When my son was just a few hours old, he began to cry in his tiny plastic hospital bassinet. I picked him up and tried to latch him to my breast, assuming he must be hungry…again. He continued to cry, so I tried to burp him, figuring he must have gas. When that didn't work, I tried shushing him while patting his butt. His wails only grew louder, and panic tightened my chest.
Finally, certain something was seriously wrong with my new baby boy, I called the nurse. I ticked off the list of things I had tried unsuccessfully, and waited for her face to turn grave. Instead, she smiled patiently and took him gently from my arms. She laid down his tense little body, opened his diaper, and there it was – poop. My son had passed his first stool. How could I not have known that's what was wrong? That was the first time I felt like an impostor as a mother, but far from the last.
Of course, I was not an impostor. I was legitimately his mother, and I had tried many reasonable things to comfort him. But that wasn't how I felt at the time. All I could see were my faults. And I was sure that everyone else would soon see them too.
Turns out this feeling is not unusual: In 1978, two clinical psychologists, Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, were studying high-achieving women when they noticed that many women felt like frauds in their lives. They coined the term Impostor Phenomenon (IP) to describe the inability to accept and acknowledge accomplishments, even when confronted with evidence of competence or skill. Instead, many of the women studied had deep feelings of self-doubt and lived in fear of being discovered as a "fraud."
They identified four key behaviors to this phenomenon that will no doubt feel familiar if you've ever experienced IP:
Being diligent. You may work extremely hard to compensate for what you perceive as incompetence. But that's a catch-22 because extra work can earn special praise, which reinforces the idea that you can succeed only through diligence and extra work. As a mom experiencing IP, you may overwork to seem like the "perfect mom." You may worry that asking for help would reveal you to be the impostor you feel like.
Feeling fake. The impostor phenomenon makes you doubt your opinions and insights. And when you doubt the worth of your opinion, you are less likely to share it. Even worse, when you don't share your opinions, you fail to recognize when your views would be valuable. This cycle of being afraid to share, and then missing the opportunity to make a helpful contribution, can trap you in a place of going through the motions of what you believe you're "supposed" to do instead of approaching motherhood and other situations in a way that feels most comfortable to you.
Using charm. You may also convince yourself that you're not worthy of being liked, and that you must charm others into liking you. But, again, this creates a catch-22: If you do feel others' admiration, you may assume that person has been tricked into liking you, so the admiration does not feel genuine (which reinforces the mistaken idea that you are not liked). You also might feel as though you have no true friends – ones who know and support the "real" you.
Avoiding confidence. Each defining behavior characteristic of IP causes a loss of confidence. This, plus the fact that we live in a society which undervalues and discourages confidence in women, creates a situation in which you not only undervalue yourself, but you also experience daily societal reinforcement of that underestimation. In mothers, these behaviors and internalized societal beliefs can interfere with being able to freely engage in your child's life. Because when you believe you do not bring value, why bother trying?
All these elements can prevent women from taking risks or seeking opportunities in the face of the unrealistic expectations they have placed on themselves. And what time in our lives is more wrought with both opportunity and expectation than motherhood? IP encourages "all or nothing" thinking, meaning you are either the greatest mom or the worst. And our flaws – which we all have – become the way we define ourselves.
Here's the good (or at least comforting) news: IP primarily happens among high functioning, high achieving individuals. In other words - actual frauds – like con-artists and liars – don't worry about this. It also keeps company with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, which are both very treatable conditions. Since I was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) after my son was born, I find this comforting. I understand my feelings of being an impostor as an additional symptom of my conditions, and I know that professional mental health support will help me manage it.
Feeling like an impostor and living with this kind of constant self-criticism is uncomfortable at best, and destructive to you and your family's happiness at worst. So I came up with a few tips and tricks of my own for avoiding the sensation altogether.
Manage your exposure to social media. Nothing makes me feel like an impostor more than social media. Living in a culture saturated with social media gives us the impression that we are viewing other people's reality. However, much of what we see is filtered and vignetted just so, blurring the lines between the real world and the insta-perfect. Remember that people are sharing their highlight reels with the world, so don't compare your blooper reel to these. And take a break from the contrived perfection of social media whenever you need to.
Replace negativity with compliments. It's so easy to compare yourself negatively to other people – we all do it. Complimenting another person is one way that works for me to reduce negative comparisons. Does an online photo of your friend's new hairstyle make you fiddle with your split ends? Post a compliment. Feeling crappy that your friend's child eats kale salad, while yours won't even touch a green Froot Loop? Let her know you think it's great that her child likes such healthy food. Challenge your self-perception by complimenting. It works.
Reach out to others. Treat moments of self-doubt like a signal to have a conversation with someone who can give you a reality check. Whenever you feel that creeping sensation of fraud, work through it instead of choking it down! One way I do this is to find someone I trust enough to say, "I feel like a fraud." Inevitably my friend is quick to remind me about all the ways that I am a genuinely accomplished person and mom. Let the people who love you help remind you of your worth.
Treat yourself as you treat others. If you don't have someone readily available to help you get in touch with your good qualities, do it for yourself. Imagine that a friend came to you with the same concerns you have. Take a minute to consider what you would say to her, then tell yourself those things. Better yet, write them down. Make a list of all the things you accomplished that day and all the ways you are a good mom. (And remember, your child only needs a mom who is "good enough.") Keeping a journal of all the things you do successfully and all the things you are grateful for is a great way to be in touch with the goodness in you.
Switch to a growth mindset. People prone to IP often have what's called a performance mindset, meaning they're focused entirely on the how well they are doing because they are fearful of failure. A growth mindset, on the other hand, embraces setbacks as an inevitable part of life and learning. I think this concept was best summed up by Thomas Edison when he said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
Dare to believe the praise of others. Break the cycle of self-doubt by removing self-diminishing words from your vocabulary. For example, stop saying things like "just" and "only." When someone compliments you, don't dismiss or discredit the praise. Even if you don't believe it, just say "thank you" and try to take it in. The act of thanking someone can be a powerful step to eliminating self-doubt (bit by bit).
Break the cycle of IP among mothers by talking about it. Being open about our experiences not only helps us feel less alone in our struggles, it also creates a safe place for other women to navigate their emotions and doubts. After all, if we're all impostors, then no one is.
Get professional support if:
- Your self-doubt feels devastating to you or interferes with your ability to function.
- You get caught in black and white thinking.
- You constantly fear the worst will happen.
- You feel incapable of caring for your baby, are worried that you may harm your baby, or feel your baby or family would be better off without you.
These are all potential signs of a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder that can be treated effectively with therapy or medication or both.
I know all these things are easier said than done, but it is important that you feel good as a mom and know your worth as a person. Because you are not an impostor. You are a human who struggles just like all of us. And you are supported.