Rashmi Parmar, M.D., Psychiatrist at Mindpath Health, formerly Community Psychiatry, explains imposter syndrome and provides tips to navigate it with friends.
Your friendships are some of the most important relationships in your life. Whether you need help with a spontaneous date night or advice about making a life-altering decision, your besties are the ones you can go to for anything. At one point or another, though, you might have experienced feeling as though you don’t deserve such wonderful humans, or maybe you questioned your value in the friend group. A reason for this can be imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome refers to an internal doubt of your abilities, skills, or achievements, says Dr. Rashmi Parmar, M.D., a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. It’s having a persistent fear of being exposed by others as a fraud and can show up in multiple areas of your life, including your friendships. Usually, the phenomenon occurs in high-achieving individuals, but it can happen to anyone of all ages.
Here, we spoke with a few mental health experts to learn how to combat imposter syndrome within your friendships so that you can be fully present and enjoy the relationships in your life.
How can imposter syndrome show up in your friendships?
“Just as we talk about imposter syndrome in the context of our professional abilities, it can also extend to our interpersonal relationships, especially for someone with chronic feelings of low self-esteem or inadequacy,” says Dr. Parmar. “In friendships, imposter syndrome often leads you to think that you are deceiving your friends into liking you and that you cannot match up to their expectations,” she adds. Typically, these feelings of self-doubt will first appear in other areas of your life due to some prior negative experience or trauma and can later affect your friendships, she explains.
Imposter syndrome can be a dangerous cycle that starts with someone not feeling comfortable with themselves and then puts on a different persona when with their friends to mask insecurities. Dr. Parmar says doing this can make one struggle with their feelings even more because they’re putting up a front and acting ingenuine making them feel more like an imposter.
Jennifer Smith, Virginia-based professional counselor from Thriveworks says these persistent feelings can lead to stress, anxiety, and feelings of unworthiness, which might cause you to pull away from your friendships or avoid them together.
How are social anxiety and imposter syndrome different?
If you experience anxiety in social settings, you may be familiar with some of the feelings associated with imposter syndrome. Social anxiety can be a direct symptom, though, it does not necessarily mean you suffer from imposter syndrome, explains Smith.
“Individuals struggling with social anxiety have an inherent fear of being negatively judged by other people in social settings, which may include feelings of being ridiculed, embarrassed, or rejected by others,” says Dr. Parmar. “It does not necessarily involve the fear of being exposed as phony or a fraud or someone who does not deserve their success, which is a central feature of imposter syndrome.”
Additionally, imposter syndrome can be associated with perfectionism, whereas social anxiety can cause you to avoid social situations, says Dr. Mimi Winsberg, chief medical officer at Brightside.
“There are social anxiety groups that can help combat these feelings of discomfort,” says Smith. “These groups, run by professional counselors, can offer supportive encouragement to members and validation that you aren’t alone in your thoughts or feelings.”
How can you overcome imposter syndrome in your friendships?
Trying to get rid of feelings of doubt and fear surrounding your identity admittedly won’t happen overnight. However, the first step is working on your sense of identity and self-confidence, says Smith. “Some ways to overcome feeling inadequate is by listing what makes you unique or special,” she says. “This might include identifying your own set of specific skill sets or strengths, exploring the unique personality traits that set you apart from your friends, and understanding and embracing your value and belief system.”
If you need help identifying these qualities, you can ask family or trusted ones in your life to help you make a list. Once you’ve identified things in yourself that reflect positivity, love, and kindness, Smith recommends spending time journaling about these traits. “Refer to these positive traits every time you notice negative ones creeping in to practice reframing.”
On top of focusing on your positive attributes, Dr. Parmar says to challenge your negative thought patterns by restructuring them into more positive and realistic thoughts. “This is one of the major techniques we employ in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to combat anxiety and depressive disorders,” she says.
You can do that by labeling negative ideas that pop up into your mind only as a “thought” you are having in the moment, which does not necessarily mean it’s true. “Often, it’s an anxious voice feeding into our fears, and learning to recognize that tends to reduce the gravity of the imposter feelings we might be facing,” she says.
Additionally, avoid engaging in behaviors that you know contribute to negative thoughts. For example, if you know social media fuels a habit to compare yourself to others and incite negative feelings, try limiting your time on those platforms.
“Having confidence in your individuality takes practice,” says Smith. So, be sure to take care of yourself physically and emotionally as you work on combating negativity. This can include setting aside time to do self-care, like exercising, relaxing, practicing mindfulness techniques and mediation, or getting enough sleep.
If the negative feelings fail to subside, despite using these tried-and-true methods and continue to cause distress, Dr. Parmar recommends seeking professional help. “There may be underlying conditions like depression and anxiety warranting further treatment,” she says.
Should you tell your friends about your imposter syndrome?
Being vulnerable to your friends about your feelings can be nerve-racking, but all of our experts agree that it can be beneficial for yourself and your relationships. “Vulnerability and openness are essential in any intimate relationship, including with close friends,” says Smith. Not only can sharing how you feel can help you better understand your insecurities, but it allows your friend to support you in your efforts to grow in confidence and self-security, she adds.
For example, Dr. Parmar says your friends may be able to give you a logical or reasonable point of view about your feelings and provide some helpful tools or tips to overcome negative thoughts. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of your friends confess to having those feelings themselves, and in such cases, they may be able to share with you their own experience in dealing with this issue,” she says.
As far as how to approach this conversation, Dr. Winsberg says it’s best to let it happen organically. “These conversations don’t need to be forced but can emerge at the right time and place through shared experience,” she says.
Ultimately, the goal of your friendship is not to strive for perfection, says Dr. Parmar. The unique experiences in your friendship can add value and offer a chance for you and your BFF to grow stronger together.
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