What Is Impostor Syndrome?
“I’m not supposed to be here. I feel like a fraud.”
It’s the sentiment casting a shadow over the bright ambitions of young professionals, college and graduate students, artists, performers, and interns everywhere. As graduation season concludes and a new generation of professionals launch their careers, some will be oriented to this phenomenon for the first time.
The presence of impostor syndrome does not indicate incompetence. Powerhouses in their fields—Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Paul McCartney, and Tina Fey to name a few—have all claimed the experience of questioning their knowledge or skill at some point in their careers. If observed success and affirming feedback from others cannot ease self-doubt, what can help people move beyond the potentially paralyzing fear of being found out?
Amy Cuddy’s sensational TED Talk sparked a conversation about literally standing up to impostor syndrome, and got us striking power poses in bathrooms and cars. Yet, the empowering effects of the Wonder Woman pose cannot be replicated for everyone or cure us of impostor syndrome for good.
Realistically, if impostor-like thoughts and feelings are present in your life, they will never completely disappear.
How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
Knowing that nagging self-doubt is likely to resurface throughout your career, why not “create space for” and “make friends with” impostor syndrome?
The alternative is more struggle and pain—if you choose to repeatedly wrestle with and beat yourself up about your impostor syndrome, play a never-ending game of whack-a-mole with it (i.e. try not to think about a purple elephant…), or use it as a reason to tap out of meaningful experiences which could ultimately increase your preparedness for work and life.
“Articulate your compelling reason that makes engaging with the discomfort of impostor syndrome worth it.”
What does “creating space for and making friends with impostor syndrome” exactly look like? The first step is to identify and name your thoughts and emotions, even better if you invite a trusted person in your life into this process.
Personally, I like to write thoughts down.
The experience of naming, writing, and sharing gets these impostor thoughts out of your head. The volume and shame of impostor thoughts are amplified when those thoughts stay confined in our heads—framing and being reinforced by our experiences. Naming them can reduce shame and interrupt the cycle; when you write it or speak it, you realize after all, that it’s just a thought.
Once the thoughts are out of your head, you can engage with them in a variety ways to help move beyond impostor syndrome, toward your goals:
Choose Acceptance over Avoidance
Choosing to engage in the task at hand despite fear and doubt can provide the very experiences needed to build competence and skill in your field. This requires you to accept the discomfort created when you choose to act even when your mind is yelling, “You don’t know what you are doing!”
Over time, you can build the mental muscles needed to push through discomfort. Even if these thoughts never go away, you can learn to work with them. Hopefully, over time, even turn down their volume. They become consistent friends rather than enemies to wage war with.
Examine the Source of Your Impostor Syndrome
What is on the other side of the fear and self-doubt? For some, this may be important to explore. If you find the discomfort described above overwhelming and feel increasingly stuck, consider talking to a therapist.
“Realistically, if impostor-like thoughts and feelings are present in your life, they will never completely disappear.”
Check Your Perfectionism
For some, unrealistic expectations and discounted successes fuel impostor syndrome. Becoming skilled in your field is a process; novice professionals want it all at once, and seasoned professionals may forget milestones of growth over the lifespan of their career.
As a recovering perfectionist, I consistently remind myself to focus on progress over perfection. I find it helpful to break goals down into small, steps by which I can measure growth. Too often we rush on to the next project without taking stock of new skill and insight learned from completing a goal.
Taking time to mark each step of the process can help you celebrate and notice growth.
“Use your anxiety to work for you,” a mentor in my field encouraged me. Will you interpret the butterflies in your stomach as anxiety or the energy and excitement that can fuel you to take on the challenge?
If your anxiety seems to be connected to social interactions, take action with these resources on social anxiety and building charisma.
Define Your “Why”
For a few people, the above steps will excite and energize them. For most of us, they will feel uncomfortable and scary. Articulate your compelling reason that makes engaging with the discomfort of impostor syndrome worth it. Write this down and bring your attention to it when you find your inner critic yapping away.
These steps may need to be repeated in different seasons of your career, but over time they should become more familiar, even fun. I would not describe myself as a person who loves the process, but I have found opportunities to get creative in applying the above principles in my professional life.
Writing, illustrating, creating mantras and visualizations, power-posing—whichever your preference—how will you choose to welcome impostor syndrome as a normal part of life? Chances are, the more normal it becomes, the less powerful it will be.