Cognitive Distortions can create imposter syndrome

By Jessica Ruttenber

As a former Air Force pilot, I’ve mastered many obstacles in my career, but the biggest challenge was overcoming impostor syndrome. Despite presenting myself as confident and capable, it took years to overcome feelings of self-doubt. If you’re struggling with impostor syndrome, know you’re not alone. Harvard Business Review says one-third of young people have imposter syndrome, and 70% of others will experience it. It’s important to remember that everyone experiences these feelings, which is normal. Struggles are inevitable, but it’s crucial to take the steps to overcome them. Working with a mental health professional can help to provide tools and strategies to overcome impostor syndrome. Imposter syndrome can cause feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and guilt. Manage it now to avoid a detrimental impact on your performance and well-being.

Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne noted three critical attributes of the phenomenon:

  • They believe that others overestimate your skills
  • Fear of being exposed as a fraud.
  • You tend to downplay your achievements

Challenge your inner thinking.

With 22 years of flying experience and a degree in psychology, I have learned to overcome feelings of self-doubt. Challenging my inner monologue has been vital, and one of my favorite quotes from Buddha has helped me along the way: “The mind is everything. What you think, you become.”

Imposter syndrome is often a cognitive distortion that can harm mental health and performance. Over time, we unconsciously strengthen irrational thoughts and beliefs. The problem is that they are often subtle, making them difficult to recognize. Biased perspectives can take many false forms and potentially cause psychological harm. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization is a common cognitive distortion.

Catastrophizing or minimizing distorts your view by making things seem more or less significant than they are. This thinking can lead to a distorted view of reality and feed directly into imposter syndrome.

Growing up, I had the dream of becoming a pilot. I overcame many challenges and succeeded in obtaining my private pilot’s license and securing a pilot position in the U.S. Air Force. However, I wondered if they chose me to fill a quota instead of being selected on merit. During that time, women represented only 4% of all Air Force pilots, and self-doubt crept in. I had undervalued my qualifications, and only after finishing pilot training did I believe in my abilities. Recognizing our worth and not letting self-doubt limit our potential is crucial.

Let’s learn how to identify and combat these patterns of magnification and minimization for a healthier mindset. Try the I.C.E. (Identity, Call Out, and Explore) method. First, identify the thought. Sometimes, this is the hardest step. What aspects of this situation might you exaggerate or in on? Is it as bad as it seems? Then, call it out for what it is: a cognitive distortion. Simply putting a name on it can be tremendously helpful and comforting. Finally, explore and challenge the thought from a new perspective. Initial thoughts are often inaccurate, just thoughts that don’t have to become part of your belief system.

I have come a long way in my career. After 14 years, I was responsible for a multibillion-dollar portfolio in the Pentagon. Given that most of my career had been in the cockpit, I initially felt overwhelmed by this new responsibility. I challenged my perspective and thinking pattern by reflecting and using data from my past performance. It’s important to remember that feeling overwhelmed in a new role is normal, and it doesn’t mean I cannot succeed. I have a track record of success, having won multiple awards for my job performance. Remembering my past accomplishments helped boost my confidence and reminded me of my capabilities.

Catastrophizing the situation would have been easy. Believing I could not learn about budgeting well enough before the fast-approaching cycle and get fired. Instead, I realized that seeking resources and support as you navigate a new role is essential. Do you have mentors or colleagues who can provide guidance or advice? I often start my morning socializing and bringing coffee to the finance or acquisition team to build my network. Are training programs or resources available to help you develop your skills?

Step 1: Identify and name your most-used distorted thoughts

Consider recording the most prominent thoughts you have throughout the week. Include details such as the situation and what emotion it caused. Knowing you may not be aware you are thinking falsely, you may want to get the perspective from a friend.

Here are other common cognitive distortions, according to the National Library of Medicine:

  • Mindreading (i.e., assuming that others are thinking negatively about oneself)
  • All-or-nothing-thinking (i.e., viewing something as either-or, without considering the full spectrum and range of possible evaluations)
  • Emotional reasoning (i.e., believing something to be accurate based on emotional responses rather than objective evidence)
  • Labeling (i.e., classifying oneself negatively after the occurrence of an adverse event)
  • Mental filtering (i.e., focusing on negative information and devaluing positive information)
  • Over generalization (i.e., assuming that the occurrence of one adverse event means that additional bad things will happen)
  • Personalization (i.e., assuming that one is the cause of an adverse event)
  • Should statements (i.e., thinking that things must or should be a certain way)

Step 2: Look for evidence and data

Cognitive distortions and negative thought patterns use opinions, not facts. Look for cues that contradict your negative thoughts and challenge them. Separate facts from opinions. “I am a bad candidate for pilot training” is an opinion. “Most of my test scores were in the top 10%” is a fact.

Taking proactive steps and practicing techniques such as I.C.E. will help you overcome imposter syndrome. Working with a mental health professional can help to provide tools and strategies to overcome impostor syndrome. Challenging cognitive distortions will set you up for success in your future endeavors and improve your mental health.

Best of luck!


Feature photo Captain Jessica Ruttenber at Columbus Air Force Vase, Mississippi, 2006

About the author. Jessica “J-Rutt” Ruttenber is currently the director of Level Up Aviation. She is a retired Air Force pilot, speaker, and advocate.

You can follow J-Rutt on Linkedin by clicking here.

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