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Life Kit: The Imposter Phenomenon

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sensitive question here - have you ever felt like you are a fraud, that everybody in your class or at your job are all somehow smarter, sharper, more in tune than you? That is called the imposter phenomenon. For NPR's Life Kit, reporter Diana Opong looks at the factors that contribute to this feeling.

DIANA OPONG, BYLINE: Before you can work through feeling like an imposter, you have to be able to identify it. And that right there is tip No. 1.

ANDREA SALAZAR-NUNEZ: One of the most validating things to do is to name it, because so many times, especially for people of color, women of color, like, we're gaslighted, dismissed, ignored when we bring up these things.

OPONG: That was Dr. Andrea Salazar-Nunez. She's a staff psychologist at the University of Washington Counseling Center.

Now that we've named this feeling, let's examine where it came from and exactly what it means to feel like an imposter.

SUZANNE IMES: The imposter phenomenon is a feeling by many high-achieving people that they're not as intelligent, as creative, as able as other people think they are. And they live in a constant fear that somebody is going to find that out.

OPONG: The voice you just heard was Dr. Suzanne Imes. She's currently a practicing therapist in Atlanta, Ga. Dr. Imes actually coined the term imposter phenomenon, since it's not a syndrome in the medical sense. What we see, hear and read can intensify this phenomenon, especially for people of color.

IMES: If you're in a context where you're in a minority, you're more likely to feel like an imposter.

OPONG: For tip No. 2, it's important to acknowledge the societal impact that influences this feeling. Dr. Salazar-Nunez explains why we should consider cultural context when it comes to the imposter phenomenon.

SALAZAR-NUNEZ: Part of the work that I do is putting things into context, historical context, because that brings a great awareness of where everything fits, right? So when we feel hysterical, when you put it in context, it may look more historical.

OPONG: You've named it, and you are taking into consideration how various societal systems can amplify this feeling. But now what? Well, this is a good time to move on to tip No. 3, taking stock of your true talents. A technique that Dr. Imes uses with her clients involves making a list with three columns.

IMES: And in the first column, I'm not so good at, in the second column, I'm medium-good at, in the third column, I'm very good at. And you write all the things you can think of.

OPONG: Dr. Imes often shares her own worksheet with her patients. Directions - she's not too good with. But...

IMES: I also like to tell them I'm very good at pingpong.

OPONG: One thing I wanted to know is if this feeling will ever go away. Can I be cured of this?

IMES: Do you ever get over it? Are you ever cured? No.

OPONG: OK, not exactly the answer I was hoping to hear. But it's not all bad news. Dr. Imes says the imposter phenomenon will start to wane as you get older.

IMES: When I was younger, I had to achieve, achieve, achieve. I have three masters degrees and a doctorate. That is ridiculous. But I'm 76 years old, and I still love being a psychologist and a therapist. Well, OK, I know how to do this, so I have to do it, or I should do it. No, I don't have those shoulds the way I used to.

OPONG: Getting older has never looked so good. For NPR News, I'm Diana Opong.

MARTIN: To hear the full episode and more tips, head to npr.org/lifekit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "DANSE CARIBE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.