"I got lucky."
"I don't belong here."
"I'm a fraud, and it's just a matter of time before everyone finds out."
That's imposter syndrome talking. 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.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a feeling of unworthiness or incompetence, despite achieving accomplishments and success. This feeling is most common in the workplace, but it can manifest itself in just about any part of life. Those with imposter syndrome often go to great lengths to hide it, which can stunt their future success.
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."
There are a variety of reasons why a person may feel like an imposter ranging from perfectionism to family upbringing. Regardless of the cause, this toxic line of thinking results in reduced self-confidence, low self-esteem, and limited ability to celebrate well-deserved success.
How common is imposter syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is actually fairly common: Researchers have found that up to 82% of people have suffered from it at one point or another. But the fact that it's common doesn't make it any less damaging to a person's confidence and career growth. If anything, more people are unable to show up fully in their work than ever before which is concerning for several reasons.
How to Tell If You Have Imposter Syndrome
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.
- People close to you say you're not as confident as you used to be.
- You turn down opportunities for growth or visibility at work.
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.
The Impact of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome doesn't always stop at feeling like a fraud. This mental state has bonafide mental, physical, and emotional effects, including:
- Impaired Job Performance
- Lowered Job Satisfaction
Moreover, these negative mental health outcomes of imposter syndrome have been the subject of academic research for years. Most recently, Kevin Cokley, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, has explored the subject in depth and found that imposter syndrome disproportionately affects the mental health of people of ethnically minoritized backgrounds, especially African Americans. This poses a greater challenge to everyone in the workforce to attract, retain, and develop diverse talent.
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.
8 Tips to Combat Imposter Syndrome
Getting rid of imposter syndrome isn't as easy as positive self-talk and a can-do attitude. While those things are helpful, you'll need to dig a bit deeper to uncover ways to overcome this debilitating mindset.
1. 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.
"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.'" - Author, Poet & Civil Rights Activist Maya Angelou:
All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud.”
"All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud.” Actor Don Cheadle
"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 onto 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.” - Actress, Writer & Producer Tina Fey, from her book Bossypants
2. 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 it 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."
3. Let go of your inner perfectionist.
I 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.
4. Be kind to yourself.
"Take the pressure off yourself and stop trying to be the expert on day one." advises HubSpot marketing manager Jennifer Stafancik.
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 stressed 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."
"For me, I put a lot of pressure on myself when joining HubSpot since it was a lateral move, which ended up sparking imposter syndrome — something I honestly thought I was immune to. "Stefancik explains. "Once I realized there was no reason to rush and to give myself more realistic milestones the imposter syndrome symptoms started to melt away.
5. 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 as 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.
6. 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.
Finding a mentor or manager to talk to is a strategy that Krystal Wu, HubSpot's Social Media Community Manager highly recommends.
"I've learned the best way to deal with imposter syndrome was to find a mentor to help guide me through my career choices," Wu says.
As an example, Wu reflects, "I was new to my social community role and to marketing and I wanted to do my best work but I didn't know what that meant all the time."
"When I put myself out there to find people in roles similar to mine, attended events to learn more about my industry and learned from my mentor it helped me gain confidence in my career," Wu explains. "The more confidence and education I had the more the imposter syndrome started to fade."
"I won't say it's completely gone — because let's be real, I'm always learning," Wu admits. "But it's not something hanging over my head all the time. It comes and goes and I know that surrounding myself with people that are more knowledgeable in my field has helped me grow."
Speaking of opportunities ...
7. 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.
8. 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.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
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."
Editor's Note: This blog post was originally published in January 2016, but was updated in March 2020 for comprehensiveness and freshness.