Impostor Syndrome: What It Is and How to Overcome It
Do you ever get a nagging feeling that you’re a fraud? A feeling like you don’t deserve your accomplishments, you’ll never be “good enough,” and it’s only a matter of time before people find out? That feeling, while isolating, is common. And it has a name: impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome is a type of chronic self-doubt that causes us to feel like we’re inadequate, despite evidence showing otherwise. The result is that we become our own worst enemy—selling ourselves short and hurting our workplace performance. So, what does it take to overcome impostor syndrome?
In this article, you’ll learn to define impostor syndrome and determine whether it’s something you’re experiencing. Then, you’ll learn how impostor syndrome holds you back as well as six strategies to face your insecurities head-on.
A Quick Self-Assessment:
Take a few minutes to complete the following self-assessment. Review each item listed below, and mark the boxes that apply to you.
I don’t understand what people see in me or why they like my work.
I tend to think: “If I can do it, so can everyone else.”
I owe my success to being in the right place at the right time.
I don’t think I deserve my accomplishments.
I often brush off compliments, saying: “It was nothing” or “I’m just lucky.”
When looking at my work, I’m overly critical of everything.
I tend to focus on my shortcomings rather than my achievements.
I fear people will find out that I’m not as skilled as they think.
Did you check one or more boxes? If so, then you might suffer from impostor syndrome. Read on below to really understand how to recognise impostor syndrome and how it can hold you back. And then take away some simple but effective techniques to overcome it.
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome causes a person to believe in their insecurities—seeing them as facts rather than opinions. It’s a psychological phenomenon that’s characterised by:
A feeling of inadequacy. Those with impostor syndrome believe they’re not intelligent, capable, or creative enough to achieve success. As a result, they struggle to recognise their talents. They feel incompetent and experience chronic self-doubt.
A dismissal of achievements. A person with impostor syndrome thinks their success is undeserved. They believe their accomplishments are the result of good luck and timing, not skills or qualifications.
A feeling of fraudulence. People with impostor syndrome feel like frauds. They believe they’re actors who are deceiving others, and they often fear being “found out.”
Who Can Suffer From Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome affects people from all walks of life: Surgeons, CEOs, interns, famous actors, entrepreneurs, leaders and acclaimed novelists are all prone to feeling like impostors. Nobody, regardless of their skills or accomplishments, is immune. In fact, high achievers often experience impostor syndrome.
Did you know that even these successful, famous and inspirational figures suffered from it?
Maya Angelou - “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now.”
Albert Einstein - “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Michelle Obama - “I still have a little [bit of] impostor syndrome, it never goes away.”
As real as impostor syndrome feels, there’s rarely any truth to it. Impostor syndrome is irrational, and it persists regardless of a person’s skills or talents.
How Impostor Syndrome Holds Us Back:
As unfounded and irrational as it might be, impostor syndrome has real consequences. Below are some of the negative side effects.
Wasted Time: Afraid of being seen as frauds, those with impostor syndrome over-prepare, spend extra hours on tasks, and waste time on revisions.
Missed Opportunities: People with impostor syndrome feel underqualified and struggle to advocate for themselves, causing them to miss out on promotions and hiring opportunities.
Burnout: People with impostor syndrome try to overcompensate, which leads them to push themselves too hard and burn out quickly.
Stifled Potential: Living with crippling insecurity, those with impostor syndrome often hold themselves back and avoid risks, stifling their potential.
Trouble Asking For Help: Afraid to reveal their flaws and be discovered as frauds, those with impostor syndrome avoid asking for help, even if they need it.
Isolation: To stay afloat, those with impostor syndrome may prioritise their work over their personal lives—leading to social isolation.
Chronic Stress and Self-Doubt:
Pervasive feelings of self-doubt and fears of being “exposed” can also contribute to chronic stress or anxiety. Instead of enjoying your achievements, you may feel overwhelmed by the pressure to “keep up the charade.” Your self-confidence, energy, and general wellness may also take a hit.
The great news however, is you don’t have to let impostor syndrome control your life. Below are six simple but effective strategies to overcome impostor syndrome.
Overcoming Impostor Syndrome:
Impostor syndrome isn’t something you should simply accept. The longer you hold onto these feelings of inadequacy, the more likely you are to sabotage your career and your personal life. So, how do you overcome the setbacks and face impostor syndrome head-on? Here are six strategies.
1. Record Negative Thoughts:
Self-awareness is the first step toward understanding—and therefore moving past—impostor syndrome. So, record your negative thoughts and consider why they’re happening. For example, you might write down: “I don’t deserve that pay raise because Amal is more talented than I am.”
As you continue adding to that list of negative thoughts, you’ll start spotting the root causes of your impostor syndrome. For example, in the scenario above, you might learn that you’re prone to making unfair social comparisons—which leads you to feel inadequate.
2. Challenge Negative Thoughts:
As you become aware of your negative thoughts and their causes, the next step is to challenge them. Follow two strategies:
Think factually. Challenge each negative assumption with an undeniable fact. For example, if you think, “I’m such an idiot,” you might remind yourself, “I have two degrees and four years of work experience under my belt.”
Practice positive affirmations. Challenge negativity with positivity. Make a list of positive affirmations and refer back to them when you’re feeling insecure. For example, if you catch yourself saying, “I can’t do anything,” you might challenge that with, “I’m great at mentoring others,” or “I’m creative and persistent.”
3. Talk It Out:
If you keep impostor syndrome to yourself, the feelings are likely to grow. So, talk it out. Pick someone you trust, such as an adviser, mentor, a coach, close family member, or friend, and have a candid conversation about what you’re going through. Move through the 3 points below to explore why this approach works.
4. Seek Feedback:
If you suffer from impostor syndrome, you might hesitate to ask others for feedback. You might worry that, if given a chance, people will confirm your worst fears. But in reality, you’re likely your own worst critic. So, rather than making assumptions and wallowing in the negativity, seek feedback from those you respect. Even if the feedback isn’t all positive, you’ll at least have some tangible things to work toward, which can make those feelings of inadequacy more actionable.
5. Don't Compare Yourself to Others:
Comparing yourself to others is a surefire way to feel inadequate. While it’s great to have people you admire, you shouldn’t use those people as benchmarks for success. Everyone has different strengths, skills, and experiences. Compare yourself to someone else, and you’ll overlook what makes you unique. Even more, the picture you have of others will never be complete, since you’ll only see what that person wants you to see. For example, if you scroll through social media, you’ll only see a one-dimensional, polished snapshot of a person’s life, not the full picture. So, don’t make comparisons—they’re unhelpful and unrealistic. Instead, focus on who you are by reflecting on what you like about yourself, spending time away from social media, and doing the best work that you can do.
6. List Your Successes:
It’s easy to discount one-off successes. It’s much more challenging, however, to discount an extensive list of successes. So, collect, revisit and celebrate the proof of your self-worth by:
Reflecting on your past achievements. Think about how far you’ve come. What are some previous awards you’ve received, initiatives or projects you’ve completed, and pieces of praise you’ve heard? Write those achievements down. They’re proof that you got yourself to where you are today.
Keeping a success journal. Going forward, get in the habit of jotting down all big and small wins. If you hear positive feedback, finish a challenging project, or reach a milestone achievement, add it to your list.
As this list continues to grow, you’ll start gathering overwhelming, factual evidence that your achievements aren’t accidental: They’re the result of hard work and talent.
Impostor syndrome is a type of irrational self-doubt that causes us to feel inadequate, dismiss our achievements, and call ourselves frauds. Left unchecked, impostor syndrome can lead to chronic stress and low self-confidence. It can also discourage you from taking risks, seizing opportunities, and realising your full potential.
With the right tools, you can learn how to manage and overcome impostor syndrome effectively. For example:
Acknowledge and challenge negative thoughts. Jot down your fears to identify their source. Then, combat irrational thinking with facts and positive affirmations.
Identify and meditate on your personal successes. Remind yourself that you have talent, you’re worthy of your successes, and you’re not an impostor—you’re you. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Talk about your fears and seek feedback from others. Finally, don’t keep fears to yourself. Get out of your head, and gain perspective from close friends, family, or a trusted boss or colleagues.
Here are a few other resources to help you on your journey:
The secret thoughts of successful women - Valerie Young
The imposter cure - Dr Jessamy Hibberd
Overcoming imposter syndrome - Elizabeth Harrin
Educated - Tara Westover
Becoming - Michelle Obama
Brave, not perfect - Reshma Saujani
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