How Narcissists Cause Imposter Syndrome In Their Partners and Family Members

What is Imposter Syndrome?

People who struggle with Imposter Syndrome feel like they are undeserving of the recognition and accomplishments they have garnered. Although they may be highly intelligent, educated, skilled, competent or high-achieving, they fear they will be exposed to be less impressive than they are perceived to be by others. Individuals with Imposter Syndrome may misattribute their hard work, natural talents and the fruits of their labor to good luck or timing. In reality, they are more than deserving and worthy of the healthy praise and recognition they receive. 

Imposter Syndrome was first identified in 1978 by researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They noticed this phenomenon in high achieving women at universities. Since then, psychologists have noted that Imposter Syndrome may be present in approximately 25 to 30 percent of high achievers and is prevalent in marginalized groups such as underrepresented racial, ethnic and religious minorities. This makes sense, as marginalized individuals can experience microaggressions and discrimination at higher rates which may make them underestimate their own capacities even when they are high achieving and surpass their peers. 

How Do Narcissistic Partners and Family Members Cause Imposter Syndrome?

According to research, narcissistic individuals subject their partners and family members to distinct patterns of devaluation, envy, and rage. Romantic relationships with narcissists and psychopaths can even result in PTSD symptoms. One of the ways narcissistic individuals diminish their partners, family members, and co-workers is by belittling their skills, abilities, accomplishments, as well as their internal and external positive traits. This is how a narcissistic individual controls, isolates and polices his or her loved ones so they remain dependent on the narcissist’s validation.  There are three main ways they instill a sense of imposter syndrome in their targets:

1. Minimizing or detracting from their accomplishments, especially through comparison or by misattributing these accomplishments to good luck or chance. Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals are pathologically envious of the achievements of others. That is why they go out of their way to detract from your accomplishments. They may compare you to others (even if you surpass those people) to deflate your sense of pride in your achievements and diminish their perceived significance. Or they may claim that you were “lucky” in accomplishing your goals and attribute it to other traits you have (such as your appearance or assumed connections) even though they are well aware of your hard work and talent. This is a projection, as many narcissistic and psychopathic individuals exploit the labors of others, take advantage of any privileges they were born with, deceive, steal or leech off of others to get to where they are in the workplace and in society. As a result, they feel even more vindictive toward those who have achieved what they couldn’t organically without these privileges. 

2. Distorting the positive qualities of their partners and loved ones to suggest they exhibit the opposite traits. Narcissists and psychopaths engage in “distortion” of their loved ones and people they feel threatened of. This is akin to metaphorically placing a funhouse mirror in front of their targets and bullying them into believing that the image they see reflected back is real. That is why they will insult or dismiss the intelligence of peers they deem intellectually superior or degrade the skill set of their more talented colleagues. In romantic or familial relationships, the narcissist or psychopath may nitpick on the exact qualities and assets that you have gotten the most positive feedback on from others to more effectively belittle and control you. For example, if you have just gotten your PhD, they may start diminishing your scholarly achievements and start to act as if they are more intelligent than you are. Or, if you’ve just gotten a job promotion, they might begin to put down your job title with contempt, even if they are not employed themselves. This can cause you to internalize their bullying and undervalue what you worked hard to accomplish. It can also make you view yourself as the “opposite” of who you truly are and what you’re capable of.

3. Attempting to sabotage the success of their partners and loved ones to derail their progress and destructively condition them to associate achievements with punishment. Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals seek dominion over the lives of others, especially their loved ones. One way they establish this control is by trying to sabotage the personal and professional goals you set for yourself so you only depend on them for fulfillment. They know that if you have outside sources that bolster your self-esteem, you will be less susceptible to their manipulation. That is why narcissistic partners and family members tend to start arguments before significant milestones and celebrations (such as job interviews or graduations), why they manufacture chaos and sleep deprivation before important events (like job interviews or exams) and why they hypercriticize your good news (like a sudden increase in your paycheck). They want to destructively condition you to associate your sense of achievement with their subsequent punishment and retaliation. That way, you fear creating a fulfilling life outside of them. 

If you are in a relationship with a narcissist or psychopath, it is important to recognize that they are the real imposters, usually posturing and exaggerating with a bravado or skill set they do not actually possess. You are the “real deal” – someone who has worked hard for their success with integrity, talent and ambition. You deserve to reap the fruits of your labor and to exhibit healthy pride in your accomplishments.

Translate the narcissist’s put-downs into your power by recognizing what they are truly saying when they attempt to demean you: “I am jealous of your skills, your abilities, and your accomplishments. I am envious of your potential and scared of what you are able to achieve. I want to control you and make you reliant on my approval only. Everything should be about me.” After you safely exit from this relationship, you must recondition your sense of accomplishment with the original joy and healthy pride you deserved to experience. As you begin to “translate” the narcissist’s words and behaviors into what they really mean and reclaim your life — and dreams — you will realize how powerful you truly are, and how powerful you’re capable of becoming. 

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.

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