Do you ever feel like a fraud?
My work as a psychologist puts me in a privileged position. I've spent over a decade behind closed doors with bright, accomplished individuals–executives, attorneys, physicians, politicians, and the people you see on the nightly news. From my conversations, I can attest that just about everyone, to a certain extent, is making it up as they go. If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you're not alone. For better or worse, no one has it all figured out.
What is imposter syndrome?
When someone experiences imposter syndrome, there is a disconnect between their confidence and competence.
The phenomenon is characterized by:
Denying competence and the inability to acknowledge abilities
Struggling to internalize success and achievement
Believing that you are just "pretending" to be as skilled and smart as others think you are
Having a sense that you don’t belong or deserve the position you are in
Fearing exposure as a fraud
Individuals with imposter syndrome often live on edge. They worry that at the next turn, someone will figure out they aren't as intelligent as people have thought. They fear losing what they have if they can't keep fooling everyone around them.
"I can't believe people trust me."
"I can manage to pull it off today, but sooner or later they're going to find out I'm faking it."
Family, friends, and colleagues of people with imposter syndrome often don't see their inner turmoil. When an alleged imposter does open up about their crippling self-doubt, their concerns are often dismissed which can leave them feeling further misunderstood.
Where does imposter syndrome come from?
At the core of imposter syndrome is the theme of "enough." They live in constant fear of what may happen if they don't do enough. They don't trust, on a foundational level, that who they really are is ultimately enough. It's hard to trust that anyone else will believe you meet the mark if you constantly think you're falling short.
Individuals with imposter syndrome fall prey to confirmation bias. People who wrestle with this tendency may hold an old, expired, or incomplete view of themselves. They methodically build an argument to support the belief that they are undeserving and underskilled. They are all ears when they hear any evidence supporting their ideas but quickly dismiss anything that doesn't fit
Imposter syndrome causes people to misattribute skill, timing, and luck. While timing and luck certainly factor into the calculus of most peoples' success, imposter syndrome skews the perceived ratio of these factors, crowding out skill and ability almost entirely.
What happens and why does it matter?
People tend to cope with their imposter syndrome through avoidance or overwork. Each of these paths is problematic in its own right and can carry far-reaching professional and personal cost.
In some instances, individuals attempt to manage the anxiety of imposter syndrome by procrastinating. They freeze and withdraw because they're worried they will mess up and be exposed. This risk-averse withdrawal strategy can have a deleterious professional impact on people because they focus on avoiding mistakes instead of embracing opportunities for learning and growth. They fail to act, or stay silent, to minimize the risk of being noticed.
Another subset of people struggling with imposter syndrome exhaust their selves overworking in an attempt to "avoid detection." They are terrified of failing and double down on effort to deliver the results that people expect of them. As a natural consequence, their work is often rewarded. They are praised and promoted. Instead of experiencing advancement as reassurance, it creates a greater divide between the perceived self and a new set of expectations.
Who experiences imposter syndrome?
Psychologists Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes first described imposter syndrome in 1978. They noticed a large group of talented female students were confused about their abilities and expressed concern about continuing their success. Clance and Imes conducted interviews with highly successful women and found that despite earned degrees, scholastic honors, praise, and professional recognition, these individuals didn't experience an internal sense of success. As a result of their research, they coined the term 'imposter phenomenon.'
But imposter syndrome isn't a "women's issue." It's an equal opportunity problem that plagues many high-achieving men, too. Most individuals who struggle with imposter syndrome are successful, bright, and have no obvious reason to feel insecure. You can find imposter syndrome in any office or academic setting, but it is particularly pervasive in highly competitive cultures where performance is constantly under scrutiny.
Imposter syndrome can be triggered by achievement. It tends to be exacerbated during times of transition and change. Some individuals experience a spike or resurgence of imposter syndrome when faced with a new challenge — a new job, project, or the beginning a new education/training experience. When people are pushed out of their comfort zone into new routines and watched more closely, they often feel extra pressure to prove that they deserve their place. During these transitions, people face everything they don't know. When confronted with necessary new learning, instead of viewing it as an inherent part of a process, they misinterpret their state of "not knowing" as a sign they are underskilled and incapable.
How do we overcome imposter syndrome?
If (or more likely when) you experience imposter syndrome, there are things you can do curb this struggle. First, be willing to give it up. Next, challenge your confirmation bias. Then, get to know your inner critic. Finally, examine your attitudes about perfection, action, failure, and success.
Let it go
To be free of imposter syndrome, first, you must be willing to let it go. Imposter syndrome can trick some people into believing that it helps them maintain an edge. There are three insidious myths that perpetuate imposter syndrome:
Imposter syndrome keeps me humble. Overcoming imposter syndrome isn't going to make you pompous. Don't confuse undercutting your competence with modesty. Acknowledging your skills, knowledge, and experience is good practice, not arrogance.
Imposter syndrome keeps me working hard. If you are conscientious about effort and achievement, and you relax a bit, the pendulum isn't going to swing hard the opposite way. Many people fear that if they stop caring "too much" they will become lazy and complacent. The risk of this is slim. If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you're already wired with something inside of you that can't not care.
Imposter syndrome keeps me motivated. The frenetic pressure created by imposter syndrome isn't pushing you in a productive manner. It's draining you instead. You'll have more left to give if you aren't physically and emotionally exhausted living on the razor's edge of burnout.
Until you recognize that imposter syndrome creates a level of stress that keeps you from performing to your full potential instead of driving you to function at your peak, you are unlikely to give it up.
Challenge confirmation bias
When you struggle with imposter syndrome, you selectively attend to any piece of evidence that confirms the story you tell about yourself. You're quick to dismiss any suggestions or feedback that challenge your current self-view. Evidence that points to the fact that we might be wrong creates internal dissonance. Instead of tolerating the discomfort of this experience and expending the mental energy needed to entertain the possibility they might be wrong, most people keep looking for things that reinforce old ideas.
To overcome imposter syndrome, you need a new story. Next, you need to look for new evidence. When an imposter syndrome thought pops into consciousness, catch yourself and consider whether you have any evidence that this idea isn't true. I sometimes encourage people to begin a file for themselves where they collect a cache of evidence that they are, indeed, capable. The first step is to write down an exhaustive list of all they have accomplished in their life. Next, I have them begin collecting records of feedback that reinforce the message that they are talented and competent. It's useful to create a document where you capture encouraging emails, reports, and write down verbal praise you receive from people you respect. This exercise can create something powerful to look back on when you're questioning yourself.
Get to know your inner critic
If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you probably talk to yourself in a way you wouldn't dream of speaking to someone else. To move into a different headspace, you need to replace criticism with self-compassion. Self-flagellation leads to shame, not motivated inspiration. It's impossible to do your best work when listening to constant discouragement. You won't criticize your way to better behavior. When the volume of your inner critic is keeping you stuck, ask:
Is this true?
Is this logical? (valid, reliable, sufficient)
Is this constructive?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, hit mute on your internal chatter and redirect your focus.
Examine your attitudes about perfection, action, failure, and success
Our relationship with perfection, action, failure and success are intertwined with imposter syndrome. Examining your beliefs about each of these things can help you develop a deeper understanding of how your attitudes may be driving you deeper into your internal struggle.
Attitude toward perfection
If you're ready to shed your imposter mindset, you need to examine your attitude toward perfection. Perfectionism can be paralyzing. It keeps you from trying new things and doesn't let you credit yourself when good things happen to you. Perfection feeds into the insidious struggles around having, doing, and being enough. Perfection isn't possible. You're forever set up to fall short if that is the standard you set for yourself. Practice grace. The world doesn't want your perfection; they want your authenticity. Your performance doesn't have to be perfect for it to be impactful and have value. You don't have to be perfect to be worthy.
Attitude toward action
Sometimes in the throes of imposter syndrome, people stop themselves before they start. They think they have to know everything to execute well. Don't forget that every expert you know began their journey as a novice. Don't compare your beginning to anyone else's ending. We learn by doing. Have courage. Step out and give yourself a chance to get smarter and become more skilled.
Attitude toward failure
Many people who struggle with imposter syndrome freeze out of fear of failure. "If I don't try, I can't fail." But this is a faulty form of self-protection because holding back guarantees you won't achieve. Imposter syndrome doesn't keep you safe; it locks you into playing small.
Attitude toward success
From the time you were young, people have given you their definitions of success. Often we move through life and internalize ideas of "what matters" without critically considering whether these things ring true for us. Take time to analyze your metrics for success. Consider the following questions:
Where did my definition of success come from? Do I agree with it today?
How is success measured in my life now? (by me, by others)
How might I measure success differently in the future?
Am I in charge of deciding what success is in my own life? If not, what needs to change so that I am the one making this choice?
What do I care about now that probably won't matter much to me in the future?
People who experience imposter syndrome are rarely the ones who should. If you're ready to end the struggle, come out from behind your self-doubt. You don't have to let this mental battle limit you. Start telling yourself a new story. Look for the evidence you already have to support it. From here forward, start letting the good stuff stick. It fits.
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This is an incredible article. I read it every few months as it has helped me contemplate my own imposter syndrome and understand myself better.