Does Imposter Syndrome Plague Adult Children of Alcoholics?

Growing up in a family affected by alcoholism or addiction—or any other situation that prevents adults from being able to parent effectively—leaves a legacy borne by the next generation. Kids grow up bringing their hurts, fears and addiction-infused ideas about the world, relationships and emotions into adulthood with them. There are many excellent resources for learning more about how addiction impacts the family and just how these experiences play out in adulthood. Some of the commonalities adult children of alcoholics experience include:

  • Mood issues and a tendency to become depressed
  • Feeling like they are guessing at what “normal” is
  • A tendency to judge themselves and others harshly
  • Being overly serious and intense
  • Having trouble tolerating intimacy

While different children in the family of an addict or alcoholic may take on different roles and thus experience their adult issues somewhat differently (for example, a family hero might take on being overly responsible, while a lost child might struggle more with self doubt and depression), it is widely accepted that adults who grew up in households affected by addiction may experience these and other emotional or psychological challenges in adulthood.

The Imposter Syndrome

Not a formal diagnosis, but a consistently described collection of symptoms, the Imposter Syndrome has been written about by psychologists and therapists since the 1970s. Understood as a condition that seems to impact women more than men, the Imposter Syndrome affects successful people, filling them with self doubt and a sense of dread, expecting that at any time they could be “found out” as the imposters they are. These people see their own achievements or accomplishments as the result of luck, or they attribute their success to someone else’s actions. It is difficult or impossible for people struggling with this syndrome to own their own skills and talents, and instead see themselves as incompetent and at risk of being discovered. The Imposter Syndrome is most often described as a self esteem issue. Due to the harsh criticism these folks will heap upon themselves, and the constant arguing against or discounting of their accomplishments, they are constantly working harder to cover up their inadequacies, and as a result are often extremely successful.

How Is This Related to Addiction?

Reading up on the Imposter Syndrome, connections to a childhood impacted by addiction are generally not made. The Imposter Syndrome is regarded as a psychological problem and most websites mentioning it suggest psychotherapy as treatment. But looking a little bit deeper at the constellation of symptoms that impact adult children of alcoholics, it seems clear that adding the Imposter Syndrome to that list isn’t much of a stretch. Already struggling with self esteem, and already guessing at normal, the Imposter Syndrome just takes these anxieties and doubts and locates them in the realm of career, or whatever it is you do in the world. It is not uncommon for adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) women to feel like imposters or frauds even in their role as mother. Feeling uncertain, insecure, lacking confidence and being full of self-doubt are classic ACOA emotions. Imposter Syndrome just organizes them and gives them a home—a psychic place to take root and grow. In fact, as much as adult children of alcoholics struggle with figuring out what’s normal, many also have trouble feeling solid in their own identity. Guessing at what’s normal can go deeper: some people struggle with guessing at who they are. The successes that may define them in the world of work feel frighteningly “fake.” At the root of all this anxiety, fear, and dread about being revealed as a fraud, is the feeling of being uncertain about who you really are.

What Can You Do About the Imposter Syndrome?

You might not be able to completely eradicate the Imposter Syndrome but with good friends, solid family support, and a decent therapist, you can likely render it harmless. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help, since challenging irrational beliefs about your successes and accomplishments is an excellent antidote to the self doubt that characterizes this syndrome. Talking about your feelings helps too, as one part of this syndrome’s power has to do with keeping it secret. Once you share your fears out loud you may find that they are less powerful and less overwhelming. You might even find that while you can’t stop having thoughts and fears of inadequacy and being discovered come up, that you can laugh at them rather than be ruled by them. Remember, only successful people struggle with Imposter Syndrome—so by definition, if you are having this problem, it means you are successful.

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