Sensitive people have high potential, and many are even gifted. So why do they feel like they’re faking it?
The highly sensitive, gifted creative adults I see as a psychologist often come to me because they feel like they are tied in knots. One of the most common tangles they experience is imposter syndrome. It’s so common and so important to address that I regularly ask about it in the first session.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is the belief that you are not good enough and the persistent fear that you will be exposed as a fake or imposter. When someone struggles with imposter syndrome, any success they may achieve or goals they may accomplish get dismissed as a fluke, an accident, or something unimportant. By contrast, any setbacks they experience serve as “proof” that they don’t really deserve success.
Despite its name, imposter syndrome is not not a diagnosable mental disorder and there are no reliable clinical tools to assess or treat it. Because of this, it is sometimes called “imposter phenomenon” instead. However, it is a recognized phenomenon that is widely studied by researchers, and we do have an understanding of how it works. Imposter syndriome is more common in people from marginalized groups, for example. This may explain why sensitive people — who often face a stigma related to their sensitivity — and neurodivergent people are more likely to experience imposter syndrome.
Some signs of imposter syndrome include:
- You have a hard time believing that you deserve your success.
- The sense that you are tricking people into believing you are capable, even if you’ve done nothing deceptive.
- You believe others don’t think you belong, even if they’ve done nothing to indicate that.
- You’re worried others will think you’re a fraud if they get to know the real you
- You attribute your success to factors other than your own competence, such as luck, help from others, pity, or a supervisor having a “soft spot” for you
- You often see setbacks as proof that you are not good enough or don’t deserve your success
- The creeping feeling that you will be “caught” at any moment as not really being as capable or talented as people thought you were
In particular, someone experiencing imposter syndrome believes that it is only a matter of time until their secret incompetence and unworthiness is exposed to the world. To prevent that exposure, it becomes more and more important to try to hide their flaws and perceived inadequacies. They lose the ability to show their authentic self to the world.
This tangle of thoughts and feelings is rooted in shame and a sense of otherness. Imposter syndrome occurs along a spectrum from mild to intense, so painful that a person may develop anxiety and/or depression symptoms because of how difficult it becomes to move toward their goals, accept themselves, and feel comfortable with other people.
Many of us were raised with the “never let them see you sweat” mentality. We might struggle to acknowledge feeling like an imposter, but it is most certainly not an uncommon experience. A review of over 50 years of research shows that as many as 82 percent of subjects acknowledged experiencing imposter syndrome, especially if subjects were people of color. Imposter syndrome seemed to be common across gender identities and from adolescence through late adulthood.
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Why Is Imposter Syndrome So Common for Sensitive People?
Highly sensitive people are defined by being wired at a brain level to process all information more deeply than the average person. This deeper processing, known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), is what makes us physically and emotionally sensitive and it’s also why our sensitivity is linked to giftedness, high creativity, and other valuable traits. This means that sensitive people have high potential yet seem very “different” from the mainstream, and don’t always fit in. This combination is a recipe for imposter syndrome.
Being sensitive also carries a stigma. As highly sensitive people, we are told (and tell ourselves) that we are “too much” — too sensitive, too reactive to the world, too deep. At the same time, we are “not enough” — not able to work long enough, not tough enough, not focused enough. The language of how we are different from people without the sensitivity trait mirrors the language of imposter syndrome.
What I have noticed with my clients is how keenly HSPs struggle with the intensity of imposter syndrome. We come up with exquisitely detailed explanations of why our imposter feelings are truths about who we are and how we relate to others, courtesy of our deep thinking and ability to detect subtle “proof” of our inadequacy.
For instance, if an HSP are presenting to a group of people at work, we might notice that one out of the 10 listeners makes a slight facial grimace. We take this as evidence of how badly we formulated and communicated our plan, how likely our plan is to fail, and how little we deserve our current position. We suffer from a flood of emotions that is slow to ease, and a sense of disconnection from our colleagues (due to a sense that we do not measure up and or belong). We might even feel a sense of guilt over “fooling” people for however long we are able to maintain our mask of competence.
The force of these emotions, thoughts, empathic pulls, and subtle details nearly always culminates in feelings of overwhelm and overstimulation. Imposter syndrome becomes both the source of our inner turmoil and the sign of our struggle to self-regulate.
How Is Imposter Syndrome Connected to Giftedness (and Being Sensitive)?
Imposter syndrome is especially problematic for adults who are gifted — and high sensitivity is strongly linked to giftedness. According to the IHBV, a Dutch research and advocacy institute for gifted individuals, 77 percent of gifted people score as highly sensitive; a 2016 study put the number even higher, at 87 percent. Of course, that does not mean that all highly sensitive people are “gifted” as defined by researchers. But there is a very strong connection between the two.
My gifted HSP clients frequently struggle to believe that they are meeting their potential (that word often becomes a dreaded trigger for imposter feelings). And, in part, this is because of confusion about what it means to be “gifted.”
It is helpful to conceptualize giftedness as both an exceptionality and a high capacity for achievement in a particular area, such as intellect/academics, athletics, art, music, language, or technology. Some gifted people have been formally identified, such as through an in-school intellectual assessment, but many others have not. If their exceptionality lies outside of academics, their giftedness may not have been recognized or valued. In addition, many gifted people may not have had the resources, support, or encouragement to develop their capacity to achieve.
As Jenn Granneman and Andre Sólo, co-founders of Sensitive Refuge, note in their book Sensitive, giftedness and deep emotional sensitivity often coexist, the product of brains that work with greater intensity in all areas of human experience. But most people are not equally gifted or equally accomplished across all areas of their lives. When society expects gifted adults to be models of success and achievement in all their undertakings, or when gifted people internalize this message, they are set up to struggle with imposter syndrome.
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Owning Your Imposter Syndrome Is a Power Move for HSPs
My number-one piece of advice for HSPs, especially gifted ones, is to unapologetically own your imposter syndrome.
Take me, for example. I am a gifted HSP who frequently feels like I am not a good enough person, psychologist, or author. I wonder who would listen to me. I second-guess my credentials, background, and expertise. I hope you aren’t doing the same thing, although I suspect you may be.
Whew! I cannot say that it necessarily brings relief or feels good to acknowledge my imposter syndrome. But it does feel empowering.
When we acknowledge the truth about ourselves, we empower ourselves to focus on how we wish to live that truth and live our purpose. And imposter syndrome is something that HSPs need to learn to live with, because, unfortunately, there is not a magic wand to make it disappear.
So ask yourself what it means to you to be highly sensitive and/or gifted. How do the DOES traits show up in your experience of imposter syndrome? Then, be genuine with yourself about your needs. Commit to radically caring for yourself so that you are regulated, rested, and engaged meaningfully in your life. Doing so will help keep the imposter syndrome voices at a level where you can manage them more easily. After all, no one feels confident and accomplished if they’re overstimulated and driven to distraction.
Another recommendation I make for owning your imposter syndrome is to advocate for systems change. Neither you nor I are the only gifted or HSPs who are struggling to get through what Granneman and Sólo call “a loud, fast, too-much world” without feeling like imposters. See where you can make hyper-local, small improvements in the world around you. You might use your knowledge of what it is like to be an HSP to help schools, workplaces, families, and cultural institutions become more aware of what helps HSPs thrive, especially since things like quiet, reduced stimulation, and a slower pace of life tend to be good for everyone, not just sensitive people.
See if you can encourage the groups to which you belong to embrace diversity, rather than using a narrow, normative lens that feeds the HSP sense that we do not belong. Bonus points if you can join with other people who are doing the same work. You’ll get the added benefit of feeling connected to a community of sympathetic people. Advocating for others is a way of affirming our own identity and combatting our internalized stigma about being highly sensitive or gifted.
How to Change the Story You Tell Yourself
Finally, you can own your imposter syndrome by creating a different story about yourself. Channel your rebellious, inner child or adolescent (or borrow one, if you cannot connect with your own) to help you craft a narrative that puts imposter syndrome in its place. Teens have the capacity for bravado, acting as if they don’t feel their insecurities and doubts. See if you can channel that spirit — but be sure to balance it with the wisdom and self-compassionate honesty of adulthood.
Your new story of living with imposter syndrome might go something like this:
“I have really struggled to feel like I’m good enough in this area of my life. But that’s not all my fault. The culture makes it hard to be someone like me. Yet I’m not going to let those negative messages define me. I’m going to be gentle with the parts of me that feel scared, inadequate, or embarrassed. But I’m also going to tackle this thing I want to do. I deserve to be, and do, what I want to do, and I’m not going to let my imposter syndrome stand in my way.”
Own your imposter syndrome. There are many amazing things about being a highly sensitive person, and you deserve to build the life you desire, with less turmoil and less focus on what other people think. The possibilities are endless. You’ll see.
To tackle your imposter syndrome head-on, and learn how to build a Singularly Sensitive lifestyle, please check out my new book, Wander and Delve: A Journal for Bright, Creative, Highly Sensitive People Forging Their Way.
You might like:
- Are Highly Sensitive People Neurodivergent?
- How to Overcome Shame and Self-Doubt as a Highly Sensitive Person
- How to (Actually) Find Your Purpose as a Highly Sensitive Person
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