What is Imposter Syndrome (How To Overcome It)

Imposter syndrome is when you feel your skill or ability is inadequate, and you think that you don't have what it takes to be an expert. Clinical Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term Imposter Syndrome in the 1970s. 

Imposter syndrome makes you doubt your skills and achievements. You begin to think you are fraud and think that others would call you out for it at any time. 

The good news is that you can stop imposter syndrome from taking over your life. For some, you experience the fear for a short period, such as at the beginning of a new job or project. For others, it has been a life long battle. Whichever box you fall into, there's a solution for you.

How common is Imposter Syndrome

If you think that you are the only sufferer of Imposter Syndrome or that there are only a few sufferers, you are wrong. According to a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70% of people feel this way

In a recent survey, 85% of UK adults admitted to feeling inadequate or incompetent at work, and almost 70% don't feel they deserve their current success. 

Some Famous People Who Have Experienced The Imposter Syndrome

“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

 - Sheryl Sandberg (Forbes)

“I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”

 -  Sonia Sotomayor (Newyork Times)

“Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

Howard Schultz (New York Times)

And Some Famous Actors Who Have Experienced The Imposter Syndrome

"I go through [acute imposter syndrome] with every role,"

Lupita Nyongo (Time Out)

"No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?"

 - Tom Hanks (National Public Radio)

"The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”

Tina Fey (Independent)

Gender differences and Impostorism

Both genders suffer from imposter syndrome. Research on Imposter syndrome among men and women is mixed but appears to be more in women than men. However, some suggest it may be a phenomenon suffered by both genders equally.  Some say it may be because men don't because of the fear of stereotype backlash

How Imposter Syndrome Works

Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander wrote in their article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science that the Imposter Syndrome starts when an Achievement related task is assigned. People suffering from imposter syndrome become anxious and respond by over prepping or by delaying then frantically prepping. Once the task is achieved, they are relieved but it is short-lived. As a result, they don't believe their success was because of their ability.  

Imposter Syndrome Cycle

Diagram from the Sakulku and Alexander Paper

What type of Imposter Syndrome do you exhibit? 

Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally-known speaker, author and leading expert on the impostor syndrome, categorized Imposter syndrome in too five sub-groups. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, she describes these sub-groups in greater detail. Below is a summary of these sub-groups. 

1. The Perfectionist

You set an exceptionally high standard for yourself. If you fail to meet up to your standard, you begin to experience self-doubt and worry about measuring up. 

  • Do you find it difficult to delegate, or do your direct reports imply you are a micromanager?
  • Do you feel you must be 100% correct all the time or are you hard on yourself when you miss the (exceptionally) high target you set for yourself?

You can't enjoy your success because it's never good enough or you believe you could have been better. This is unhealthy because you are setting a target for yourself that you can never achieve. The bar will always be higher than what you can give. You are unable to accept that you've done well. Consequently, you don't own and celebrate your accomplishments. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge your accomplishments.

2. The Superman/Woman

You always want to work harder because you feel inadequate compared to your colleagues. You often push yourself harder and harder to measure up, mostly because of your insecurities or lack of self-confidence.  As a result of trying to measure up to your peers, you overwork yourself and negatively affect your health. You are a workaholic. Does this apply to you?

  • Do you often stay back at work past your team or are you the last to leave the office very late at night?
  • Are you anxious when you have downtime or do you rarely take time off work because you feel the need to be a hard worker?
  • Do you think you didn't work hard enough to merit your current position or promotion?

Overworking yourself to prove your ability would wear you out mentally, physically, and emotionally. You would be giving other people power over your emotions. Your self worth should come from within. Instead of waiting for external validation, confidently demonstrate your expertise. Show up confidently at work and your peers will see a competent professional. 

3.The Natural Genius

You always want to get things done effortlessly and quickly. If you take the time to get tasks completed, you feel ashamed of yourself because you believe you should be faster. This is not just perfectionism but also speed. Does this sound like you?

  • Do you always want to get perfect scores or do you resent the thought of having a mentor?
  • Do you always feel you are unable and humiliated when you experience a setback?

You wouldn't always know everything, neither would you be the quickest at everything. Instead of beating yourself up trying to do everything quickly and perfectly, identify what needs to be done and create a S.M.A.R.T. goal to achieve them. Don't avoid tasks because you are not good at them, but be open to learning things that you need to advance in your profession. 

4. The Soloist

You always prefer to work independently. Also, you think asking for help would reveal your incompetence. You may turn down help to prove yourself. Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you find it very hard to ask for help even when you know you need it or it would make you accomplish your task efficiently?
  • Do you always think you can do everything on your own?

Work to step out of your comfort zone to collaborate with others especially if it increases your chances of getting a better outcome or if it would improve efficiency.

5. The Expert

You feel you have to know everything about certain subjects. Often, you feel inadequate even though you are very skillful. You fear that your peers think you are inexperienced and somewhat incompetent if you don't have all the answers.  

  • Do you feel the need to keep going for certifications and training because you feel you need to improve your abilities even though you have the skills?
  • Are you reluctant asking for a promotion or applying for a job because you feel you must meet every single requirement?

You are afraid of not having all the answers and looking like a fraud. Acknowledge and accept you won't have all the answers. Learning is a life long process for everyone. 

How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome

It is critical to address the imposter phenomenon because of the disastrous effect it can have on your career and business. Researchers found out that those suffering from the syndrome tended to be paid less, they got promoted less, and they avoided seeking better career-advancing opportunities. Therefore it's vital you overcome this syndrome.

 There are ways you can overcome feeling like a fraud or an Imposter. Research shows you can change the way you see yourself. Here are a few steps to combat the imposter phenomenon.

  • Be Aware: It starts by recognizing this phenomenon in yourself. Awareness is an important step in defeating imposter syndrome. Identifying imposter syndrome when it arises helps you know what these thoughts are, and what situation or comment triggers them.  
  • Analyze your thoughts: Don't just accept the negative thoughts and dwell on them. What evidence shows that you are not qualified, or you are less qualified to do the job? Have you produced the desired results? Did you work hard to achieve the results you have? Analyzing your thoughts allows you to reach logical and truthful conclusions. 
  • Document Your Accomplishments: Write down your achievements and the compliments you get for the work you do. It's the proof of your abilities. It becomes the evidence you can use to objectively evaluate yourself at those times you begin to doubt yourself or feel like a fraud. When you are documenting your accomplishments in real time, it then becomes easier to believe in your self and in your abilities.
  • Own Your Accomplishments: The next step after documenting your achievements is to take ownership. Own the role you played in your success. Don't attribute hard work to luck. Don't attribute your expertise to chance, and don't trivialize your knowledge.  It may be difficult when you first start but with time, it becomes easier to own your success.
  • Visualize Your Success: Visualize how you would react when you accomplish a task. Imagine how your response would be when you are with your peers celebrating a win. Also, picture how you would navigate situations that trigger the imposter syndrome ahead of time. Think about how you would own your successes and respond to people who make comments that cause you to doubt yourself. Preparing for each of the scenarios would make you better equipped in real-time
  • Get A Coach: If possible, get an accountability partner or a coach who would help you through this process. If you are looking for a confidence coach to help you navigate the journey from suffering from imposter syndrome to becoming a confident professional book a free discovery with me here or with any other coach who can help you. You can also look for a mentor who would be willing to support you as you overcome this challenge.
  • Talk To Yourself: Instead of criticizing and doubting yourself, begin to speak to yourself positively. Stop reinforcing your negative thoughts with negative talk.  There is a difference between self-appraisal with the plan to get some training or education to address deficiencies and negative thinking where you dwell on thoughts of not being good enough. Research shows that there is power in the words you speak to yourself. Think of affirmations that would uplift you. Write your affirmations down, say them out loud, and put them in places where you'll always see them.
  • Be kind to yourself: One important key to overcoming imposter syndrome is kindness. Be kind to yourself. Don't judge yourself harshly when you make mistakes. Don't set such a high bar that is impossible to achieve for yourself and then scold yourself for failing to meet them. Reward yourself when you do well and correct your errors kindly. Be your first cheerleader. 
  • Don't personalize criticism: Do not personalize rejection or criticism even when it is said painfully. There will be times you under-deliver or you fail to put into consideration other views. Don't take that as a personal ding on your abilities. It means you need to regroup and do it better. At other times, you may over-deliver and still get criticized. It does not translate to you personally or your abilities as a professional.
  • Don't Give Up: Finally, recognize you are on a journey to becoming a confident professional. Like it is when traveling in a car, sometimes you would hit bumps and stops along the way. At other times it would be a smooth ride. However, you will still get to your destination if you don't stop or turn around. So it is with any challenge at work or in life. The key is to be intentional about who you want to be - a confident professional. 

Imposter syndrome is a form of insecurity and the opposite of insecurity is confidence.  Confidence starts with believing in yourself and your abilities. It continues with the actions that you take.  Take back control of your life starting with how you think of yourself to what you do. You've got this!

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