Impostor Syndrome – you’ve heard of it. You’ve probably felt it. It happens when we discount our ability in a certain area or areas, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. For example, I’ve been World Champion. I’ve won major races around the world. I’ve been US National Champion 4 times. I have been a paid professional athlete since 2014…. and yet at times… I still do not feel like I am a “real pro.” Boom. Impostor Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome shows up in many areas of our lives (even if we have advanced degrees, tons of experience, and heaps of success). It can be paralyzing and prevent us from getting started or going after our goals and dreams.
First defined in a 1978 paper titled “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women” by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, imposter syndrome is loosely defined as “having a persistent belief in the lack of one’s intelligence, competence, or skills.” (Clance, P. R. & Imes, S. (1978)) People feel like they are unworthy of their success… If I was ready for this, I wouldn’t feel like that. Confident people don’t feel insecure. It’s not a sign you’re not ready, it’s a sign you’re human.
The 5 Types of Impostors
According to Valerie Young who is an internationally recognized expert on Impostor Syndrome and author of the book, “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It”, there are 5 Types of Impostors. You might recognize yourself in more than one of these. Personally? I succumb to The Expert and The Superwoman. I pulled these five types straight off her website.
- The Perfectionist’s primary focus is on “how” something is done. This includes how the work is conducted and how it turns out. One minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance or 99 out of 100 equals failure and thus shame.
- The Expert is the knowledge version of the Perfectionist. Here, the primary concern is on “what” and “how much” you know or can do. Because you expect to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge denotes failure and shame.
- The Soloist cares mostly about “who” completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it has to be you and you alone. Because you think you need to do and figure out everything on your own, needing help is a sign of failure that evokes shame.
- The Natural Genius also cares about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. But for you, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. The fact that you have to struggle to master a subject or skill or that you’re not able to bang out your masterpiece on the first try equals failure which evokes shame.
- The Superwoman/Superman/Super Student measures competence based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role — as a parent, partner, on the home-front, host/hostess, friend, volunteer — all evoke shame because they feel they should be able to handle it all — perfectly and easily.
Other Reasons We May Feel Like Impostors
– Family expectations and messages
– Being a student
– Working in an organizational culture that feeds self-doubt- asking for help, vulnerability
– Working alone – no feedback mo boss, performance standards, no on to ounce ideas
– Working in a creative field- you’er only as good as your last act
– Being or just feeling like a stranger in a strange land
Clare Boothe Luce once remarked, “Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women don’t have what it takes.’”
What do we do about Imposter Syndrome?
There are some research-backed tools that can help you manage impostor syndrome.
Develop Awareness Around Impostor Syndrome and Resulting Self-Talk
First, the awareness that you are experiencing it and normalizing the fact that you are feeling inadequate is important. Simply naming it can take the wind of its sails. Many of us feel alone and think that we are the only one who feels this way. Many people feel this way, especially as we achieve more success. As you become aware that you feel this way, learn to question it.
Ask “Is It True?”
…and look for evidence to the contrary. I heard a well-established author say they did not feel like a real author. The facts are that they had published many books that people had purchased. Once you weigh the evidence, you’ll probably notice that objectively, you are not an impostor. That doesn’t mean that the conflicted feelings will go away.
Our Self-Talk Dictates Our Experience
Next, we have to learn to think different thoughts or reframe them. If you are constantly telling yourself you’re not good enough or your success was a fluke, you are reinforcing impostor syndrome. What else can you say? How are you viewing your competence, failures, and fears and can you reframe them to something different and more productive? If you can expect that you won’t know all the answers, that mistakes or failures are an opportunity to learn and grow (instead of proof you aren’t good enough), and that your fears are not reality, you can start to work on the feelings of being an impostor. It will never magically go away. It’s something that requires constant attention. (Check out this podcast I recorded with self-talk expert, Ethan Kross.)
Watch Out For Comparison
Who are you comparing yourself to? What situations trigger impostor syndrome? It might surprise you that the person or people you’re comparing yourself to probably also experiences impostor syndrome. Hearing or seeing someone we admire or even having feeling of envy can cause us to project. We project in an unhelpful way, telling ourselves that person doesn’t have our insecurities, challenges, or that it’s easier for them. Again, this is often not the case! Also, if you feel like an impostor because of comparison, realize that if you achieve x, it still will probably never be enough because you’ll just keep moving the bar. Having a go-to saying can also be helpful when you notice thoughts of impostor syndrome popping up. Another quick caveat that I’ve noticed about myself and am ashamed to admit. I tend to judge others more harshly where I personally have impostor syndrome. I am projecting my impostor syndrome on someone else’s accomplishments and sometimes catch myself saying they don’t deserve it for a reason I think I might not deserve it. That can give you insight into other areas or times you personally feel like an impostor that you may have a difficult time identifying. Our own insecurities are often displayed in our harshest judgment of others.
Regulary Review Your Successes
With my mental performance and health coaching clients, they often write down daily wins or have some kind of prompt to continuously remind them of the proof that they ARE good enough and are actually qualified for what they are doing. If they are just starting on a new journey, the track their progress. Sometimes you don’t believe your own voice or thoughts. Having a couple people close to you who can help you objectively see that you are the real deal (without you viewing them as a cheerleader, but as a credible voice helps). Getting back to having credible self-talk is key. If you don’t believe your self-talk, a confidence journal may not work. That’s why keeping track of tangible successes, no matter how small can help build credible self-talk. That said, I don’t think lacking confidence and impostor syndrome are the same thing. You only gain confidence by taking a risk, owning the success that happens, and learning from the mistakes instead of letting them define you. Owning the success is one of the keys for impostor syndrome.
Adopt a Non-Impostor Mindset
How would a non-impostor think? If someone was worthy of competent of a role or accomplishment, what would be that proof? You can ask yourself, “I will know I’m competent/smart/qualified, I would…”
Beware of Cultural Stereotypes and Biases
If you listened to my podcast episode with Dr. Kristin Neff on Fierce Self-Compassion, you may have learned that there has been cultural socialization for women to downplay achievements or not acknowledge them at all. Dr. Neff even goes so far to say that especially for women, outwardly confident women can potentially be not liked as much for displaying confidence. There may be some pre-programmed limitations we have put on ourselves to feel uncomfortable and even dismiss our success because it is not “socially acceptable.” Dr. Young’s work says this is especially true for groups with stereotypes around confidence (this goes for gender, not physically-abled, and people of color).
“Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.”
—Lois Wyse, author and columnist
When Impostor Syndrome isn’t a Problem
- When it isn’t actually holding you back from getting started
- When you look at failures or mistakes as an opportunity to learn
- When you can ask for constructive feedback
- Noticing and even accepting some feelings of impostor syndrome is normal. It’s whether you let that hinder you from making progress that makes the difference. It’s on a continuum
The opposite is the Dunning Kreuger effect where people overestimate their ability.
Why We Reject Success
- Worry that if we win, someone else loses
- If I win, I’ll be isolated.
- If I’m successful, I’ll lose connections with friends and family
- People won’t like me (especially for women)
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