If you experience self-doubt, you’ve probably had a run-in with its cousin, imposter syndrome.
Have you ever had any of the following thoughts:
- “I have no idea what I’m doing, I’ve just gotten lucky.”
- “Why would anyone care about what I have to say?”
- “Everyone here is so [smart/talented/beautiful/funny/successful], I don’t belong here.”
- “I’m not [fill in the blank] enough.”
If you answered ‘ugh, yes’ to any of these, then there’s a good chance you’re suffering from imposter syndrome. Welcome to the club! (There are a lot of us here, we have cookies.)
Don’t worry, it’s not fatal. You have the power to overcome imposter syndrome at any time, you just have to learn your way around it and step into that power, because it’s always available to you.
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How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
The first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is to understand what makes up this beast of a mental block. After all, to beat a villain at their own game, you have to know exactly what you’re up against.
What is imposter syndrome? (2 truths and a lie)
TRUTH: Most people experience imposter syndrome.
Over 70% of people experience what psychologists refer to as “imposter phenomenon” or “fraud syndrome” and women are disproportionately likely to struggle with it.
This psychological phenomenon is behind the nagging feeling that you’re not good enough at something regardless of your training, experience, accolades, or any other objective metric that says otherwise. You believe any success you’ve had has just been due to luck.
It’s an irrational, internalized fear that the clock is ticking and it’s only a matter of time until you’re exposed as a fraud.
“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.'” ─ Maya Angelou
The greatly accomplished writer and activist Maya Angelou is among many of the world’s most successful people who have wrestled with imposter syndrome, so if you feel it, too, you’re in good company. Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, Tina Fey, and Albert Einstein are just a few of the others who have spoken openly about it.
TRUTH: Symptoms include self-doubt, perfectionism, and self-sabotage.
There is a wide range of symptoms of imposter syndrome that are all rooted in fear. Some signs that you’re experiencing it are:
- You constantly doubt your abilities, self-worth, and having what it takes no matter what you’ve accomplished or what people tell you.
- You’re always worried you won’t be able to “come through” on a project regardless of how many times you’ve proven yourself in the past.
- You attribute any success you’ve had to luck or deceiving people into thinking you’re something you’re not.
- You’re uncomfortable accepting compliments and always feel like you don’t deserve them.
- You’re filled with anxiety about not living up to expectations (yours or other people’s) which manifests as perfectionism and possibly even paralyzes you from doing anything at all.
- You feel like you have to “trick” people into thinking you’re better than you really are and like you’re constantly teetering on the edge of being exposed as a “phony.”
- You self-sabotage yourself by setting unrealistic goals and then tearing yourself down when you fall short. You use this as “proof” that you’re a failure and can’t do it.
Did any of these hit a little too close to home?
LIE: If you experience imposter syndrome, it’s a sign that you aren’t cut out for whatever it is you’re trying to do.
Lots of successful people encounter imposter syndrome on a regular basis. It’s not indicative of your skills or capability, it’s simply a fear-based mental block.
Once you become aware of it and learn how to deal with imposter syndrome, you can work through it rather than allow it to derail you.
Imposter syndrome feeds you lies to keep you small and avoid judgment. But if you want to live a life that is authentic to you and fulfills your purpose, then there’s no room for listening to those lies and following their toxic advice. You have to rise above it.
“I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I’m a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need for me to be.” ─ Lady Gaga
Imposter Syndrome Remedies
While you’ll never completely eradicate the feelings of imposter syndrome, you can learn to control it so it doesn’t control you.
As you’ve seen, many incredible people experience it and still build fulfilling, impactful lives despite its presence. Here’s how you can become a master at thwarting imposter syndrome.
Acknowledge those thoughts and disassociate from them. When you start to feel the symptoms of imposter syndrome, label them as such to separate them from who you are and identify them as something you’re experiencing instead. This will help you put things in perspective.
Reframe your thoughts and ground yourself in reality. When feeling challenged, remind yourself that it’s normal to feel this way when you set out to do something well and consistently improve at it. Also, perfection is a concept that doesn’t actually exist so imperfection is literally the only option.
Keep a love file for yourself. Write down a list of your accomplishments, skills, strengths, and positive things people have said about you so you can pull it up whenever you’re starting to doubt your abilities.
Surround yourself with support and encouragement. Talk to others ─ friends, colleagues, like-minded people in online and offline communities ─ who are positive and uplifting. Make a list of specific people you can reach out to when imposter syndrome is hitting you hard that will lift you up and remind you of how capable you are ─ people who genuinely believe in you and are able to bring the facts to back it up. Be that person to others to pay it forward.
Normalize your experience. Keep yourself exposed to others in the same or similar fields to normalize those feelings and the struggles of starting something new, building a business, writing a book, living a creative life, etc. Keep track of both your successes and your missteps along with what you’ve learned from them. This will help normalize your failures (which are just part of the process) and show you that not only did you survive them, but you gained something from each of them that became an integral part of your journey. This will reframe failure in your mind so you’ll be less afraid of making mistakes.
Put your focus on something other than yourself. Who you are helping/serving, what you love, what you’re grateful for, etc. Marie Forleo described this as the “flashlight method.” Basically, a flashlight can only be pointing in one direction, so if you’re focusing that flashlight inward, you’re going to be focused on the fear and self-doubt. If you point it outward, you’ll be too busy focusing on something else to get caught up in that negative internal noise.
Pay attention to your inner dialogue. Come up with a go-to mantra that can help you override and reprogram the negative dialogue being spewed out by the imposter syndrome. One of my favorites is from badass writer and actress Mindy Kaling for being powerful in its simplicity:
“Why the f*ck not me?” ─ Mindy Kaling
Remember that your background is unique to you, so by nature, your message and approach will be different. All of our ideas and voices are needed in this world. You never know how something you perceive as small and insignificant could have a positive domino effect on others. Playing small won’t serve anyone. The only difference between you and the people who you admire is that they keep moving through the fear and self-doubt.
Books to Help Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Neil Gaiman’s Story of Imposter Syndrome
I’ll leave you with this eye-opening story that best-selling author and screenwriter Neil Gaiman (Good Omens, American Gods, Coraline, Stardust) has shared about his experience with imposter syndrome.
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name*. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.” ─ Neil Gaiman via his blog