your job. You are feeling really good and encouraged, but the next day you make a big mistake on a project, and it has to be redone. Now, all you can think about is how awful you are at your job and how you should never have been promoted. At the slightest imperfection, your positive feelings are gone, and imposter syndrome creeps in.
Emotional reasoning: This is the idea that if one feels a certain way then it must be true. This is very common in individuals who are diagnosed with OCD. They often believe that because they feel or think something, it must reflect something real or serious. In OCD, as well as in imposter syndrome, one may feel anxious or inadequate and conclude that these feelings must be substantiated by real inadequacy.
Jumping to conclusions: Imagine you are at work and a co-worker looks at you in a manner that you feel is less friendly than usual. Instead of brushing this off as an innocuous or normal occurrence, you may assume that they are angry at you for some perceived wrong you have committed. The slightest possibility that
Catastrophizing: This involves fixating on the worst-case scenario of one’s fears or doubts. What if I make a mistake? Will I be fired? Then what will happen? What if the company is ruined? What if my relationship ends? OCD can make these unlikely outcomes feel very real and threatening.
Simply becoming aware that you engage in some of these cognitive distortions is the first step to combating them. In OCD treatment we try not to focus so much on the content of the thoughts; rather, we lean into the uncertainty that they cause. We want to be able to recognize that although certain thoughts are uncomfortable, the feelings are tolerable and we can live according to our goals and values even when we have doubts.
Treatment to address imposter syndrome in OCD
Since imposter syndrome resulting from OCD often impacts the most important parts of one’s life, it is crucial to get specialized treatment to learn how to manage these symptoms.
In exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, a specialized therapist can assess your symptoms and develop a treatment plan that best suits your unique needs. By doing ERP, you can gain the tools you need to sit with uncertainty and tolerate anxiety and doubt, about the most important parts of your life.
If OCD is causing you to struggle with imposter syndrome, NOCD can help. At NOCD, our therapists specialize in OCD and ERP. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment.