Imposter Syndrome has become a widely talked about phenomenon – as more people come to recognise this way of thinking. Yet the term ‘imposter syndrome’ first appeared in 1978. Here’s what we know about how to overcome those imposter feelings.
When researchers and psychologists first coined the term ‘imposter syndrome’ they defined it as a psychological pattern of thinking and behaviour where one doubts their own abilities and achievements. With a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. Sound familiar?
If you suffer from imposter syndrome, you’re in good company. Imposter syndrome is common – 70 per cent of people are believed to experience imposter syndrome in their lifetime.
While it’s a psychological phenomenon rather than a diagnosable condition, imposter syndrome is often linked to anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, and comes with constant and often severe feelings and thoughts, such as:
This persistent fear of a) not being good enough and b) that you’ll be found out, can lead people to illogical extremes, pushing themselves to the limit to prevent being exposed and refusing to accept their efforts are good enough.
This creates a vicious cycle of effort, dissatisfaction and fear and sadly, the shame of not feeling good enough often stops people from sharing their experience. This only perpetuates anxiety and self-doubt.
Yet research shows imposter syndrome is associated with high levels of achievement – many elite performers and athletes have identified with this phenomenon. So, if you identify with imposter syndrome, chances are you’re more capable than you believe.
There are contributing factors linked to imposter syndrome. Experiencing the pressure to achieve from a young age may have created confusion around seeking approval and love from family members, feeling their self-worth was contingent on what they achieved.
Other contributing factors include:
Gender was also thought to be a contributing factor – imposter syndrome originally appeared to affect mostly women – but we now know that men also experience imposter syndrome.
People who don’t feel like imposters are no more intelligent or capable than the rest of us. They just think different thoughts or relate to their imposter syndrome thoughts differently.
In order to stop feeling like an imposter, we need to stop thinking like an imposter.
Seven strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome
Despite the sticky nature of imposter syndrome, there are a number of strategies we can draw on. These strategies are designed to help us stop thinking like an imposter, even if the feelings still arise.
If you accept and befriend your imposter – knowing imposter thoughts and feelings will show up when you’re doing something new – there’s a chance you can defuse them. After all, it’s more effective to observe our imposter thoughts and feelings than become them.
Try noticing, naming and navigating the feeling by saying, “I’m having the thought that…” or “I’m going to turn down the volume on my imposter” to create some distance between you and your thoughts.
Instead of feeling fearful, ashamed or distressed by your imposter thoughts, try normalising them. We know it’s common to think this way, so try reframing the imposter voice as healthy self-doubt.
Shame fuels imposter syndrome because it keeps us from identifying and talking about our feelings and learning that others feel this way too – so why not try breaking the silence and talking to others about these feelings?
Perfectionism is common among those who experience imposter syndrome. It’s the drive for unrelenting, unrealistic standards in order to avoid feelings of inadequacy or failure – and is linked to excessive self-criticism, procrastination and avoidance.
Try the five-minute rule: when faced with a new or overwhelming task, commit to five minutes knowing you can quit after that. This tricks our brains into seeing the task as less threatening and more achievable, so we’re more likely to give it a go. It also increases our productivity. Win win.
Learning to fail can be life changing for those who suffer from imposter syndrome. After all, successful people are successful because they’re willing to see failure as a stepping stone to success.
We learn to associate failure with disapproval and sometimes even rejection in childhood, so our ‘child brain’ tells us to avoid anything we can’t guarantee we’ll be successful at. But if we continue thinking this way as adults, it inhibits our growth.
Instead, try reframing mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, push yourself to act before you feel ready, and adopt a growth mindset when it comes to learning something new by saying, “I can’t do that … yet. But where can I start?”
Research shows an inverse relationship between self-compassion and imposter syndrome: those with high rates of imposter syndrome had low rates of self-compassion, and those with high levels of self-compassion had lower incidence of imposter syndrome.[i]
Drawing on self-compassion helps us build resilience to those imposter feelings. It allows us to be aware of our distress and yet know that this is a normal human experience. Treating ourselves with kindness and care is the self-compassionate response to this distress.
It activates our soothe system and calms our threat and drive systems – which can become overactive when feeling like an imposter, leading to anxiety and anger towards ourselves. Being self-compassionate also soothes the child brain who fears rejection due to failure.
Once we’ve accepted and befriended the imposter, defused and normalised it, let go of perfectionism and become willing to make mistakes, and allowed ourselves some self-compassion, it can help to take action that aligns with what we want to achieve.
To do this, we need to connect to our values and purpose by asking questions like:
If we identify what the imposter voice has been preventing us from doing, we can then make a values-based plan to address these gaps and take practical steps to help us reach our potential, in spite of imposter syndrome.
People who experience imposter syndrome struggle to internalise their success and achievements – believing that their success was due to factors other than themselves instead. Give yourself full credit for your abilities and wins.
Remember, the difference between successful people and those that hold themselves back is not whether they experience imposter syndrome or not. It’s how they relate to their imposter voice that makes all the difference.
[i] Patzak A, Kollmayer M and Schober B (2017) Buffering Impostor Feelings with Kindness: The Mediating Role of Self-compassion between Gender-Role Orientation and the Impostor Phenomenon. Front. Psychol. 8:1289. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01289