"I got lucky."
"I don't belong here."
"I'm a fraud, and it's just a matter of time before everyone finds out."
Most of us have experienced feelings of doubt and unworthiness at some point in our lives. But when your accomplishments are a result of your own knowledge, hard work, and preparation and you still feel inadequate ... you're probably suffering from impostor syndrome.
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People who suffer from this syndrome often feel like frauds -- despite being smart, skilled, capable professionals who actually deserve whatever commendations and praise they're given. Rather than celebrating their accomplishments, they worry that they've somehow tricked people into thinking they're good enough. As a result, they live in fear of being "found out" or "exposed."
Impostor syndrome is actually fairly common: Researchers believe that up to 70% of people have suffered from it at one point or another. But that doesn't make it any less damaging to a person's confidence and career growth.
So if you feel like you're suffering from impostor syndrome or something like it, know that there are ways to curb these feelings in a healthy, proactive way. Here are 11 tips to help you get started.
9 Tips for Coping With Impostor Syndrome
1) Know the signs.
We often overlook the signs of impostor syndrome that come up in our day-to-day lives. However, recognizing these signs is the first step toward overcoming them.
You might suffer from impostor syndrome if:
- You feel like you "got lucky" when you actually prepared well and worked hard.
- You find it hard to accept praise.
- You apologize for yourself when you didn't actually do something wrong.
- You hold yourself to incredibly -- sometimes impossibly -- high standards.
- You find the fear of failure paralyzing.
- You avoid expressing confidence because you think people will see it as overcompensating or obnoxious.
- You're convinced you're not enough.
Pay attention to your language choices, both when you're talking to other people and when you're talking to yourself -- especially when it comes to talking about work. If you find your own success or the praise others give you uncomfortable, do some reflective thinking on where those types of thoughts came from and what it means in your professional life.
2) Know you're not alone.
When you have impostor syndrome, some of the most important encouragement comes from realizing how many hugely successful people, both male and female, have built amazing careers even while regularly coping with it.
Author, Poet & Civil Rights Activist Maya Angelou:
I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'"
Chief of the World Health Organization Dr. Chan:
There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”
Actor Don Cheadle:
All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud.”
Actress, Writer & Producer Tina Fey, from her book Bossypants:
The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”
3) Distinguish humility and fear.
There's taking humility in your hard work and accomplishments, and then there's feeling overcome with fear because of them. Sometimes, simply being good at something can cause is to discount its value. But as Carl Richards wrote in a New York Times article, "After spending a lot of time fine-tuning our ability, isn’t it sort of the point for our skill to look and feel natural?"
It all boils down to feeling unworthy. I like how Seth Godin put it in a blog post: "When you feel unworthy, any kind response, positive feedback or reward feels like a trick, a scam, the luck of the draw."
But it is possible to feel worthy without feeling entitled, and overcoming impostor syndrome is all about finding a healthy balance between the two. Godin goes on to write, "Humility and worthiness have nothing at all to do with defending our territory. We don't have to feel like a fraud to also be gracious, open or humble."
4) Let go of your inner perfectionist.
I recently wrote about how perfectionism, while helpful in certain contexts, can be a major roadblock for productivity. Turns out it can be a major roadblock for overcoming impostor syndrome, too. Many people who suffer from impostor syndrome are high achievers; people who set extremely high standards for themselves and are committed to doing their best and being the best.
But perfectionism only feeds into your impostor syndrome. When you feel like a fraud, it's usually because you're comparing yourself to some *perfect* outcome that's either impossible or unrealistic.
Not only can no one do everything perfectly, but holding yourself to that standard can actually be super counterproductive. At some point, you need to take a step back and ask yourself: When is good enough good enough?
Bottom line? While striving for perfection is certainly noble, it's usually not realistic -- and often, it's counterproductive and will only make you feel more like a fraud.
5) Be kind to yourself.
Impostor syndrome often manifests itself as a voice in our heads, berating us with negative messages like "you're not smart enough" or "you're a fraud." Negative self-talk is a bad habit, and it can heavily influence our stress and anxiety levels. "Being kind to yourself" simply means changing the way you talk to yourself in your head by practicing positive self-talk. Not only can it help you become less stress and anxious, but it can also help you build the courage to do things that'll bring you greater rewards.
Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, suffered from what she called "impostoritis" for most of her career. While she found it hard to silence the negative thoughts completely, she practiced hard to add positive thoughts to her inner voice. "Now I wake up most days with a voice on the left side of my head telling me what an incredible failure I am," she wrote. "But the voice on the right side tells me that I can change the world -- and I try to pay more attention to it."
First, try to catch yourself whenever you have a negative thought. Then, turn around and challenge your own claim. For example, if you find yourself thinking, "I just got lucky," challenge that by thinking, "What steps did I take and what work did I put in to get to this point?" Then, you can answer your own question using affirmations, which are short, focused, positive statements about a goal you have. In this case, one might be as simple as, "I worked hard – and I always work hard."
Psychologists have found that repeating affirmations like this can improve stress and anxiety levels, perhaps because these positive statements build a bridge into your subconscious mind.
6) Track and measure your successes.
When you feel like an impostor, one of the hardest things to grasp is how much of a role you have in your own successes. You might default them to luck or others' hard work, when in fact, your own work, knowledge, and preparation had a lot to do with it.
To help show yourself that you're actually doing well, keep track of your wins in a private document. There are a lot of different ways to track these successes, and the metrics you use will depend entirely on your job. If you're a blogger, you might keep track of your posts' monthly average page views and watch them go up, or compare them to the team average. You might also keep a separate tab to paste kind words people have written to you via email, Twitter, blog comments, and so on.
In the same vein as keeping track of your success metrics, keep a file on your computer of wins and positive reinforcement both at work and in your personal life. One of the best things I've done is created a folder on my personal Gmail account called "Happy," where I've stored everything from my college acceptance email to praise from my colleagues and bosses. Whenever I need a lift, I open that Gmail folder and scroll through them.
You can create an email folder for these emails like I did, or create something like a "swipe file" (i.e. a digital file) on your computer or phone to store screenshots of emails, tweets, dashboard metrics ... whatever makes you feel good about your hard work and preparation.
7) Talk about it with a mentor and your manager.
No one should suffer in silence. Sharing your thoughts and experiences with someone else will make you better equipped to deal with your impostor syndrome. We recommend sharing them with both a mentor and your direct manager.
Your mentor will be able to help you talk candidly about your struggles with impostor syndrome, while giving you a more objective point of view -- especially if they work on a different team or at a different company. When you share your experience with them, you might ask if they've ever felt that way, or if they know someone who has. The best mentors are forthcoming about the struggles they've gone through and the mistakes they've made in their careers, and you may find that they have some helpful stories or advice for how to deal with what you're feeling.
We'd also suggest that you talk with your direct manager about your experiences, too. Why? Because they're more likely to have the knowledge and tools to help you overcome your impostor syndrome in the context of your current job. For example, you might ask them to help you find a system for tracking your successes, or figure out which metrics you should measure. Knowing what they know about both you and your role, they may also help you seek out more opportunities to shine and gain visibility on your team or at your company in general.
Speaking of opportunities ...
8) Say "yes" to new opportunities.
It's impossible to say "yes" to everything, especially when you're feeling stressed or spread thin. But it's all too common for people who have impostor syndrome to turn down career-making opportunities because they don't feel like they'd do a good job.
When you're presented with a new opportunity, it's important to distinguish between the voice in your head saying you can't do it because you're not worthy and the one saying you can't do it because you have too much on your plate. The former is your impostor syndrome speaking.
But remember: Taking on challenging new work and doing well at it can open a lot of doors for you. Don't let your inner impostor turn down these game-changing opportunities. They can do wonders to help you learn, grow, and advance your career.
Keep Richard Branson's famous quote in mind: "If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then learn how to do it later." While it might be intimidating to take on a role you're not sure you can succeed in, know that you were asked to do it for a reason, and there's nothing wrong with learning new things and asking questions along the way.
9) Embrace the feeling, and use it.
It's really hard to get rid of impostor syndrome completely -- especially if you've had it for years and years. The fact that hugely successful people like Maya Angelou and Don Cheadle feel that way after all they've accomplished is evidence that it can sometimes be a lifelong condition. That's why the best angle from which to tackle your impostor syndrome isn't getting rid of it completely; it's stopping it from hindering your success.
I like the way Richards put it: "We know what the feeling is called. We know others suffer from it. We know a little bit about why we feel this way. And we now know how to handle it: Invite it in and remind ourselves why it’s here and what it means."
Richards says he's been invited to speak about his work and career all over the world, and yet he still hasn't been able to get rid of his impostor syndrome. What he has learned to do is think of it "as a friend." Whenever he hears that negative voice in his head, he pauses for a minute, takes a deep breath, and says to himself, "Welcome back, old friend. I'm glad you're here. Now, let's get to work."
What tips do you have for overcoming impostor syndrome? Share with us in the comments.
Originally published Jan 27, 2016 6:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017