Updated: May 20
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Answer me this - when someone says, “well done,” do you ever think - “Phew! Got away with it again.” Such a weird feeling! A feeling like any minute people will find you out. Despite your good work and accomplishments, you secretly know - you don’t belong here.
You’ve just defined Imposter Syndrome. But despite its clinical sound, we’re all suffering from this malady. Well - most of us are anyway.
Originally coined as Imposter Phenomenon by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, Imposter Syndrome describes a skewed way of assessing your accomplishments. The result is a real-life struggle to internalize any sense of your own expertise, good work, or general badassery.
Imposter Syndrome means:
You see your accomplishments as lucky breaks or due to outside help.
You can’t consistently believe in your own skills, no matter your success.
You compulsively underplay or even criticize your performance.
You feel like you have to overperform to hide your incompetence.
You can’t ask for help because you fear exposure.
Falling short of a goal is catastrophic because it “proves” your lack of skill.
Most of all, you experience regular anxiety at the thought of being “found out.”
In short - it sucks. Imposter Syndrome anxiety can poke holes in your well-being, blunt your effectiveness, and rob you of a lot of earned joy.
But! There are ways of overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Or at least to get on better terms with it. I say “better terms” because there’s some evidence that a little Imposter Syndrome is actually a good thing.
In this article, I’m going to drill down on the four Rs of keeping Imposter Syndrome in check - Review, Remember, Reframe, Rebrand.
We’ll also discuss how to use perspective and expectation to gain a better view of ourselves.
And we’ll even face the unthinkable - what if you really do suck at your job?
Imposter Syndrome Anxiety? Review Your Accomplishments
Your imposter’s voice might insist that they aren’t really your accomplishments, but humor me. If you want to get a handle on Imposter Syndrome, you’re going to have to take stock.
Make a list of your wins - big and small. If you feel pushback from your brain, here’s a weird hack - talk about yourself in the third person.
Like, “What are some of Katie’s accomplishments?” Think of yourself as a fictional character in a Netflix series if you have to. Ask yourself what “that character” accomplished in the show so far.
If your brain still is in a judgy mood, start with long ago accomplishments and work forward. Learning to drive, graduating from school, saving up for a vacation, learning how to create your own website.
Work your way toward today, assessing all the things that you’ve learned, made, done, given back. Write the awesomeness down.
When you’re done step back and read them out loud, using the word “I.” I learned to drive. I graduated from college. I orchestrated that vacation. I designed my wedding.”
It may sound stupid. It’s not. Do this regularly until owning your good work feels deserved and natural.
Remember: Imposter Syndrome is Common in Superstars
You know those people who look so confident and dazzling? There’s a very good chance that they’re experiencing the same Imposter Syndrome as you.
In fact, a 2019 study found that 8 out of 10 people experience Imposter Syndrome! So while it might feel like you’re the only person in the room who’s scared - you’re in the majority.
Likely some of those people are looking at you thinking, “They’re so on top of things, I hope they don’t discover I’m a fraud.”
Look, if you’re making anything, doing anything, learning anything new - feeling underprepared is a natural part of your process. It’s not something going wrong. It’s a byproduct of doing hard and interesting things.
Don’t believe me? Here are just a fraction of superstars who share your anxiety:
Tracee Ellis Ross
Justice Sonia Sotomayor
So, Reframe Your Status: Imposter Anxiety = Superstar
What the above list should tell you is - you’re in very good company. So, when you feel an imposter moment coming on - try to reframe it as the side effect of being a superstar.
Being an adventurous learner defines everyone on that list.
Your struggle with Imposter Syndrome is proof that you are an adventurous learner too. You go beyond your comfort zone. You learn new skills. You step out of the shadows to make an impact.
The anxiety you feel is actually evidence that you’re earning status. So wear your Imposter Syndrome like a special badge that gets you into the Superstar Section of the universe.
It’s your ID card that identifies you as an effective, evolving, and accomplished person.
Rebrand the Challenge
While Googling “Imposter Syndrome” might bring in the most search results - it’s not the most helpful expression.
A “syndrome” makes it sound like something you need medication and lots of therapy for. It’s just not a helpful label.
Start rebranding Imposter Syndrom as “imposter moments” or “imposter thoughts.” As in “I’m having imposter thoughts over this presentation.” This simple rebrand puts some air between you and your triggers.
The word “syndrome” is too easily internalized and woven into your identity.
A thought or a moment is just a passing thing that happens from time to time. Like a flat tire or a zit. Not a crisis. Not a pathology. Just one of those things.
A syndrome can become what you are.
I know it sounds goofy to put so much weight on vocabulary. But this is how things get pinned down in your system.
Start cultivating a new dictionary of expressions to identify these anxious moments so you can move past them as just a quirk of the day - not a sickness you carry inside.
Perspective Is Good, Mistakes Happen
Another key is to get some outside perspective from someone you respect. As imposter moments rise up - talk about them with someone you trust.
By definition, most people with impostor feelings suffer in silence, says Dr. Imes, "Most people don't talk about it. Part of the experience is that they're afraid they're going to be found out.”
Friends and mentors who see us more objectively can help us internalize the world’s good opinion of our work. They can give us a clearer sense of what we contribute.
And Expect Mistakes
One of the more unfortunate features of Imposter Syndrome is the imaginary risk attached to making mistakes.
And you’re going to make mistakes. Everybody does.
Fear of exposure can make every misstep seem like a crisis. It can also seem like proof of your fraud. So let’s just head this off at the pass.
In general, you’re going to have to factor in a few moments of “oops.” Do this ahead of time. Try to see them as actual steps to success (because they are).
When you make a mistake, think - “Oh good! There it is. Now, what’s the lesson here?”
Every mistake for a superstar is a moment of tweaking. They’re inevitable, so think of them as part of the plan.
Remember all those superstars make tons of mistakes. So take the info as gratefully as you can. This is the process.
But What if You Really Do Secretly Suck?
That’s pretty unlikely. But sure - okay. Let’s address this.
It is possible that you don’t know all you need to know yet. Maybe you’re shaky in some areas - but you’re so strong in others, people aren’t seeing your weak spots yet.
Okay. Good. Sit down and close your eyes. Think about all the things you’re not up to speed on.
Is it procedural stuff? Are you weak on your close when you make a sales call? Are you hung up on creating your webpage?
These are all things that need solving, but the good news is..there’s an answer for all this stuff. It’s not a crisis or a flaw. It’s just information.
Methodically go down your list of blind spots and get your questions answered. Act like a student and this is your homework. Ask for feedback from a mentor, teacher, or trusted colleague. Go get the answers you need.
Then, guess what. You’ll know what you need to know. It’s that simple.
Once you plug those holes, if you still think you’re a fake - then it wasn’t really about the holes. Your brain is playing with you.
Go back to the beginning of this list and start addressing the real issue.
You Want a Little Imposter Syndrome
Finally after all this - I’m going to throw you a curve. You don’t want to totally overcome your Imposter Syndrome.
The truth is a little Imposter Syndrome is a good thing. Because you know who doesn’t have Imposter Syndrome? People who do nothing. People who learn nothing. People who don’t care about the work they do.
Obviously, you don’t want to be frozen by Imposter Syndrome. You don’t want it ruling you.
But if you just tame your Imposter Syndrome a bit, make it into an obedient pet? The leftover “imposter moments” can make you better at what you do. It can help you make a difference for the people who depend on your work.
Okay - I’m going to site one more study.
This one followed physicians-in-training. All the doctors who had imposter thoughts were “more empathetic, they were better listeners, they asked better questions.” They made more eye contact. They were more present and engaged. In short - they were the doctors we all want to have.
The truth is - nobody wants a doctor, coach, lawyer, or any service provider who isn’t a little concerned about performance.
Take some care. Do the work to almost overcome Imposter Syndrome.
But keep a little in your back pocket. A little Imposter Syndrome will connect you to the people you want to help and create a trail of work that - hopefully - you can learn to be proud of.
Have we connected on LinkedIn yet? I’m a hoot if I do say so myself.
Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Imposter Syndrome, by Dena M. Bravata, Sharon A. Watts, Autumn L. Keefer, Divya K. Madhusudhan, Katie T. Taylor, Dani M. Clark, Ross S. Nelson, Kevin O. Cokley, and Heather K. Hagg