How to Stop Feeling like You’re Playing a Character in Real Life

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The doctor is in! Raffael Boccamazzo (AKA “Dr. B”) returns this month for our Take This Org article. If you happen to be at PAX East this week, you can check out their schedule to attend a talk, find the AFK Room, visit their Diversity Lounge, or simply pick up one of those cool shields. And if you can’t make it, you can still support them through their crowdfunding campaign.

Impostor syndrome is a term I see thrown about on the internet quite a bit these days. So much so, that I recently had to convince a few people that it wasn’t an actual diagnosis. If you’re not familiar, it’s a term coined by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in a 1978 psychology journal article. What it refers to is a disconnect between a person’s internal perceptions and fears of being a discovered as an intellectual fraud by someone important and outward evidence of success and competence. Put more simply, you think you’re not good enough or smart enough for your position, but evidence says otherwise.

Many of Clance and Imes’ ideas about impostor syndrome are rooted in what social psychologists call attribution biases – which is a way of labelling the errors in how people think about the behavior of themselves and other people. There’s a whole slew of them, but what this one comes down to is that people suffering from impostor syndrome tend to dismiss their own part in their success and magnify the importance of external factors. In other word, “I just got lucky. I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

This belief can be insidious! Ironically, it can also make people work harder to try to cover up their own tracks and “fool” others into thinking they’re competent, sometimes propelling them to further success and increased anxiety, which leads to more effort, further success and increased… you see where I’m going with this? It’s amazing how many executives I’ve met who admitted they struggle with this.

In short, it can be a nasty cycle of self-perpetuating doubt and anxiety.

Reality Check

The reality is that it is rare that someone continuously succeeds despite themselves. Though I suppose it’s possible, I’ve never personally seen it. When you think about it, what would have to be in place for that to happen?

  • Everyone around you is utterly incompetent, oblivious, is easily fooled, and has consistently terrible judgment.
  • You are backed and protected by people who are so powerful and influential that your connections to them are more valuable than you producing competent work.

Here’s why neither are likely true. Firstly, if you work with a successful company or group, how did it get successful and stay successful if everyone around you is so incompetent and/or has consistently poor judgment? For this to be true – well, I can’t even think of the cosmically hilarious series of ironies that could result in this. We can probably scratch the first thing off the list.

What about the second one? Ask yourself this: is your last name Rockefeller, Gates, Carnegie, or the equivalent, or is one of your parents addressed as “Senator”, “Her/His Majesty”, or “President”? Even if you said yes to any of the above, it doesn’t immediately mean you’re a phony. While connections provide you easier initial opportunities (and good for you, if you have ‘em!), you still must be the one to succeed on those opportunities. The successful people around you rarely stay successful if they give their support haphazardly. Their judgement gets called into question if they do. Additionally, most successful businesses are all about the bottom line, and if you’re not benefiting them, you wouldn’t be there. It’s more than likely that we can now scratch the second thing off the list.

The odds are you truly deserve your successes! Now, how do you remind yourself of this?

You Likely Know More Than You Think… and You’ll Still Make Mistakes

When you’re surrounded by people who do the same things you do, it’s easy to forget how much you know about your field because your specialized knowledge seems commonplace. If you can, talk to someone new to your field. Things that you perceive as so mundane and routine to you might be mind-blowing information to them. Also, listen to the questions they ask. There’s a decent chance you can answer them, at least in part. A former martial arts instructor of mine used to tell her classes, “It’s tough to realize how much you’ve learned until you see someone who’s brand new to the school practicing things you’ve gotten better at.”

Additionally, you will still make mistakes. This is natural. Mistakes are not conclusive evidence that you are a fraud. The odds are that your batting average for success is pretty good in your work, at least good enough that you continue to keep your job. If you have the conversation suggested above, how did you gain a good chunk of the knowledge you have? Probably through mistakes. Something my dad still says to me when I’m building or installing things around the house is, “Professionals still make mistakes. The difference is that they generally know they can fix them.” It applies here too.

Role Playing For Mental Health

Another thing you can do to remind yourself of why you’re likely not a fraud is based on suggestions made by Clance and Imes in their original journal article. This is going to require a little role playing – and you can even do it without your D20!

Pick someone you’re afraid you fooled. Write them a letter – DON’T SEND IT! – bragging about all the ways in which you’ve fooled them into thinking you’re competent for so long! Maybe you’re so charming or witty that no one notices your mistakes. Maybe you’re a quick learner, even though you hadn’t been trained like others. Once you write it, put on your roleplaying hat and imagine things from their perspective. Write a separate letter from them explaining why you actually have your position. Chances are, the person you chose is someone you respect, and you probably respect them because they outwardly appear to know what they’re doing. Take that into consideration as you write the response.

Parting Thoughts

Recently, I was at a major con and fortunate enough to be able to attend a panel conducted by a whole crew of women who are all very successful in the games industry, all in different ways, and (shameless bragging) several of whom I’m lucky enough to know. When the subject of impostor syndrome was broached, every single one of them nodded in assent. One of them said something we all need to hear: “Remind yourself, you actually deserve to be where you are.”

She’s right.

All Image Credits: Pixelbay/CC

Raffael Boccamazzo (AKA “Dr. B”) is a doctor of clinical psychology and clinical director of He also runs a private psychotherapy and psychological assessment practice in the Seattle area and works with several local groups as a social skills coach, often for older teens and young adults with high functioning autism spectrum diagnoses. In his spare time, he cooks, acts, and plays oodles of different tabletop and video games.

Take This is an informational organization. The resources we provide are for informational purposes only, and should not be used to replace the specialized training and professional judgment of a health care or mental health care professional. For more information about these resources, please visit our website.

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