Many high achievers share a closely guarded secret: they think they are complete frauds, that their accomplishments are down to luck alone, and that any day now, they'll be exposed as an impostor. If this sounds like you, you might have impostor syndrome. We examine how to overcome it.
Two psychologists — Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanna Imes — coined the psychological phenomenon "impostor syndrome" in a piece they published in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice in 1978.
They described impostor syndrome as an intense internal experience of feeling like a phony, and they wrote that it was particularly common among high-achieving women.
Despite the women in Drs. Clance and Imes's sample achieving outstanding academic and professional successes, they were filled with self-doubt. They believed that their accomplishments were a result of luck, faulty judgment, or misevaluation rather than well-deserved personal triumph.
Around 70 percent of people from all walks of life will experience impostor syndrome at least once in their lifetime. The phenomenon is not limited to those who are highly successful, or only women.
Have you recently passed an exam with exceptional grades, sealed an unexpected deal, started a new job, or landed a promotion and feel as though you don't deserve any of it?
If you are struggling with accepting your successes and worry that you're not good enough or are going to be "unmasked" at any minute, Medical News Today's top tips to combat impostor syndrome could help you excel to the best of your ability.
1. Accept that you're not alone
Sometimes, accepting that impostor syndrome exists and that you're not the only one experiencing these feelings is enough to put your mind at rest.
Impostor syndrome is common and affects everyone from high school students to celebrities and Nobel Prize winners.
Impostor syndrome is rarely talked about — due, perhaps, to the person feeling as though they are keeping a dark secret — but when it is discussed, many have a deep sense of relief that they are not the only ones who feel this way.
Symptoms that you may recognize if you experience impostor syndrome include:
- worrying that your peers will find out that you're not as capable or smart as they think you are
- crediting your achievements as being a "stroke of luck" or "no big deal"
- avoiding doing anything challenging due to nagging self-doubt
- needing to do everything perfectly
- hating making mistakes
- feeling defeated by criticism and seeing it as proof of your incompetence
- believing that others are more capable, smarter, and more competent
- living in constant fear of being found out as a fraud
Low self-esteem often fuels impostor syndrome. No matter how much success the individual has, they wind up denying their accomplishments and questioning their self-worth.
Instead of success boosting their self-worth and confidence, it makes them feel as though they've fooled those around them into believing something that is not true.
Next time you find yourself grappling with fraudulent feelings and feel as though you're going to be "exposed," take relief in calling it what it is: impostor syndrome.
Take note of your repeated, automatic thoughts in these situations and the waterfall of sensations — such as a pounding heart and your stomach flipping in somersaults — that you experience.
Remind yourself that this is just your perception of reality and not reality itself. Impostor syndrome is a complex state that can be overcome.
2. Identify the root cause
Identifying exactly what's shaking your confidence and the root cause of your impostor syndrome can often help you to view the bigger picture rather than focusing on your inner monologue and thinking about how you've managed to slip through the system "undetected."
Researchers have identified several factors that may increase your likelihood of experiencing impostor syndrome.
New challenges. Impostor syndrome is normally triggered after being given a new opportunity or experiencing a fresh success.
For example, landing a new job, being invited to a senior-level meeting, or being asked to lead a high-stakes project could all lead to negative thoughts that you are undeserving of the role and that your success was not really earned and was, instead, a result of luck or good timing.
Competing with a smart family member during childhood. Some people have a sibling or close relative that is labeled as "the clever one."
Regardless of what grades, honors, and acclaim the child receives, the family still attributes greater intellectual competence to the "genius" child whose performance is often poorer by comparison.
While the individual is driven to get validation for their achievements, they begin to have self-doubt and believe that their gains must be a fluke, and so impostor syndrome emerges.
Being labeled as the superior child. Children who are told that they are superior in intellect, talent, appearance, and personality may also develop impostor syndrome.
The child is often told that they are perfect, given a list of things that they have done to display their talents, and told that they can do anything that they put their mind to with ease. In the eyes of their parents, they are perfect.
At some point, this person will realize that they have difficulty achieving certain things and yet they still receive praise for everything they do from their family. They feel obligated to fulfill their family's expectations but begin to distrust their parents' perceptions, and so self-doubt sets in and they feel like an impostor.
3. Remind yourself of your accomplishments
Keep a log of all your accomplishments and make sure that you review them from time to time for evidence of everything that you have earned.
Be it a résumé, list, journal, or box of notes that illustrate your achievements, having something concrete to look at can remind you that your accomplishments are real and not simply a figure of your imagination.
It is important to record the roles that luck, timing, and your contributions played in your successes to nurture the genuine belief that it was your own expertise — and not just luck — that led to all you have accomplished.
Once you have accepted your successes, your belief in your ability to accomplish tasks, or self-efficacy, can play a major role in how you tackle responsibilities, challenges, and goals.
Individuals who are highly self-efficacious tend to:
- set demanding goals for themselves
- thrive on challenges
- stay self-motivated
- keep going through obstacles
- exert effort to accomplish their goals
If you can learn not to downplay your achievements, you'll be better equipped to move onwards and upwards.
4. Be comfortable with who you are
Nobody is perfect, but we often compare what we feel on our insides to people's outsides. We only have access to our own self-doubt, so we frequently conclude that it is more justified than other people's self-doubt.
Learning to accept who you are and being kinder to yourself when things go wrong — instead of dwelling on your flaws — increases resilience, well-being, and overall happiness.
Valerie Young — who is an expert on impostor syndrome — explains that there are five subgroups of "impostors."
Working out which one applies to you could help you to problem-solve your situation accordingly.
The Perfectionist expects to achieve the high goals that they set for themselves and experiences doubt and worry about their ability to succeed when they fail.
Perfectionists are rarely satisfied, as they always believe that they could have done better.
If you are a perfectionist, learn to celebrate your achievements and view mistakes as an inevitable part of the process. Don't put off starting a project because you are waiting for the perfect time.
Accept that there may never be a perfect time to launch your project and that it may never be 100 percent perfect.
The Expert believes that they must know everything there is to know about a subject before beginning a project.
Experts continuously aim to broaden their skillset and endlessly seek out new information, which can pan out as a form of procrastination.
If you don't know how to do something, there is no harm in asking for help to keep moving at a steady pace.
The Soloist feels as though asking for help reveals that they are a phony. They will often refuse assistance to prove their worth in a situation.
As with experts, there is no shame in asking for help; admitting that you can't do something alone doesn't reveal you as an impostor.
The Natural Genius
The Natural Genius gages competence based on how quickly or easily they master a new role.
When natural geniuses are unable to excel without much effort, they tend to beat themselves up and experience feelings of shame.
Even the most confident of people need lifelong learning to build on their skills to succeed. Next time you're unable to achieve the impossible standards that you have set for yourself, break the task down into smaller and more achievable chunks that can be worked on over time.
The Superwoman/man intends to excel across every role in life and pushes themselves harder and harder to cover up any insecurities they may have.
Eventually, the work overload causes the individual to burn out, has an impact on their mental health, and even affects their relationships with colleagues, friends, and family.
Workaholics crave external validation and take constructive criticism personally. Learn how to feel good about yourself, cultivate your inner confidence, and take criticism on board without taking it to heart.
5. Reframe your thoughts
Impostor syndrome is characterized by feelings of inadequacy that stick around despite evidence of success.
Many people with impostor syndrome share common thoughts and feelings that cycle in their heads.
These may include "I feel like a fake," "I must not fail," and "My success is no big deal."
The key to overcoming these thoughts and feelings is to reframe them. While you can't always control your thought trail, you can challenge yourself to identify a brighter narrative.
This will illuminate the more positive sides of a challenging situation.
- Recognize impostor feelings. Acknowledging your thoughts and tracking when they occur is the first step to regaining control.
- Rewrite your thought content. Instead of thinking that you don't deserve success or that you're going to get found out, remember that nobody knows everything and that it is normal to become more informed as you progress in a role.
- Discuss your feelings. Rather than bury your feelings, discuss them with close colleagues or friends — you might just find that others feel the same way.
- View failure as a learning opportunity. If you don't succeed at something first time, use it as a lesson and starting point to improve on next time.
Remember that everyone is unique and has something different to offer. You have as much right to be in your position and have the opportunity to succeed as the person sitting next to you.