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How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

If you’ve just been promoted, tasked with a special project, or received special recognition, but truly don’t feel you deserve it, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome. Even if you’ve never heard of imposter syndrome, you should know that you’re not alone and that you can learn to identify and manage it.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome occurs when you feel like a fraud whose successes or accolades are undeserved. Instead of accepting your achievement, you chalk it up to luck, good timing or another outside factor and, a result, a sneaking sense that you don’t deserve the rewards you’re receiving creeps in.

The term imposter syndrome emerged in the 1970s when clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes observed high-achieving professional women who believed they were inadequate, despite significant academic and professional achievements. The syndrome has since been observed in both men and women, and is particularly common among academics and graduate students, according to the Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse Newsletter.

In addition to a constant, nagging sense that achievements are undeserved, those suffering from imposter syndrome often maintain a constant fear someone will notice they are undeserving of their position. This ongoing self-doubt depletes confidence, and, according to impostor syndrome expert Valerie Young in Time Magazine, can also:

  • Prevent the person from asking for help
  • Prevent the person from speaking up in a meeting or classroom
  • Trigger further doubt when the person faces a challenge or doesn’t have all the answers
  • Increase stress trying to manage all areas of life
  • Prevent people from sharing ideas or applying to programs

The syndrome is not thought to be linked to anxiety, depression or low self-esteem, according to Elizabeth Cox’s TED Talk, and instead stems from a sense that everyone else is just as accomplished, and therefore equally (if not more) deserving of your success.

Syndrome vs. Phenomenon

Referred to as imposter syndrome, imposter phenomenon or imposter experience, the condition’s description alone can be unclear. Cox suggests that describing the experience as a syndrome minimizes how prolific it is. And, L.V. Anderson writes in Slate, the experience doesn’t fit the profile of a psychological syndrome, which defines a group of symptoms that interfere with day-to-day function or cause intense distress. In fact, in an interview with Anderson, Clance herself said she isn’t sure when the experience or phenomenon was labeled a syndrome, but she suspects the terminology shifted because it was easier to grapple with a “syndrome” instead of an “experience” or “phenomenon.” Clance has said she would label this imposter experience today, to better describe how prolific it is.

Steps to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

While there is not a specific treatment for imposter syndrome, there are practical steps you can take to identify, manage and overcome it.

Identify the Root Cause

What, specifically, is making you doubt yourself? It is a new job title, a new role or your first time enrolling in graduate school? Determine how you’re selling yourself short. For example, do you feel like you aren’t smart enough to have gotten into grad school? Do you feel like you aren’t experienced enough at your company to have earned a promotion? Understand what beliefs you’re holding about yourself that are shaking your confidence. Even the act of acknowledging the thoughts can help you begin to question them, psychologist Audrey Ervin says in the Time magazine article.

Look at the Facts

Combat your feelings with some cold, hard data by examining how you stack up against your goals to better recognize how and why you’ve landed where you are. Strive to parse out a feeling from a fact. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by graduate school, that may be because you’re adjusting to a new workload – it probably isn’t because you’re not intelligent enough to be there.

Get Talking  

Choose someone you trust to talk with about your fading confidence, being mindful you’re not confiding in someone who is close to the situation, like a co-worker or peer. By sharing with a neutral party, you’ll be more likely to have them identify feelings that are irrational and help you see the skills and strengths that have brought you to your position. Also, the sheer act of overcoming your embarrassment at feeling this way and bringing those feelings into the open can bring relief. You may find someone else who needs to talk about the experience in the process of talking about your own.

Remember Your Successes

Take some time to tally the accomplishments, achievements, and work invested to get you to this point. Take this one step further and celebrate your successes to help you overcome feelings of guilt or unworthiness. Fast Company’s Matthew Grothaus says to visualize your past successes – or someone else’s – to re-establish that success is possible. Forbes’ Ashley Stahl recommends keeping a list of your strengths and skills. It’s fine to couple this with goals and areas for improvement, but important to record both your talents and the achievements your talent and work have earned you to this point. 

Focus on the Positive

While a constant quest for perfection can be a motivating driver, it’s equally important to focus on the positive, give yourself the grace to make mistakes, and give yourself permission to do only what is necessary on routine tasks.

Reframe Your Thoughts

The way you think about your personal story informs the way you feel about yourself. Take a step back, and imagine you need to present a biography for a conference or personal profile. How did you end up where you are today? What have you experienced and accomplished to get you there? It may even be helpful to write this story out, to help yourself accept your success and skills are valid.

Reframe the narrative you tell yourself as well. For example, instead of sliding into the mantra that you’ve lucked into your current position, redirect your thinking to acknowledge that you may not know everything now, but you’re intelligent enough to learn and feel more confident over time. Sometimes, Stahl says, this is as easy as transforming “I don’t know anything about this” to “I don’t know everything about this – right now.”

Acknowledge the Syndrome is a Symptom of Success

Don’t forget: if you hadn’t earned the promotion, been accepted to graduate school, or accepted a new role, you wouldn’t be feeling this way to begin with. High-achievers are most likely to feel like imposters, which means you’re joining their ranks – and must be doing something right.

Remember Lots of People Feel This Way

Cox notes that imposter syndrome can impact all different types of people and skillsets, across all genders and races. Even highly respected individuals like Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein grappled with the syndrome, according to Cox. In the 1980s, a paper presented by Dr. Joan Harvey, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and her colleagues, found 70% of people felt like an imposter at some point in their lives – and that was before the rise of social media. Tara Swart, a leadership consultant, neuroscientist and medical doctor who has been helping people overcome imposter syndrome for years, told Fast Company that the constant comparison of social media has enabled a more widespread sense of inadequacy.

Now, it’s time for you to step back, breathe and celebrate your success. You earned it, and you deserve it.

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