Imposter syndrome: What it is and how to overcome it
I’m sure it’s safe to say that most of us have experienced it - we think we fluked the exam or only got the job because we exaggerated our abilities, or that we’re not really worthy of the award we won. Coupled with an ongoing fear that one day people will realise that you’re not very good at what you do and expose you for the fraud that you believe yourself to be. These are the tell-tell signs that imposter syndrome is at play.
Imposter syndrome isn't just for the shy, the meek or the anxious. In fact, people who struggle with imposter syndrome are in extremely good company. Albert Einstein, repeatedly claimed that his work didn’t deserve the acclaim it received, calling himself an "involuntary swindler".
Maya Angelou, the writer and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom once said: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now'."
And the brilliantly talented, three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep shared "cold feet" before every new project wondering: "Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?"
The list goes on, with writer John Steinbeck, actress Jodie Foster and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg all admitting to having struggled with similar insecurities in the past.
What Is imposter syndrome?
The term imposter syndrome was first coined in 1978 by By Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their psychology paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. They defined it as a person "believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise," despite their successes and accomplishments.
Essentially, someone who struggles with imposter syndrome believes that their achievements have come about through luck, hard work or manipulation.
Despite the seemingly ominous name, imposter syndrome isn’t a disease or an abnormality. Rather it is a feeling, a belief that is hard to shake. Imposter syndrome can be paralysing. It affects self-esteem and leads to self-doubt. And the effects can be exacerbated when in the company of confident and talented individuals.
At the time of publication, it was believed that women were more impacted by feelings of insecurity than men. However, this theory is now regarded as outdated recognising that men and women can struggle equally. Interestingly, the way imposter syndrome manifests for men and women is different - women tend to be more focused on their performance, whilst men are affected in terms of success.
When we hear the word imposter syndrome, we tend to think about it in a work setting, but it can show up in home life, relationships, hobbies - almost any area of life.
The 5 types of imposter
The leading imposter syndrome expert and author of the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Valerie Young, identified five different ways it can reveal itself in a person. As you read through the five types, reflect on how much you identify with the trait:
The perfectionist cares about how something is done. One mistake, one slip up, in an otherwise flawless performance, is simply not good enough.
Not too dissimilar to the perfectionist, the expert expects to know everything. Not having all the answers is considered a failure in their eyes.
The natural genius
The natural genius sailed through school and has learned to measure competence by how easily or quickly a task is completed. Not succeeding the first time is essentially a failure, so they tend to avoid trying new things if they can’t guarantee they’ll be good.
What’s important to the soloist is who completes the task. Asking for help or not being able to do something on their own is a sign of defeat.
Believes that they should be able to do it all and do it all perfectly. Not living up to expectations (most of their own), whether in the role of a parent, a partner, at work or around the home results in feelings of shame at their own limitations.
5 steps to overcoming your imposter
On an average day, a person has over 70,000 thoughts, a number that blows my mind every time I share it. But here’s the important part - just because you think something doesn’t mean that it’s true. In fact, over 80% of what we think each day is some variation of a thought that we’ve already had.
When we are aware of what we’re thinking, we can more easily distinguish between what is true and what is simply a story we’ve been telling ourselves all these years. You see, between the ages of six and 10, children are making sense of the world around them and how they fit into it. Like little sponges, they absorb comments that were made and internalise beliefs about who they are. Perhaps a teacher repeatedly said you were 'slow' or your brother teased you saying that 'you’d amount to nothing' and a set of beliefs about your capability or worth begin to form.
Becoming aware of your thoughts can be challenging. Like a radio that was constantly playing would eventually fade into the background, so too do our thoughts. Practices like journaling and meditation are great for gaining clarity over your thoughts, or simply pausing and asking yourself "What am I thinking right now?"
2. Name the critic
This step involves giving your imposter syndrome a character as a way to defuse your identity with it and recognise that your thoughts are simply thoughts and not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality.
- What does it look like?
- How does it talk to you?
- What is its tone of voice?
- What are the typical phrases it says?
Get as clear as you can on this persona. It could be based on someone you know or a character from a film. One of my clients has Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter (which I love), another has Donald Duck, and another has an accountant.
When you find yourself in a situation in which the imposter is strong you can say to yourself, "Oh there goes Donald again". It sounds silly, but trust me, it’s super powerful.
Remember, a lot of the beliefs we hold originate from childhood experiences. This means a lot of what we think is outdated or simply isn’t accurate. Updating our belief system and overcoming the critical voice of the imposter, requires challenging our current way of thinking.
When you doubt yourself or negatively criticise something you’ve done, get curious:
- How accurate is that really? What are the facts?
- Is it possible that you are jumping to conclusions?
- Are you thinking in black-and-white terms?
- Or magnifying your weaknesses and minimising your abilities?
- Are you being overly pessimistic or viewing the situation with a lack mindset?
- Is there an expectation that you should be able to do this? Where does that come from?
- Are you setting unrealistic expectations or standards of perfection?
- What do past experiences in similar situations tell you?
- Would you speak to a friend like this?
4. Owning your success
Many of us disregard the compliments we receive, remembering only the negative feedback. This in part stems from what we call a negativity bias - in that it’s beneficial for the survival of species to be more aware of the negatives that signalled potential threats and dangers.
But more than this, it’s natural to remember your failures more than your successes because there’s usually more emotional intensity. As the brain more easily remembers events that are accompanied by strong emotions, most people underestimate and under-appreciate the number of successes they’ve had, compared to the number of failures they’ve had.
There are two great practices that help counter this negativity bias and inaccurate self-view:
- The first is to create a credit journal in which you note down three to five things that you’ve achieved that day. This isn’t about recording the promotion or a pay rise, but rather acknowledging the little things you do each day that you don’t recognise or appreciate. Research has shown over and over again that the more you acknowledge your past successes, the more confident you become in taking on and successfully accomplishing new ones
- The second is to absorb the praise you receive. The next time someone compliments you, make a concentrated effort to truly appreciate what is being said even if at first it feels uncomfortable. This helps to combat your own imposter syndrome by collecting and storing positive feedback in your mind. By spending a few moments to let the good feelings in, you start to do a little rewiring of the brain to help it become more attuned to receiving praise.
5. Create your personal coach/cheerleader
Similar to step two, this is about creating your own inner positive persona who supports you and cheers you on from the sidelines. A voice that is kind, loving, supportive, compassionate and accurate.
Again, think about what this character looks like, how it talks and what it says to you to bolster your confidence. Use all the evidence you gathered in step three to help cultivate a strong, encouraging persona. When the inner critic arises, make space to listen to your inner cheerleader.
Be kind with yourself as you put this new skill into practice knowing that it can take time to really grow and nurture this part of you. Remember, you’re combatting years, possibly decades of listening to that inner critic and so this cheerleader's voice is currently weak and those neural connections and pathways need strengthening.
If you’re struggling with any of these steps, talking to a professional can help you to identify where imposter syndrome is holding you back and more importantly how to challenge it so that you show up authentically and confidently in what you do. Download your free imposter syndrome thought form here.