“I can’t do this.”
“I’m not good enough.”
What do all of these statements have in common? Well, for starters, they’re all negative. That’s pretty obvious. And if anyone made these comments to me, I’d be angry. Really angry. I’d think: “How dare you speak to me like that?” And I’d have every right to respond that way, too. That’s because these statements can be incredibly destructive.
That truth is what brings me to my next, extremely pivotal question: If these statements are so destructive, why, then, would I say them to myself? The answer lies in the second and other unfortunate commonality among these remarks; they’re all examples of negative self-talk, which, I admit, I engage in sometimes. And, I’m here to tell you, “sometimes” is still too often.
This type of mind trash talk (as I like to call it) is so pervasive there’s a name for it: imposter syndrome. Researchers Scott R. Ross and R.A. Krukowski discuss their study of the topic in their article, “The imposter phenomenon and maladaptive personality: Type and trait characteristics.” According to the researchers, imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon (IP) “is a motivational disposition in which persons who have achieved some level of success feel like fakes or imposters.”
First recognized in 1978 by the researchers Clance and Imes, the behavior describes those who, despite achieving high levels of success on standardized tests, earning advanced degrees, and receiving professional recognition for their accomplishments from colleagues or organizations, still fail to experience a sense of success internally. Instead of attributing their success to the above criteria, they credit it to such factors as how hard they work, their attractiveness, how perceptive they are, or charm. In other words, they have an external explanation at the ready for why they do as well as they do.
Originally thought to be more prevalent among women than men, later studies revealed the syndrome affects both genders similarly. The good news is the research likewise found that imposter syndrome didn’t prevent those who experienced it from becoming successful.
However, the bad news is the imposter phenomenon prevented study participants from enjoying their success. Additional studies into the syndrome also demonstrated, experiencing as much success as they potentially could. In other words, researchers found the mindset held those who suffered from it back, which is the last thing anyone needs in their life on a good day, and why it can be particularly damaging during and after a divorce when people’s self-esteem is lacking.
How is imposter syndrome related to divorce?
Besides being an upheaval, divorce can also be a period of great self-reflection. People experience intense shame and guilt for the events currently unfolding and how they will impact the people around them. Those going through the divorce process often believe they are ruining their children’s lives, the family finances, and spouse’s happiness.
But unless you are doing these things for real due to your destructive behavior, say not putting your children’s needs before your own (be honest with yourself), the conversations you have with yourself can keep you mired in the past long after you sign your divorce decree. And this defeats one of the primary purposes of getting divorced: creating a better life post-divorce.
How can imposter syndrome prevent you from moving on after your divorce?
Divorce is neither an ending nor the end of the world. As I can personally attest, being a formerly divorced woman myself (I’ve since remarried), getting a divorce can open up a slew of opportunities for you that a bad or lackluster marriage or unsupportive or abusive spouse kept you from experiencing. In the decade after I left my marriage, I built a successful law practice, raised four children who today each have the skills and initiative to pursue their dreams, and married my best friend. And all of it was notwithstanding the imposter syndrome I suffered from, aka the mean girl whispering in my ear whenever I strived for or reached a goal I had set for myself.
I want to tell you my inner mean girl no longer rears her ugly head, but I’d be lying if I did. Getting her to shut up, despite my successes, is a daily struggle. You wouldn’t believe the terrible things she says to me. It’s stunning. As a working single mom, she’s been right there whispering in my ear all along: You can’t do anything right.
It was more frequent when my kids were young but still happens from time to time. She told me I stink at my job and being a mom. She told me I should be home cooking dinner and helping the kids with their homework when I had to work. Then when I missed my daughter’s parent-teacher conference because I went away for the weekend and a snowstorm prevented me from flying back in time, she went to town on me.
The constant barrage from her over the years affected how swiftly I moved forward with my life after divorce. Everything felt like a struggle, even when it didn’t have to be like that. I felt uncertain all the time. I didn’t know if I should try or give up and questioned every decision I made. Despite building this new, wonderful life for myself, I wasn’t savoring it the way I knew I should. So one day, I just decided that this mean girl had to be reigned in and began implementing strategies to silence her every time she got out of hand.
Is what my inner mean girl telling me as a result of imposter syndrome real?
Of course, what my mean girl told me wasn’t real. I was conscious to act with my children’s best interests at heart. Deep down, I also knew I was smart and educated and, therefore, had the tools to think my decisions through, including the decision to cut my flight close to my daughter’s parent-teacher conference and assume the minimal risk of missing it. The odds were in my favor that I wouldn’t miss it. Still, I “lost” the bet anyway. My inner mean girl was sure to remind me of that, too.
Here’s what she didn’t count on: life has a way of working itself out, including in this instance. Another family member attended the conference on my behalf, the sun rose the next day, and nobody suffered irreparable damage, including me. It’s why I wish I would’ve told my inner mean girl to stand down sooner. The problem was I didn’t yet have the skills required to do that. Not long after, though, I decided to make silencing her a goal of mine.
How can you overcome imposter syndrome after divorce?
In much the same way as I approach topics I don’t know much about, I began researching how I felt. That’s when I first discovered what imposter syndrome was. Hooray for Google! Not only did it have a name, but a lot of other people were also dealing with negative self-talk.
Even better, there were specific strategies to deal with it, none of which are challenging. They merely require mental practice. The same way you need to exercise your muscles, you need to exercise your brain to change how you think about who you are and what you’re doing in your life.
So, the next time you start second-guessing your actions and objectives, ask yourself: Is what I’m thinking the truth, or is this my inner mean girl (or guy) speaking? Eavesdrop on your internal conversations. Consider what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. Then make your decisions based on the facts you have at your disposal.
Have you succeeded before? If you failed, did you succeed another time after that? Were there any takeaways from those times you were unsuccessful? My guess is there are because, guess what, there always are if you look hard enough. If the conversation you’ve been having with yourself is untrue, tell that inner mean girl to go away, and shut her down immediately. Then get out of your head. This simple exercise can make a world of difference.
How is imposter syndrome different from your inner voice?
That’s not to say you should stop listening to your inner voice altogether. I’m not saying that at all. Our inner voice, or gut, is often spot on; that is when that voice asks us objective and analytical questions. Can I afford this? What are the positives, and what are the negatives if I choose to follow a specific path?
If that’s the conversation, listen to your heart’s content. Figure out what you need to do differently, and then make incremental changes. The key is to stay in a forward-moving motion. Often, the best ideas are the ones roughest at their inception, including, and especially, the idea that you can do whatever you set your mind to — during your divorce and long after it.