14 MIN READ

Impostor Syndrome

Facing Fears of Inadequacy and Self-Doubt

Think of your greatest achievements. Do you feel proud of what you've accomplished? Or do you feel like a fraud?

Does each raise, promotion or accolade bring joy? Or is it accompanied by the dread that, one day, your cover will be blown, and everyone will find out that you just got lucky?

If you experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, you may be surprised to learn that you are in great company. Impostor Syndrome is typically associated with high achievers. So, if you feel like a fraud, the chances are that you're more capable than you think. Real frauds don't worry about things like this.

In this article, we'll examine Impostor Syndrome: what it is, how it can limit your possibilities, and the strategies you can use to overcome it.

Defeat your inner critic using these strategies.

What Is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome (also known as Impostorism, Impostor Phenomenon and Fraud Syndrome) is the overwhelming feeling that you don't deserve your success. You become convinced that you're not as intelligent, creative or talented as you may seem. And you suspect that your achievements are down to luck, good timing, or just being "in the right place at the right time."

You might find that you often question your ability or ask yourself, "What gives me the right?" You may even feel that you don't belong at all. And your biggest fear is that one day you'll be exposed as a fraud.

Impostor Syndrome can be linked to other areas of self-doubt, such as fear of success, fear of failure, or self-sabotage. But it's not simply about poor self-confidence or excessive humility. It involves a constant fear of exposure, isolation and rejection.

Impostor Syndrome often strikes at moments of success: starting a new job, receiving an award or promotion, or taking on extra responsibility such as teaching others, starting your own business, or becoming a first-time parent.

You may feel that you need to work harder because of your perceived inadequacies, to avoid being "unmasked." This may even lead to further success and recognition – and feeling like an even bigger fraud. Often, however, your poor perception of your skills can result in "downshifting." This is when you revise your goals and become less ambitious, thus preventing you from fulfilling your true potential.

Note:

According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, people of high ability often have a low awareness of that ability. However, that doesn't mean that they all have Impostor Syndrome, which uniquely involves a dread of "discovery."

Impostor Syndrome, Gender and Race

Impostor Syndrome has long been thought to affect women more than men, particularly in male-dominated environments. In their groundbreaking article, "The Impostor Phenomenon," Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes focused on the prevalence of Impostor Syndrome among high-achieving women. [1]

However, recent research has shown that, in fact, it affects both genders equally. The same study suggests that symptoms of Impostor Syndrome are particularly high among ethnic minority groups, and often affect those who also show symptoms of depression or anxiety. [2]

Do I Suffer From Impostor Syndrome?

Now let's look at some of the main symptoms of Impostor Syndrome:

Feeling Inadequacy and Self-Doubt

Impostor Syndrome expresses itself as an extreme lack of confidence. When you experience success you may find yourself thinking, "I'm not worthy," or, "I don't deserve this."

Most people suffer from a lack of self-confidence at some point in their lives, but with Impostor Syndrome the feeling is constant and severe.

Exhibiting Perfectionist Tendencies

Many people who experience Impostor Syndrome are perfectionists. This is when you set yourself unreasonably high goals, and then feel shame or disappointment when you fail. Perfectionism means you may never be satisfied with your achievements, and tend to focus on mistakes and failures only.

Even the highest of achievers have fallen victim to this way of thinking. For example, the 2019 World Heptathlon Champion, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, has shared that she experienced chronic self-doubt, even while performing at an elite level. Similarly, former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama has explained how she still suffers from Impostor Syndrome despite her many achievements, and how it can be particularly difficult for women of color to overcome.

Avoiding Responsibility

While some people suffering from Impostor Syndrome show perfectionist tendencies, others go the opposite way. You might fear failure so much that you actually avoid taking on new responsibilities, going for a new job, or even accepting a promotion.

You might also find it difficult to speak up in meetings or answer questions without checking with someone else first because you're scared of getting things wrong. This may lead you to procrastinate, or to avoid working on tasks that you know you need to get done, because you worry about poor feedback you might receive.

Note:

In her book, The Impostor Cure, clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd calls perfectionism and avoidance the "impostor twins," and provides a number of strategies and tips for overcoming these and other symptoms of Impostor Syndrome.

Fearing Judgment and Discovery

Impostor Syndrome is often characterized by a constant fear of "discovery." Not only are you haunted by the fear that you aren't good enough, but also that your co-workers and managers will find out you're a phony – if they haven't done so already.

This fear may even lead you to illogical extremes. You might find that you push yourself to the limit in order to prevent "exposure," while at the same time refusing to accept that your efforts are good enough. This can result in a vicious cycle of effort, dissatisfaction and fear, which may further damage your self-esteem.

Denying Your Own Success

You likely downplay your achievements – a lot! Often, you might find yourself caught up in negative self-talk that makes you feel as if you don't deserve your success.

You tend to pass off your successes as "easy," even when you've spent a lot of time and effort on them. For example, if you've been asked to give a presentation, you might think, "What gives me the right to speak? Why should people listen to me?"

And even when you receive positive feedback, you tend to find ways to dismiss it. For example, you might think, "Well, I was just lucky and had a lot of help." You might also believe that if you were to start over, you wouldn't have the luck, talent or skills to replicate your success.

Note:

Just because you doubt your abilities doesn't mean that you're suffering from Impostor Syndrome. Sometimes, you really will be out of your depth! In these instances, it's important to be honest and seek help from your manager.

Does My Team Suffer From Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome doesn't just hurt the people who experience it. It also hurts the teams and businesses that they belong to. So, if you're in a leadership role, it pays to keep an eye out for team members who are struggling with feelings of inadequacy.

They may turn down promotions or avoid challenging new roles or high-exposure projects. They'll likely be uncomfortable with compliments or praise, attributing good work or success to luck or knowing the right people.

Another sign is comparing themselves unfavorably with others, using self-deprecating statements such as, "I'm not sure I know what I'm talking about, but…" or, "It might just be me, but…" They may even openly express fears of failure or incompetence.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Recognizing that you have Impostor Syndrome is often the hardest part of overcoming it. Many people believe that the alternative is to be boastful and self-important, but this needn't be the case.

If you think you have Impostor Syndrome, the following six strategies can help you to overcome it:

1. Acknowledge Your Feelings

The first step is to acknowledge what you're feeling, and why.

Start by keeping a journal. Whenever you experience feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy, write them down, and be specific about why you're feeling this way. The chances are that seeing your thoughts written out in black and white will enable you to see how harmful they really are – and, most importantly, to challenge them!

Remember that, while feelings are important, they are just feelings – and do not necessarily reflect reality. Feeling unqualified doesn't mean you actually are.

For example, in your journal, you might write, "I gave a presentation to the board and, although they said I did very well, I could see that they weren't impressed." If you reflect on what you've written, and on how the board members actually reacted, you'll likely see that their response was sincere, and that your fears were groundless.

Then use Cognitive Restructuring to counter automatic negative thoughts and feelings. Write down some positive statements or affirmations that neutralize negative self-talk. For example, you could say, "I am a confident, capable professional," or ,"I will be successful because I know what I'm doing."

2. Talk to Others

Reach out and talk to people you trust. You might be surprised by how many of your friends and colleagues can relate to how you feel. Listen to the people you respect in your life and let them show you how your fears are unfounded.

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3. Develop a Quick Response Plan

Dealing with Impostor Syndrome takes long-term effort, but sometimes you need tactics to deal with it at particularly stressful moments. When the negative self-talk takes over, try to confront it by distancing yourself from the emotional power of the voice. [3]

Think of yourself in the third person. Instead of thinking, "Why did I do that?" try thinking, "Why did they do that?" This will help you to gain a more objective perspective of the situation, and of your thoughts and feelings.

Counter feelings like, "I'm not good enough," by taking on more risks. This may at first seem counterintuitive, but by taking calculated risks – and succeeding – you can build a case against your inner critic.

4. Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Build up your confidence by becoming more aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Conduct a Personal SWOT Analysis to discover what you're best at, and to think about how you can minimize your weaknesses.

Once you have a deeper understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, you won't have to spend so much time worrying that you're not qualified for certain tasks, projects or roles. Develop a support network of people who motivate you and who you can trust to help you counter your negative inner critic.

5. Overcome Perfectionism

Overcome perfectionist habits by taking regular breaks, using relaxation techniques, and focusing on the bigger picture.

Learn how to set yourself realistic, challenging and achievable goals. At the same time, remember that mistakes are a part of life, and that, if you don't hit a particular goal or get something in on time, it's not the end of the world.

In fact, mistakes demonstrate that you're not afraid to take risks and push yourself to try new things. Instead of seeing your mistakes as things to be ashamed of, treat them as learning experiences that will help you to perform even better next time.

Tip:

Read our article on Perfectionism for more tips on how to overcome all-or-nothing thinking.

6. Own Your Successes

Often, people with Impostor Syndrome find it hard to accept praise. When things go well, they attribute their success to external factors such as help from others or good fortune. But when things go wrong, they tend to shoulder all the blame.

Try to develop a strong internal locus of control. If you believe that your life is shaped by your own actions, choices and decisions, you can take responsibility for your achievements, as well as your shortcomings. So, next time you meet a goal or finish an important project, acknowledge that it was your skill and talent that made it happen.

Don't forget to celebrate and enjoy your successes, too! Keep a record of positive feedback and praise that you receive. And look back at it the next time you hear that negative inner voice. This will help to take the sting out of any criticism you're directing at yourself, and provide a much-needed boost of confidence.

Key Points

Impostor Syndrome is a self-fulfilling pattern of thought in which you consider yourself to be a fraud. You doubt your own intelligence and talents, and think that anyone who believes otherwise is only "being nice" or has somehow been fooled by you.

Symptoms of Impostor Syndrome include:

  • Feeling inadequacy and self-doubt.
  • Exhibiting perfectionist tendencies.
  • Avoiding responsibility.
  • Fearing judgment and discovery.
  • Denying your own success.

Recognizing that you have Impostor Syndrome is often the hardest part, but it's also the first step toward overcoming it. There are several strategies you can use to beat Impostor Syndrome:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings.
  2. Talk to others.
  3. Develop a quick response plan.
  4. Understand your strengths and weaknesses.
  5. Overcome perfectionism.
  6. Own your successes.

Infographic

Click on the image below to check out our infographic on Impostor Syndrome, and to discover more top tips for defeating it:

Impostor Syndrome Infographic

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Comments (13)
  • Over a month ago MichaelP wrote
    Dave, it sounds like your process of writing your abilities down has worked for you, well done.

    Preparation is always important before interviews and documenting your skills and experiences sounds like good preparation. I am only vaguely familiar with the STAR approach (Structuring your response: Situation/Task/Action/Result) and I can imagine, done well it will be very effective. You also need to prepare your own questions. After responding in one way you might ask how would this approach work in your company for instance?

    Hoping the interview goes well and you keep in touch with our community her in the forums. Remember to make a good first impression:
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/FirstImpressions.php

    cheers Michael
  • Over a month ago daveastro2007 wrote
    Hi Midgie,

    I asked for feedback from the company I had the interview with and did not hear anything from them. I have however heard back from another company who wish to interview me. It will be a panel interview.

    As reality surfaced that I am nearing to potentially be offered employment with this company I have had thoughts of self doubt as to whether I could carry out the tasks required of me. To counter act this I sat down and typed out a summary of all my work experience and the various job roles I have held during my years of working. This has resulted in giving me the confidence that I am very capable of doing what this job requires. It will also allow me to be more confident during the panel interview.

    I have a question regarding the STAR method when answering questions. Does anybody have any experience of using this technique and where I can find information about this method.

    Thanks for the great support.

    Dave
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Dave,
    Most definitely sounds like you have a good approach to job hunting by reviewing and reflecting on your experiences.

    I wonder though ... have you ever gone back to the interviewer for some feedback? I always think it is worth asking, although they might say no, if they do say yes you might learn something valuable. What do you think?

    Good luck with things and keep us posted.
    Midgie
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