Many of us have been there. We wonder whether we’ve really got what it takes and hope that people don’t discover our secret. They may think we have the knowledge, skills, and experience to succeed, but they don’t know the truth yet. We’re an imposter.
If you can relate, you’ve experienced what’s known as ‘imposter syndrome.’
What is ‘imposter syndrome’?
Imposter syndrome (sometimes called imposter phenomenon) is an experience where someone is accomplished and successful, but believes that they don’t deserve their success. When you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, you likely believe that others think of you as more intelligent or competent than you really are. This makes you live in fear of the moment when others finally discover your truth. You are a fraud.
This phenomenon cuts across all genders, ages, industries, and nationalities. Common amongst people suffering is an inability to accurately link their successes to their own competence. Often when you feel like an imposter, you attribute your success to external factors like luck or help from outside forces instead of your own skills and abilities. When you experience a setback or a failure, though, you take that as proof of your own incompetence instead of bad luck or bad timing.
I went to Reddit and Instagram and asked people about their experiences with imposter syndrome. What I heard mirrored the research. Most people struggling with imposter syndrome mentioned feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, or incapability. They identified feeling like they were just lucky or a fluke, or that they were a fraud or fake. There was also fear of being found out.
Dr. Valerie Young, who studies this phenomenon, has identified five different ‘competence types’ that link to experiences with imposter syndrome. These are:
- Perfectionist: This person is primarily focused on how something is done. If there is a single flaw, they see that as a failure and experience shame.
- Expert: This person is primarily focused on how much they know. Not knowing something feels like a failure and leads to shame.
- Soloist: This person sees the need to accomplish something all on their own to count it as an accomplishment. They experience shame if they receive assistance to complete an accomplishment since that makes it ‘not count.’
- Natural Genius: This person measures competence in terms of ease and speed. If they struggle to master a skill or a subject, they see that as a failure and experience shame.
- Superwoman/Superman/Super Student: This person measures competence by the number of roles that they can juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role feels like failure, which results in shame.
Common in each of these types is black and white thinking — either they do things ‘right’ and succeed or ‘wrong’ and fail — and feelings of shame.
By over-identifying with [failure], under-identifying with [success], feeling entitled to neither and fearing both, [people] are denied an accurate, internalized picture of their own abilities which, ultimately renders them unable to learn from failures, embrace their successes, and exorcise the erroneous and crippling view of themselves as intellectual imposters.Dr. Valerie Young
What happens to an ‘imposter’?
So why does it matter if you suffer from imposter syndrome? Well, there can be some pretty harmful effects if you don’t get these feelings under check.
Employees who suffer from imposter syndrome actually end up underperforming in their jobs, and experience less job satisfaction and higher levels of burn-out. This is because they tend to pursue achievement while not accepting recognition when success is achieved. Of course, underperforming or burning out just feeds right into your imposter beliefs. It can seem to prove that you were right all along.
Unresolved imposter syndrome can also cause depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, as well as a reluctance to pursue new opportunities for growth. If you don’t believe you have the capabilities to succeed and fear being ‘found out’, why would you expose yourself?
As Dr. Young puts it, “By over-identifying with [failure], under-identifying with [success], feeling entitled to neither and fearing both, [people] are denied an accurate, internalized picture of their own abilities which, ultimately renders them unable to learn from failures, embrace their successes, and exorcise the erroneous and crippling view of themselves as intellectual imposters.”
With all these potentially negative impacts of suffering from this syndrome, it’s not unreasonable that you’d look for a way to recover. So, what can you do?
Reducing feelings of imposter syndrome
It can be difficult to figure out how to deal with imposter syndrome symptoms. When I asked people what they’ve tried and what’s helped, potential solutions ran the gamut, from therapy to medications to drugs to increasing connections with other people. The overwhelming sense I got from these people was that they are frustrated and they need help.
So what does the research tell us?
Common in the research is the idea that we have to change our mindset before we can improve these feelings. Thoughts come first and emotions follow.
Stop seeking perfection
One big thing that can help is working on your perfectionist tendencies. Often when we feel like an imposter, it’s because we’re holding ourselves to a much higher standard than we hold others to. When we believe that we must be perfect in order to be deserving, we make it impossible to feel good about what we accomplish. Any small mistake becomes catastrophic, makes the entire venture a failure, and means that we’re not good enough.
Part of dealing with these perfectionist tendencies is being more realistic about what ‘success’ means. You can focus on being good enough (also called ‘satisficing’) and on setting achievable goals for yourself (realistic optimism). What can be helpful in doing this is to reflect on what you expect of others and applying that measure to yourself. As you start to succeed against these new more realistic measures, you’ll feel like less of an imposter.
Remember that no one and nothing is perfect.
Find your authenticity
Another way to fight imposter syndrome is to work on connecting authentically. As Brené Brown says, “shame loves secrecy.” Part of what lies underneath imposter syndrome is a feeling of shame, or the feeling that we’re flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging. By hiding these feelings and trying to project an image of confidence, we end up reinforcing them.
Instead, find environments where you can express yourself authentically and find people who can provide you with a feeling of genuine connection.
In my survey, some responses explained that talking about it didn’t work. Those people found limited success speaking with a therapist, friends, or family. But as with any shame experience, you can’t just talk to anyone about your feelings. You have to find the right person at the right time to talk about the right issue.
Look for someone who’s already experienced something similar to what you’re dealing with. Maybe they came from the same background as you, followed a similar career trajectory, or faced similar struggles to get where they are. If you can’t find that, look for someone who will be comfortable listening to your feelings and who will make you feel seen, heard, and valued.
Fix your internal script
Finally, since change comes from within, we need to learn how to speak to ourselves more kindly. When you’re feeling imposter syndrome, notice what words you’re using to describe yourself. Are they kind? Are they even reasonable or true?
Often we use harsher words with ourselves than we would with anyone else. We allow our feelings to override facts, and we hold ourselves to impossible standards. This can be hard to change. Sometimes, it may even feel impossible.
I’ve found some good tools that have helped me over the years. One is the ‘4 questions’ and ‘turnarounds’ from Byron Katie’s work. She tells you that when you have a thought, you must ask yourself: Is it true? Can I absolutely know that it’s true? How do I react when I believe that thought? Who would I be without that thought?
Then, you try changing the thought in various ways and see if one of the other statements is more true. You can find the tools from her website to help with the exercise here.
I’ve also found some good tools from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as described in The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns. I’ve especially found value in learning about ‘cognitive distortions’ and identifying where they have invaded my thoughts.
The cognitive distortions are: all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, mental filter, discounting the positives, jumping to conclusions, magnification or minimization, emotional reasoning, should statements, labelling, and personalization and blame.
I find that once I can look at a thought and say “oh, that’s all-or-nothing thinking” it’s easier to challenge it and replace it with something more reasonable and kind.
Of course, changing your internal script is hard. It likely took you decades to build these thinking patterns and you’re not going to change them overnight.
Years ago, I had a music teacher who explained the value of practice to me and I think it applies here. Imagine a block of Jell-o and every day, you pour a stream of water across it. Slowly, the water will start to cut a groove across the Jell-o and, over time, if you continue to pour water down the same path, that groove will get pretty deep. Soon, the water will naturally follow that path with little effort on your part.
Then, imagine that one day you try to pour a new path across the Jell-o. You’ll notice that the water will find its way back to the original groove. You’ll have to work hard and be consistent in the new path if you want to see change. If you try once or twice and then give up, you can’t hope to find the change you’re looking for.
Be patient and kind to yourself
Everyone is unique and you may find that some of these things work for you while others don’t. Be patient with yourself and know that you’re not alone. Many people feel the way that you do and there are a lot of tools at your disposal to start to feel better. You can start with the list of resources below and see where they lead you or work with a coach or a therapist who can help guide you on your journey.
And remember, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time. If everyone around you believes that you deserved to get that job or earn that degree or make that team, could it be that they’re right? You can’t have tricked them all.
- Ardill, L. (2020, September 15). Dr Valerie Young’s tips for navigating imposter syndrome at home. Silicon Republic. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://www.siliconrepublic.com/advice/valerie-young-imposter-syndrome
- Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2019). Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of Impostor Syndrome: A systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
- Brown, B. (2020). The gifts of imperfection. Random House.
- Burns, D. D. (1999). The feeling good handbook. (pp 73-119). Penguin.
- Calvert, S. W.-P. (2022, April 28). Feeling like a fraud? here’s what to do. Psychology Today. Retrieved July 16, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-heart-healing/202204/feeling-fraud-heres-what-do
- Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Imposter syndrome. Psychology Today. Retrieved July 16, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/imposter-syndrome
- Young, V. (2022, April 12). The 5 types of impostors: Impostor Syndrome Institute. Retrieved July 18, 2022, from https://impostorsyndrome.com/articles/5-types-of-impostors/
- Young, V. (2022, April 21). 10 steps you can use to overcome impostor syndrome. Impostor Syndrome Institute. Retrieved July 18, 2022, from https://impostorsyndrome.com/articles/10-steps-overcome-impostor/
- Young, V. (2022, March 18). My cure for impostor syndrome in 1985 – and now. Impostor Syndrome Institute. Retrieved July 18, 2022, from https://impostorsyndrome.com/articles/my-cure-for-impostor-syndrome-in-1985-and-now/