Stop! Impostor!  – Interpersonal anxiety and impostor syndrome 

I wrote a blog post on this topic not too long ago but a number of people have been asking me about it and I have noticed some issues with myself too so I thought it might be worth a new post.

The title refers to a phenomenon known as impostor syndrome. What it means is that people who look confident and capable on the face of things are actually struggling with the idea that they are not able to do what they do. They doubt themselves and often wonder just when someone finds out they are just pretending to be proficient.

This is very common in professional arenas and particularly – although not exclusively – with women. Along with professional impostor syndrome is another, similar but different guise – what I think of as  interpersonal impostor syndrome.

While it is important to understand the professional type of impostor syndrome when we are in the workplace, I think the more pressing one can be the interpersonal one.

Impostor syndrome in interpersonal relationships can involve:

  • People  thinking they are essentially unlikeable and nobody actually likes them, even though they have caring friends
  • Reading additional and incorrect meaning into interpersonal  interactions
  • Significant self-doubt
  • Being hyper-vigilant around friendships and relationships – a sort of interpersonal perfectionism where people avoid dong or saying anything which might be interpreted as confrontational or critical
  • Joining peer groups and ‘cultures’ in order to be accepted, even if the person does not share the views of the group
  • Catastrophising around friends’ actions and misreading responses.

I know that I fit many of those attributes. Here is an example of something related to impostor syndrome which happens to me much more often than I would like.

I have a friend who I know mostly from social media who I really respect. She is a writer and a great disability activist. I love her writing and her work to make the world a better and more inclusive place. I would never knowingly say or do anything to upset this friend. We often like and comment on each other’s posts on social media. One day I commented on my friend’s post and a little while later I sent her a direct message. Only a few hours later I hadn’t had a response to comment or message so I panicked, I worried I had said something really rude or mean inadvertently (and yes, I know that is pretty much impossible to do but it is a frequent worry of mine!) I got so anxious that my friend thought I was horrible that I dug out her business card and called her on the phone. Of course I hadn’t done anything terrible, she was busy and hadn’t got to her social media yet. I felt pretty foolish and was very grateful she understood. For me – and I imagine many others who experience this interpersonal impostor syndrome, even though we know our friends or our partner wouldn’t simply stop talking to us, the anxiety can make our irrational thoughts seem very real.

These things tend to come from somewhere. If I look at my formative years, I was bullied throughout high school and subjected to abuse and violence as a young adult and was given a lot of negative messaging about my character, my capability and other attributes. I was taught through this invalidation to dislike myself, to feel anxious and ashamed, to worry that even close friends would suddenly distance themselves from me if I did something ‘wrong’ to upset them. I think for a lot of people in groups which tend to be disadvantaged – in my case Autistic people and people with mental illness – we get so much negative reinforcement and criticism that it amazes us as to why anyone would even consider being our friend.

There are some strategies which people can use around this. One is the simple reality check. If you can, find out what others see from their probably more objective viewpoint outside of your anxious brain.

One thing that I do is to use logic with myself when I am filled with doubt and interpersonal anxiety. What does the evidence show me? Were my comments on my friends’ Facebook post filled with anger or judgement or intended to be hurtful? If not it probably isn’t that. Also step outside of yourself and remember that other people do things differently to you. Some people might use social media or email differently to you causing you anxiety that they are not aware of – and why would they be?.

Find some strategies to deal with interpersonal anxiety. Things like mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy or deep breathing can be helpful with anxiety. Remember that anxiety is a response to a situation but it can move beyond that and became a more general, amorphous thing which permeates other areas of your life. If this is happening, addressing the interpersonal anxiety may not make the anxious feelings go away. So having means to address anxiety more generally is a good idea. Finally, work on your self-confidence and positive self-talk. This is often a long-term strategy and can be difficult but it really helps. Once you know that people like you because you are likeable, that is a very good thing. I know I am still on there journey towards that point.

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