Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern where a person doubts their own accomplishments and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Imposter syndrome is when you have the self-perception that you don’t deserve your success or aren’t qualified for your job or the role you’re undertaking, even if other people see you as qualified and capable.
It is correlated with perfectionism and procrastination and can lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout. Imposterism can manifest as an overall sense of inadequacy in all areas of life, or it can show up in specific circumstances as a person advances in their career or takes on new roles in their personal life.
In a business context, individuals with imposter syndrome might feel like they are not good enough for their position or the responsibilities they hold, despite evidence to the contrary and the fact that the team doing the hiring thought they were worthy. As you can guess, the condition can lead to feelings of extreme anxiety, self-doubt, and a lack of confidence, which then can hold the person back from achieving their full potential and cause problems in their career. Imposterism can prevent a person from taking beneficial risks that bring new opportunities and allow them to achieve their goals.
When you recognize imposter syndrome in your own life, you can take steps to overcome it and move past it to realize career and personal success.
Causes of Imposter Syndrome
Have you ever felt like you were playing a part, faking it, and afraid that people will find out the truth about the “real you?”
I you answered “yes,” then you’re not alone.
It’s natural to feel some self-doubt and jitters when embarking on new challenges, professionally or personally. That’s just your brain looking out for you. It’s always a bit cautious and anxious about any unfamiliar territory. That’s totally expected.
Usually, the anxiety subsides as you move through the experience, become habituated to your new circumstances, and acquire the skills and knowledge needed to accomplish the task. In imposter syndrome, those kinds of feelings are pervasive and never ease up.
In fact, they can become stronger, and self-doubt and lack of confidence may grow. When you feel like an imposter, you live in constant fear of being found out — that a new boss or romantic partner might realize that they made a big mistake. Insecurity builds with every task, and you feel like your job, career, family security ― everything ― is on the line every time. One mistake, and you’ll be unmasked.
Impostor syndrome is linked to other areas of self-doubt, such as fear of success, fear of failure, or self-sabotage. But it’s not just about lack of self-confidence. It involves a constant fear of exposure, isolation, and rejection.
Self-critical thoughts and a deep corresponding sense of shame are often behind imposter syndrome. Many people live with a harsh inner judge, who picks them apart and sees flaws that no one else does. A person will compare themselves negatively to other people and feel ashamed, like they have to hide their “real” self. When others make a mistake, they can be understanding and forgiving, but the exact same thing is not OK for them to do. They judge themselves more harshly than others.
Low self-esteem, how you evaluate and think about yourself, also fuels imposter syndrome. Because of a severely harsh inner voice, people with imposter syndrome think poorly about themselves and imagine that other people believe what their critic thinks. In other words, they project their inner critic onto other people. Even if other individuals refute the assumptions, it does not change the person’s opinion of themself.
Imposter syndrome creates a scenario where our best is never good enough. It sets a person up for failure and disappointment — in their eyes — because nothing is ever good enough. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It pushes people to set unrealistically ambitious standards, which they often can’t accomplish, to accommodate for feeling inadequate about achieving effective, albeit realistic and less impressive, goals.
Imposter Syndrome Is a Cognitive Distortion
In psychological terms, impostor syndrome is a cognitive distortion that prevents a person from internalizing any sense of accomplishment. People with impostor syndrome feel like frauds despite abundant evidence otherwise. They may have numerous academic degrees, or they may have achieved a powerful business position, fame, or fortune, but they’re not able to value or enjoy their success.
A person with imposter syndrome often thinks in “shoulds.” Their thinking is shame-based, inflexible, black-and-white, and negative. Other cognitive distortions include overgeneralizing, catastrophic thinking, and hyper-focusing on details. For example, they may only focus on the negative and dismiss the positive. They may take things personally and overgeneralize something small to condemn themselves. They believe they must be perfect, or they failed. Thinking this way distorts reality, can lower self-esteem even further, and lead to anxiety and depression.
Some common signs of impostor syndrome are:
- dependence on external validation and needing constant feedback
- fears of not living up to expectations of yourself and others
- being a perfectionist
- constantly comparing yourself to others
- tend to be a people-pleaser
- overworking yourself and striving to overachieve
- seeing the world in extremes, best or worst
Ways to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
Recognizing that you have impostor syndrome is often the hardest part and the first step in overcoming it. Many people believe that the alternative is just as bad —to be boastful and self-important, but this isn’t true. It does not have to be either extreme. You can find a healthy middle ground by following the strategies below.
- Acknowledge and Work with Your Feelings and Thoughts
A good first step is to become aware of and acknowledge what you’re thinking and feeling. This is mindfulness. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool to combat the feelings of imposter syndrome and the underlying beliefs that fuel it. Mindfulness is becoming aware of and observing what your mind is thinking in real time. In other words, it is thinking about, questioning, and challenging your thoughts.
It asks you to explore the biases, beliefs, and origins of what you’re thinking and decide if it is true; if it works for you; and if it is in your best interest. Then, you consciously reframe your thinking to support and encourage yourself. This is called cognitive restructuring or thought reframing. Affirmations, positive statements you say to yourself, are also useful here.
Mindfulness physically changes the part of your brain that is in control from the reflexive limbic system to the higher intelligence of your frontal lobe. Because of neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to literally alter its form and function based on repetitive input, over time you can outgrow imposter syndrome and the limiting beliefs holding you back and change your thinking patterns.
- Get Honest Feedback from People You Trust
Reach out and communicate with people whose opinions you trust and respect. Talk about how you feel like an imposter. Ask for their honest feedback and be open to receiving it. You might be surprised by how many of your friends and colleagues feel similarly and how positively they view you. Listen to the people who know you best and let them show you how positively others perceive you. Then, actively work to change your opinion of yourself. Find a mentor or career coach you can turn to for encouragement, advice, and guidance.
- Develop a Go-to Plan for When Imposter Syndrome Strikes
Make a tactical plan to deal with imposter syndrome when you feel stressed, overwhelmed, and like running away. When negative self-talk and doubt take over, you can confront it with pre-determined, encouraging affirmations or by distancing yourself from the emotional power of your inner voice. For example, you could come up with statements to support you, like:
- I am capable and competent.
- I have the skills and resources necessary to do this.
- I’ve overcome challenges like this before. I can figure this out.
- I don’t have to be perfect. Good is good enough.
- I am worthy of success, and I believe in myself and my potential.
Or you could put some distance and objectivity between your feelings and yourself by thinking of yourself in the third person. For example, instead of thinking, “Why did I do that?” try thinking, “Why did they do that?” This can help you view the situation less emotionally and more objectively.
- Focus on the Facts (not your feelings)
Realize that what you’re feeling is often based on your fears and subjective thoughts — not reality. One way to fight imposter syndrome is to separate your feelings from the facts. Facts are observable truths with objective evidence. Your feelings are how you interpret those facts — basically, stories that you tell yourself. They may not even be true. You can’t keep your brain from creating subconscious narrative stories, but you can guide your mind back to the facts and decide what you want to believe as “the truth.”
- Overcome Perfectionism
One manifestation of imposter syndrome can be perfectionism and holding yourself to unrealistic standards. You can overcome perfectionist habits by taking regular breaks, using relaxation techniques, and focusing on the bigger picture. You can learn how to set challenging, but realistic and achievable goals. At the same time, remember to extend compassion and kindness to yourself. And remember that mistakes are just pauses on the road to success. Learn from them. If you don’t reach a goal or hit a deadline, it’s not the end of the world. Pivot, revise, regroup, and keep going.
- Celebrate Your Successes
Often, people with impostor syndrome find it hard to acknowledge praise or their achievements. You can counter imposter syndrome by making the effort to celebrate and take pride in your successes — especially the little wins along the way.
While you don’t bring home a bonus or hit your goals every week, there are lots of little wins throughout your days. You have to notice them. Try to give the good things as much attention as you do the negative ones. For instance, maybe you delivered the project a day early or maybe you got caught up on emails today or you exercised three days this week. Acknowledge and notice those achievements. Internalize a sense of pride and accomplishment for those small successes. Big wins are made up of lots of little wins.
Your brain automatically notices the bad stuff. You have to make it a point to notice the good too. You can even keep a daily log of the positive feedback that you receive or your small accomplishments. Try to find a victory in every day. Whenever imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, you can look back at the log for reassurance and a boost of confidence.
The consequence of imposter syndrome is that even when you excel at personal and professional accomplishments, raises, promotions, and other achievements, you feel undeserving, and it doesn’t change your low opinion of yourself. Imposter syndrome stems from underlying beliefs about yourself and the world and can overwhelm you and derail your career, but it does not have to. You can overcome imposter syndrome with the right tools and guidance and go on to thrive and achieve your dreams. Whether you’re personally dealing with imposter syndrome or trying to prevent it on your team, there are proven strategies you can implement. I can help.
Transformation is a choice.
Your success starts when you see the whole system.
Do you want to develop a winning formula with accurate self-awareness to shift your perspective and discover new patterns for a radical personal and professional transformation, and have more impact?
Let us start a discussion here: https://omozua.com/contact/
Omozua Isiramen is the #1 Neuroscience Coach and Peak Performance Specialist in Luxembourg