How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome

“You have this fear that the people around you are going to figure out that you don’t know what you are talking about and expose you as a fraud.”

Susan Albers, PsyD

Imposter syndrome – the fear of being found out. The fear that your colleagues will notice that you are in over your head and that you didn’t deserve to get the job, or that your boyfriend will figure out you aren’t as funny and smart as he thinks you are.

You are an imposter.

A fraud.

Someone just pretending to have your ducks in a row, when in reality you have a bunch of overexcited squirrels running about, causing havoc, and eating the complimentary peanuts.

If you can relate to this, you might be one of the 7 in 10 adults that report experiencing imposter syndrome. Unsurprisingly, women experience it at significantly higher rates than men.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome can occur in any aspect of life, but predominantly affects us in our professional lives. Imposter syndrome typically manifests in one or more of the following ways:

  • You feel like a fraud, and that you are misleading people into believing you are something you are not.
  • You devalue your worth, believing that you are not good enough and do not deserve to be where you are.
  • You undermine your experiences and expertise, playing down your skills and achievements and attributing them to luck or to the efforts of others. When you do acknowledge them, you play down their worth and claim they aren’t that important or valuable.

Feeling like an imposter can leave you anxious, stressed, and constantly waiting to be ‘found out’. It damages your self-esteem, your confidence, and negatively impacts you performance and the way you interact with and communicate with others.

In short, feeling like an imposter leaves you tired and second-guessing yourself every step of the way.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Overcoming feeling like a fraud can be extremely challenging. The most vulnerable to imposter syndrome are actually the hard workers, high performers, and perfectionists. Successful individuals such as Tina Fey, Michelle Obama, and even Albert Einstein have all felt like an imposter at times.

The more driven we are towards our goals, the more likely we are to stretch ourselves into uncomfortable situations, and the more likely we are to worry we don’t belong. Ironically, experiencing imposter syndrome is actually an indication that you are anything but. Clinical psychologist Susan Albers PsyD. says that true imposters don’t experience imposter syndrome, only those hard working, conscientious individuals that are concerned with doing a good job will sometimes feel they aren’t living up to requirements.

So, if you find yourself feeling like an imposter, here are five ways you can start to let go of this negative, anxious feeling and bring in more confidence and self-assurance.

1. Learn to identify the different between self-doubt and ‘idea doubt’.

When we doubt ourselves and our abilities it can be easy to slip into imposter syndrome thinking, and feel like we are in over our heads. Next time you find yourself doubting whether you can pull something off, ask yourself if it is really you that you doubt, or do you simply doubt the idea will work. Even the most intelligent, creative, and hardworking individuals have bad ideas. It doesn’t mean they aren’t capable, it just means that this particular idea isn’t a very good one.

Learn to recognize the difference between doubting your ability to succeed and doubting the validity of an idea. Just because your idea is bad, doesn’t make you useless or unworthy of your position. It just means you need to come up with something better next time.

2. Change the rules you are operating under

Are you a perfectionist? Do you believe you need to get everything right 100% of the time? Do you hold yourself to higher standards than you hold your colleagues or friends?

Sometimes, imposter syndrome occurs when we set the bar high and demand exceptional performance of ourselves. Trying to attain perfection at work and in our professional lives makes us vulnerable to feeling unworthy when we fail to meet it.

Sometimes, letting go of imposter syndrome requires us to let go of our perfectionist tendencies and accept that less than perfect is still good enough. Ask yourself what rules are you operating under and whether you can let them go, or at least modify them to healthier, more realistic ones.

If your rules say you need to always appear in control and on top of things and never ask your colleagues for help, change your rules to allow you to reach out for support if you need it. If your rules say you need to get everything 100% right first time, change the rule to allow time for learning and skill building. Depending on your job, getting some things right first time and the rest right the second time is still deemed excellent performance.

Let go or modify those rules that are making you feel inadequate, unworthy, and full of self-doubt to more realistic and supportive ones. Your rules and standards should help enhance your performance, not hinder it.

3. Embrace learning

“If you are the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.”

Confucius

Have you ever been sat in a meeting and felt like the dumbest one in there? Looking around the room, everyone seems so intelligent and professional. They are all on the same page; you are still 3 chapters behind.

Feeling like those around you are smarter and more capable is a classic symptom of imposter syndrome. It can be difficult to contribute to discussions when you feel lost in the conversation and afraid you’ll say something stupid. It feels like you’ve wandered into the wrong room and have no business being there.

It is absolutely your business to be there.

Instead of worrying about what you don’t know, reframe the opportunity as a chance to learn. Having the chance to interact with more experienced and knowledgeable colleagues is a fantastic learning experience. Yes, it may be uncomfortable at first, but have faith in your ability to learn. There is so much you can learn from others if you are open to engaging and remaining curious. Each of these people were once where you are – sitting in a meeting with no clue about what was being discussed – but over time and in embracing the opportunities to ask questions, they developed their knowledge and now they are the pros!

When faced with something you don’t know how to do or a problem you can’t solve, remember you have infinite capability to learn. Focus on learning from those more knowledgeable and skilled than you and you’ll soon be the seasoned pro intimidating the new girl (who you’ll reach out to help, because you know how it feels be the new girl!)

4. Embrace authenticity

There is a very commonplace idea in personal development that to build confidence you need to ‘fake it until you make it’. It’s the idea of acting as if you are already successful to put yourself in the mindset of success and project confidence. If you’re a follower of the Law of Attraction or The Secret, acting ‘as if’ is said to be the key to manifesting your dreams.

Yet, when an individual is experiencing imposter syndrome, trying to fake success only makes matters worse. You already feel like you are faking and don’t deserve to be there – acting even more fake and pretending you’re even more successful than you are is just going to make things dreadful.

Instead of faking it until you make it, embrace authenticity. Accept that you are still learning, and that there is a lot you don’t know. Most people appreciate honesty and authenticity, and will be glad that you spoke up and asked for help rather than tried to hide your struggles and plough on.

The key here to balancing authenticity with your desire to do well at work, and be seen as doing well and working hard, is your attitude. Showing a willingness and desire to learn is essential. If you don’t know the answer to a question, or how something is done, it is OK to say ‘I don’t know that, but I will go and find out’. We already talked under the last point about embracing learning – here is a great opportunity to use your ability to learn and grow to let go of your imposter syndrome. Acknowledge what you don’t yet know, and go learn it! There is nothing fake or fraudulent about that.

5. Recognize the influence of bias

It’s no surprise that imposter syndrome disproportionately affects women and minorities. The original study into the phenomena now known as imposter syndrome in 1978 focused solely on high achieving women, and found that despite their achievements and accolades, these women still believed they were unintelligent and that anyone who believed otherwise had been fooled.

Out of this research grew decades of research that sought to understand and even ‘treat’ the syndrome. Yet according to Ruchika Tulshvan and Jodi-Ann Burey, it appears to have missed something out:

The research fails to consider the significant influence of bias.

Women and minorities feel they don’t belong because they were never meant to belong in the first place. The research has failed to account for systemic sexism, racism, xenophobia, and classism at work. In short – the workplace was predominately designed by, and for, white men.

“Imposter syndrome took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women. As white men progress, their feelings of doubt usually abate as their work and intelligence are validated over time. They’re able to find role models who are like them, and rarely (if ever) do others question their competence, contributions, or leadership style. Women experience the opposite. Rarely are we invited to a women’s career development conference where a session on “overcoming imposter syndrome” is not on the agenda.” (Ruchika Tulshvan and Jodi-Ann Burey)

Sometimes, the feeling of not belonging has nothing to do with your competence or worthiness, and everything to do with systemic biases. Simply being a woman, or a minority, or different in any sense of the word is enough to induce imposter syndrome in an environment that was not designed for you.

This issue runs far deeper than I can do justice to in this blog post, so I encourage you to read “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” by Ruchika Tulshvan and Jodi-Ann Burey to learn more.

About the Author

Louise Keller is a Confidence and Anxiety Coach that helps 30something women overcome their anxiety and build confidence without years of therapy. She is a certified life coach, DV counselor/advocate, and specializes in positive psychology coaching.

Learn more about Louise

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