Every new parent has gazed into the face of their screaming infant and thought, What do I do with this? What if it doesn’t stop crying, and what idiot put me in a position of authority over this helpless creature anyway? Even the best-prepared parents — those who took every parenting class and read every baby book they could get their hands on — are likely to find real-life parenting challenging, if not outright terrifying. This is why it’s natural for parents to sometimes feel unqualified. It could be fleeting or it might linger, but most parents have experienced imposter syndrome, a sense that any minute now, someone might tap them on the shoulder and say, “Hey, you, we know. The jig is up.”
Although not a clinical psychological diagnosis, most people are familiar with this phenomenon, known as “imposter syndrome.” Imposter syndrome can affect people in a range of contexts, including work and hobbies and marriage and parenting, because it stems from how we see ourselves, says Paul Greene, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City.
There’s no confirmed link between imposter syndrome and a person’s background, genetics or personality traits, Greene says. But it can be considered a cousin of sorts to low self-esteem.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
“We can define imposter syndrome as a repeated and significant ongoing pattern,” Greene says. “A meaningful distinction to make here is the difference between feeling like an imposter and ‘imposter syndrome.’ If you notice your assessment of your skill set is consistently worse than feedback you’re getting from others, that’s a red flag for imposter syndrome.”
Most people probably feel like they have little idea what they’re doing when they first arrive home with their new baby, he says. But that’s different than secretly feeling like you’re ill-equipped to care for your child eight years later, Greene offers as an example, which could be more a problem of low self-esteem.
“When we find ourselves faced with any significant new challenge, we can have doubts that make us feel like we don’t belong or like we’re not up to the task,” Greene says. “Parenting in particular is fertile ground for imposter syndrome because it’s the biggest responsibility most people have. Imposter syndrome tends to rear its head when we’re trying to do something that feels consequential or impressive to us. And what could be more consequential than raising a child?”
When Imposter Syndrome Strikes Parents
Being a parent is always novel to some extent, and parenthood is a known major stressor, notes Ethan Kross, Ph.D., psychologist, University of Michigan professor and author of the forthcoming Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters and How to Harness It.
“When you put a person in a situation that arouses stress, people automatically ask themselves, ‘What’s required of me, and can I manage the situation?’” Kross says. “If you take stock of a situation and can’t handle it, that elicits a threat response. With imposter syndrome, that can mean reverberating chatter in your head that you can’t do it and don’t know how you’re going to manage.”
Imposter syndrome also can affect people of color disproportionately, says Leela Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist in Newport Beach, California. The pressures of systemic racism can make people of color feel like they’re not performing well enough to compensate for or negate social prejudices. At times, even success can have an alienating effect, she says.
“Performing well when peers and family members have not can cause these individuals to feel lonely, misunderstood, and ostracized by their own community,” Magavi says. “[Patients] have told me that their family members have asked them if they’re not proud of who they are solely because they have disparate aspirations and goals.”
This might make people feel lost and unvalued, which can result in poor self-esteem and even depression, she says.
For anyone experiencing it, imposter syndrome can cause demoralization and worsen mood and anxiety symptoms, as well as raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to chronic health problems, Magavi continues.
Spinning, anxious thoughts that you’re inadequate or a fraud can affect decision making and performance. “We have only a limited amount of attention for problem solving, answering emails or watching a movie, for example,” says Kross. “If our mind is consumed with other things, that prevents us from focusing on the task at hand.”
Imposter syndrome, therefore, can make people more irritable and lash out at family members, which is called misplaced aggression, he says.
It also might lead to infidelity in some couples, Magavi says.
“People with imposter syndrome are more likely to perceive their relationships as unstable,” she explains. “Similarly, they may feel that they’re unworthy of their partner’s time and affection.”
Magavi says people who had an insecure attachment with their primary caregiver during childhood might deal with feelings of fear of abandonment as adults.
“Some try to tackle this fear by leaving their partners first, and it may be more common with parents who perceive their parenting as subpar,” Magavi says. “Infidelity temporarily fills individuals’ voids, but over time, they may begin to feel like they are undeserving of their new partner, and the cycle perpetuates.”
If you or your partner struggle with imposter syndrome, it won’t necessarily drive one of you to cheat, however. Some therapists haven’t seen any link between imposter syndrome and cheating.
“Oftentimes people cheat when they’re not getting their needs met or they experience a disconnection in their relationship,” says Atlanta psychologist Laura Louis, Ph.D. “[But] I specialize in infidelity and have done over 200 infidelity workshops, and I haven’t seen the connection between cheating and imposter syndrome.”
Nearly all parents experience moments of general self-doubt, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD., a clinical psychologist in New York City. New parents can feel less sure of themselves each time they cross a developmental transition with children, such as when they’re disciplining children for the first time and managing age-appropriate boundaries, she says.
“[But] there is a threshold for how much hesitation contributes to effective functioning thought,” Romanoff says. “Once it surpasses a healthy level of self-doubt, it begins to have a paralyzing effect.”
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
The antidote for feeling like a fraud is learning how to ask for reassurance from your partner, praising your partner’s efforts and contributions and setting realistic expectations, says licensed marriage and family therapist Elisabeth Goldberg. But rather than simply announcing you have imposter syndrome, identify the feelings underneath and address them, she says. Your feelings of inadequacy might stem from guilt, jealousy, shame, fear and anger.
“Address shame by asking your partner, ‘What can I do better to help make your life easier? I want to help because I want you to feel supported,’” Goldberg says.
If you need time for yourself, ask for it in a respectful way. Don’t say, “I can’t deal with this anymore,” she says. Instead, phrase it as, “I need to calm down so I don’t do or say something I will regret. Please let me take a walk or go to a different room so I can calm myself down and be the best partner for you.”
Good communication is key in relationships. But at the same time, you know your relationship better than anyone else and are the best judge for how much sharing of emotions is welcome, Greene notes.
It might also be worth noting the importance of picking a time to talk when you and your partner can focus on each other. When your wife is delirious with exhaustion and nearly in tears struggling to breastfeed, it might not be the best time to announce, “Hey, I’m feeling sad and inadequate and need help.”
In addition to asking for your partner’s assistance, there are some strategies to combat imposter syndrome that you can try on your own.
Kross says “psychic distancing” can be a helpful tactic, as it can instill a broader perspective. “People might have skill in advising other people about their problems, but we lack the same insight when dealing with our own,” Kross says.
It can be helpful to refer to ourselves (silently) like we’re someone else, he says. That tends to mentally shift people into “coach mode” and makes them more likely to view problems as challenges rather than threats. Personal pep talks, such as, “Come on, Ethan, you’ve done this before and you managed. You can do it again!” can be surprisingly effective, Kross says.
Parenting pep talks might help combat feelings of inadequacy that can stem from seeing an endless stream of supposedly perfect parenting snaps on social media.
“Social media can have a negative effect on parenting self-esteem,” Romanoff says. “Parents can get over this feeling if they accept themselves as humans, not perfect robots. It’s not a robot dad that kids need, but rather one who’s loving and caring.”
Try writing out a list of the ways you take good care of your kids to remind yourself of successes, Romanoff suggests. “This will help balance the bias they have towards their mistakes,” she says.
Certified professional coach and parenting advocate Elaine Taylor-Klaus says she doesn’t think many parents really feel, deep down, that they’re incompetent or unqualified.
“Rather, I think most adults deep down feel like they’re unqualified to be adults, and that translates to our role as parents,” Taylor-Klaus says. “[But] when we can be transparent with our kids and let them know that we don’t always know what we’re doing, while expressing confidence that we’ll figure it out, then we model humility, and invite our kids to join us in an ongoing process of collaborative problem-solving.”
That way, we teach our kids — and ourselves — what it really means to be an adult, which is to constantly work toward overcoming imposter syndrome, she says.
Pat, a teacher in Rhode Island and father of a 5-year-old girl, also is skeptical that many parents feel woefully inadequate in their roles.
“I never really wanted a child, but now that I have one, it is the best thing ever,” says Pat, who asked Fatherly to conceal his identity. “Initially, I had no idea what I was doing. When we took her home from the hospital, our lives were turned upside down. But you get into a sort of routine. I don’t really hear other parents saying they feel like frauds, either. In the social media age, it seems like everyone is an authority on every subject.”
If you feel like imposter syndrome is a pattern for you, know that it is normal for new parents to feel a jolt of anxiety or incompetence as they learn to take care of their child, Greene says. If it persists and starts to become a real problem, it might be time to consult a professional.
“We never ‘get over stuff,’ we work through it,” adds Mark Mayfield, a licensed professional counselor and father of two (with a third child on the way). “When we do that, we develop resilience and grit. Imposter syndrome might come back, but when we know how to work through it, we [don’t have to be] afraid of it.”