Do you suspect that you suffer from impostor syndrome (also known as imposter syndrome*)? Unfortunately, it’s one of those common, unnecessary things that make us suffer.
You might know how it goes: you’re a successful achiever, and yet have this nagging feeling of being some sort of fraud, of not belonging. Kicking it out of your mind would make you feel a lot better, right?
So let’s do just that: take an in-depth look at imposter syndrome – what it is, and how to reduce it.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Have you ever been in a situation where your self-doubt got the best of you and made you feel really out of place? Like you were nothing but a fraud among people who were actually successful, and deservingly so? Like you weren’t worthy of your achievements, even though you worked hard for every single one of them?
Well, those are three perfect examples of what impostor syndrome feels like.
Impostor syndrome is a common issue: do one Google search for “celebrities with impostor syndrome” and you’ll see it. Take actress Meryl Streep, who stated that she didn’t understand why people would want to see her in more movies since she didn’t know how to act. Yet, she has won three Oscars!
But this syndrome goes further than the world of celebrities: it affects us non-celebrities as well. In fact, about 70% of people experience these feelings at some point in their lives, which means that you probably know someone who struggles with this issue…or even that that someone is you!
So, we know that it’s common. But…what exactly is it? What leads us to feel so improper in certain circumstances when, in truth, we have no reason to? Is it even a real thing?
Is Imposter Syndrome Real?
When people learn about the concept of impostor syndrome, it’s normal to question its existence. Especially since it isn’t considered a disorder per se.
It’s a fair question and the answer couldn’t be simpler: yes, imposter syndrome is, in fact, real. And this becomes very easy to believe when we think about all the negative impacts it can have on a person’s life and career.
The “impostor” convinces themselves of all the reasons why they aren’t good, smart, or capable enough. And you know what they say: if you tell a lie often enough, eventually it becomes the truth.
So although the issue is created by the impostor and it only actually exists in their mind, impostor syndrome becomes very real when it starts to affect their well-being.
Having said this, I invite you to do an exercise. It’s simple: all you need to do is think about previous situations where your insecurities got the best of you. How often does it happen? How big of an impact do these feelings have in your life?
If your answers are “too often” and “too big,” it’s definitely time for you to take action.
But as with many psychological issues, it can be very helpful to understand why you feel the way you feel. So before I give you some tips on how to beat impostor syndrome, let’s get into more details on what it is, and some of the reasons why it happens in the first place.
The Origin of Impostor Syndrome
Let’s start by going back to 1978, when two psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, came up with the term “Impostor Syndrome” (or “Impostor Phenomenon”). In high school, Clance experienced imposter syndrome symptoms. She was constantly worried about whether she was good enough to actually pass her exams.
Years later, when she was teaching at a liberal arts college, she realized that many of her students felt overwhelmed in the same that she did as a student. After one of her students confessed that she felt “like an impostor here with all these really bright people.”, Clance and Imes (who was her colleague at the time) decided to coin and further explore the term.
After five years of research, the two psychologists created the paper The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.
In it, they defined impostor syndrome as “an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women” who persist “in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
As you can imagine, since then, the concept has evolved, particularly regarding its prevalence in each gender. One study from 2018 even suggests that the syndrome has harsher repercussions on men.
Regardless, it’s clear now that the syndrome can affect both men and women.
Impostor Syndrome in Today’s World
Today, we can define impostor syndrome as an internal experience felt among humans, where they associate their success with unpleasant feelings, instead of seeing it as a reason to celebrate. Impostor syndrome happens when a person’s insecurities affect them to the point of making them feel like they don’t belong among successful people.
These feelings can come in many different ways and that’s why, according to Dr. Valerie Young, there are five types of “impostors”:
- The perfectionists, who always set goals that are way too high and experience intense feelings of anxiety when they don’t meet those goals.
- The superwomen or supermen, who disguise their insecurities by pushing themselves way too hard to succeed, to the point that it negatively impacts their mental health.
- The natural geniuses, who believe their worth is based on how easy and fast they can take on a challenge, rather than on how hard they work to succeed.
- The soloists, who believe asking for help is like admitting they’re not good enough, and that they should be able to tackle any situation 100% on their own.
- The experts, who judge their competency by what and how much they know, and worry about seeming ignorant or inexperienced in front of others.
Whichever type you identify with – if any at all – impostor syndrome can impact any realm of your life. However, it is most typically seen and experienced in professional settings.
Imposter Syndrome Can Hold You Back At Work
Because of this, imposter syndrome can end up holding you back at work and stopping you from achieving all the accomplishments you are actually 100% capable of.
It fosters an ever-growing fear of success, leading you to self-sabotage and miss amazing career (and life) opportunities based on insecurities that, deep down, have no reason to exist.
Plus, according to a study conducted at the University of Salzburg in 2016, impostor syndrome can lead people to be underpaid and less likely to get a promotion.
That’s why it is so important for you to understand whether you do, in fact, have impostor syndrome, and what you can do about it.
But before we move on, let’s recap with a brief video:
Is It Impostor Syndrome…or Not?
Clance created a test – the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS). You can take it to understand if whatever it is that you feel could, in fact, be a manifestation of this syndrome.
The results of this test shouldn’t be interpreted as any kind of diagnosis, but they can be very useful for you to find out what’s the best way of overcoming your negative feelings.
If you take the test and find out that imposter syndrome is indeed a problem in your life, don’t panic! It’s perfectly possible to regain your self-confidence, as we’ll soon see.
What Causes Impostor Syndrome?
Often, the first step in solving a problem is to understand its root cause. So, let’s examine the causes of imposter syndrome.
If you’ve struggled with insecurity for a long time, you might think that’s just the way your brain is wired.
Indeed, some people are more predisposed to struggle with anxiety due to their genes, but there’s also a possibility that certain circumstances you’ve been in during your life have led you to develop low self-esteem and, consequently, impostor syndrome.
Some examples of this would be:
- Growing up with perfectionist parents, who always set unrealistic standards for anything you did;
- Being raised by parents who weren’t nurturing and didn’t show their love for you;
- Growing up with parents who would constantly compare your accomplishments with those of others, instead of praising your good work;
- Going through a long period of time without getting any positive feedback about your work;
- Developing a perfectionist personality;
- Being a workaholic.
Take some time to think, and see if you can identify some suspected cause(s) for your impostor syndrome. This will help you reduce it.
How Can You Overcome Impostor Syndrome?
I’ll start off by saying something that should make you feel better: if you tend to suffer from impostor syndrome, you are most likely not an imposter.
Because here’s the thing: you’re aware. Indeed, in the words of Jessica Collet, an associate sociology professor who studied the predominance of impostor syndrome among women, real impostors (those manifesting the so-called Dunning-Kruger Effect) are like “people who are too dumb to know that they’re dumb.”
That alone is somewhat relieving, isn’t it?
But alas, knowing this isn’t enough to completely overcome this syndrome. Rather, defeating these unpleasant feelings is all about taking baby steps and, ultimately, embracing these feelings and using them as your competitive advantage.
So here are some good tips sourced from and inspired by the Harvard Business Review, New York Times, and American Psychological Association to stop feeling like an impostor and start seeing your worth and value:
Go Past Your Feelings and Look at the Evidence
How are your performance evaluations? Are you getting good results for your company or clients? What kind of feedback are you getting at work?
If all is good, try to go by that evidence, rather than your feelings.
Give Yourself Credit for Your Successes
If your work resulted in a great outcome, don’t undermine yourself by attributing it to luck or other factors. Fight imposter syndrome by giving yourself a pat on the back and taking ownership of your amazing results.
Tell Yourself Out Loud that You’re Amazing
Positive affirmations are no joke. As the New York Times writes: “research has found that the simple act of taking a positive affirmation (such as ‘I’m awesome’) and adding your name to it (‘Jessica is awesome’) can have a powerful effect on how you perceive yourself”.
Visualize Your Success
Another Jedi mind trick that actually works. Picture yourself successfully overcoming the challenge in front of you. The more detail, the better.
Recognize that Excellent Work is the Outcome of a Process
If your first draft sucks, it’s not because you suck – it’s because it’s the first draft! So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because your first effort at something doesn’t yield great results, it means that you’re mediocre.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The first effort is the beginning of the process of improvement that culminates with excellence.
Try the “Rubber Band Trick”
From the New York Times: “Jessica Kirkpatrick, a data scientist…employs something called the ‘rubber band trick.’ She wears a rubber band around her wrist and snaps it every time she has an impostor thought”. This works because it follows the “…same premise as Pavlov’s dogs: This action sends feedback to your brain, which eventually stops the thoughts that trigger the action”.
Don’t Expect Perfection from Yourself
It doesn’t exist. Life is a process of continuous learning and improvement. Not even the highest achievers on earth avoid mistakes.
As CNBC reported, Warren Buffet admitted that he made a mistake with Amazon, and expects to continue making mistakes in his career: “‘I was too dumb to realize. I did not think [Bezos] could succeed on the scale he has,’ Buffett said, adding that he ‘really underestimated the brilliance of the execution.’ The investor humbly admitted that he and partner Charlie Munger ‘miss a lot of things, and we’ll keep doing it'”.
If Impostor Syndrome Becomes Too Much, Talk to Someone
If you feel that imposter syndrome has reached the point where it’s affecting your life too much, don’t be afraid to seek out help. Your mentor, a trusted friend, or a counselor or therapist could be a great resource.
Here Are Two More Videos on Imposter Syndrome and Addressing It
The first is NSFW:
And here’s the second:
As they say, it’s all in your head! Imposter syndrome is certainly undesirable, but also manageable. So, try some of these techniques to get it under control, and start living a better life today!
Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? What has helped you overcome it?
- Marie Claire
- The Journal of Behavioral Science
- Dr. Pauline Rose Clance
- Psychotherapy: Theory, Reseach and Practice
- National Institutes of Health
- Harvard Business Review
- The New York Times
- American Psychological Association
*Fellow word nerds: I checked, and both spellings (impostor syndrome and imposter syndrome) are correct 🙂