How Does Impostor Syndrome Manifest in Romantic Relationships?

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The other day a good friend sent me a link to a talk on Impostor Syndrome. A man named Nickolas Means presented this talk at Railsconf 2014. Nickolas explained that Impostor Syndrome is attributed to the research of psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance. This phenomenon typically occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often feel like they are pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, and are in constant danger of being found out as frauds. Put simply, people with Impostor Syndrome don’t believe that they are worthy of the accolades and achievements that they have earned.

As a student of psychology, I was interested in the topic. I found myself leaning forward in my chair, hanging on every word that came out of Nickolas’s mouth. He described how he never felt worthy of the recognition he received. He talked about how he overcompensated in order to not be found out. He was plagued with a sense of self-doubt and fear. He shared that he did not trust praise from his boss or coworkers. Despite the evidence that he was competent and doing a good job, he had a constant fear that he was going to be fired.

As I listened, something strange started to happen. I noticed that I was beginning to get very anxious and a sinking feeling of familiarity had formed in the pit of my stomach. Could he be talking about me?

Now, I have to own up here. While I have achieved accomplishments in my life that I am very proud of, I would not describe myself as a high achiever. This is not modesty or Impostor Syndrome, it is simple honesty. For the most part, I am completely comfortable with my level of achievement and collection of successes in life. I feel competent in my job as a social worker and in my work as a life coach. This talk was specifically on how Impostor Syndrome manifests in academic and professional situations, it really didn’t apply to me. Still, I was having quite a reaction. What was going on?

As I continued to watch, the feeling grew. It transformed from a sinking feeling to a tightness in my chest. I definitely recognized myself in his story. By the time the video was over, I was crying. I knew I had to sit with this and dig deeper. I shut my computer and allowed the tears to flow. Then the words came out of my mouth. “I am an impostor. I do not believe that I am worthy of love.” Wow! Where did that come from? Ouch!

So, I asked myself, “is this true?” The answer that came back was, “yes.” This led to more tears.

The friend who sent me this video had done so with the specific request that I write about how Impostor Syndrome manifests in romantic relationships. I will be honest, I wasn’t intending for this to be a personal piece. I was planning on watching the talk, doing a quick Google search, and typing out a blog post about believing in yourself and knowing your worth. I would pepper the article with a few pithy, entertaining antidotes about people I know and publish it. I certainly wasn’t planning on having such a visceral reaction. This was unexpected and has forced me to change direction.

I write about relationships–it’s what I do. I write about my personal experiences and my journey of moving through my divorce. I write about taking responsibility for my part in how my relationships ended and about healing my heart in order to allow new love in. All of these topics have been difficult for me to write about, and have left me feeling vulnerable and raw upon publishing. But this one feels like a dozy!

The realization that I do not feel worthy of love bonked me over the head and sent me on a fact finding mission. How does the belief that I am an impostor in my relationships manifest itself? How does it affect my behavior in relationship? How does it affect my partners?

Let’s start at the beginning. I have felt like an impostor in all of my romantic relationships. I believed that the title of girlfriend or wife belonged to someone prettier than me, skinner than me, smarter, wittier, funnier than me. I didn’t feel worthy of the love that the men in my life were professing to feel for me. I didn’t feel safe in relationship because I didn’t trust that I belonged there. I convinced myself that at any minute the man who I was with would realize that I was a fake, and the world that I had created would come crashing down around me.

In some cases, these self-limiting thoughts stood in the way of my asking for the love that I was worthy of. Self-doubt and fear lead me to make poor decisions in love. They caused me to change myself to be the person who I thought my partner wanted to be with. I had a superstition that in order to earn love I had be someone different. I believed that I had to compensate for my perceived shortcomings by working hard and sacrificing myself in relationship.

In some cases, these thoughts stood in the way of my accepting the love that I was worthy of. Impostor Syndrome manifested as a barrier to intimacy and cultivating deeper love. In order to not be found out as a fraud and protect myself, I covered up my raw humanness and didn’t allow myself to be vulnerable in relationship. It caused me to sabotage relationships by actually convincing the person who I was with that I really wasn’t worthy. Or it caused me bail out of healthy, happy relationships before he could figure out that I was a fraud. It robbed me the ability to enjoy the relationship.

In some cases, the belief that I didn’t belong kept me in relationships for longer than their expiration date. I held on too tightly because I felt lucky to be in the relationship and to have fooled that person into being with me

In all cases, my belief that I wasn’t worthy of love meant that I denied my partners of my authentic self. It also meant that I denied myself of honest, loving, and fulfilling relationships.

In his talk Nickolas explains how Impostor Syndrome keeps him from bringing his whole self to the table. It keeps him from believing the praise that his boss and coworkers adorn him with. In my relationships, I didn’t trust my partners’ loving overtures and I put a wall between myself and them. If I don’t let someone see me, they can’t figure out that I don’t belong there. This is a protection mechanism to keep them from figuring out the truth about me. The truth is I am human, and being human means being raw and imperfect.

So now that I know this, where do I go from here? The key is to learn to differentiate what is real from what is imagined. The first step, according to Nickolas, is to recognize that you have Impostor Syndrome. Nickolas suggests that we get curious. He says that we need to pay attention to how we react to the world’s messages and to be mindful of when we are deflecting positive messages that come our way.

My work now is to learn to ask for support and accept love. To share myself openly and fully with the people who love me. To believe that the people who love me want me to be myself. To believe that my faults are part of being human and that they are ok. I have to own my love and believe that it is amazing and brilliant. The idea of allowing someone to love me fully is terrifying, but there it is the only place to go from here.









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