What Is Impostor Syndrome, And How Can I Overcome It?

Do you feel like you don’t really deserve your achievements? Do you feel like a fraud—someone who seems talented, but actually isn’t? You might be experiencing impostor syndrome. Here’s what it is and how to overcome it.

July 18, 2018
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Have you ever looked at your achievements and felt like you don’t really deserve them? Have you received an amazing award but felt like you got it based on luck, not merit? Do you worry that one day, everyone will realize you’re not as talented or smart as you seem?

You’re not alone. “Impostor syndrome,” as it’s known, is surprisingly common, especially among talented and high-achieving individuals. Also known as the imposter phenomenon, impostorism, or fraud syndrome, impostor syndrome involves feeling like a fraud who doesn’t really deserve their achievements.

Feeling like a fraud can weigh on your mental health and work performance. You might constantly feel anxious because you’re afraid of others “discovering” that you’re not truly talented, or you may feel the need to overwork yourself to prove your worth.

“If left unchecked, imposter syndrome can be an insidious thought pattern that can lead to increased stress, anxiety, burnout, and even depression.”

—Desiree Wiercyski, life coach

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Impostor syndrome can be overcome.

If you think you’re experiencing impostor syndrome, here’s what you can do about it.

What is impostor syndrome?

The concept of the impostor phenomenon was first explored by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978. They described it as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.” Since then, the term has been applied to more than just women.

Impostor syndrome isn’t classified as a mental illness, and it doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the guidebook used to diagnose mental illnesses. That said, impostor syndrome can exacerbate disorders like anxiety and depression.

If left unchecked, imposter syndrome can be an insidious thought pattern that can lead to increased stress, anxiety, burnout, and even depression,” says Desiree Wiercyski, a life coach for ambitious and career-focused women. Wiercyski runs a self-guided course on working through impostor syndrome.

“When you have consistent negative thoughts cycling through your mind, it’s very likely that they can trigger other negative feelings and emotions, which can lead to an overall lower quality of life,” Wiercyski says, adding that impostor syndrome can negatively impact your work performance, turning those “can’t-do” thoughts into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Impostor syndrome can be accompanied by feelings of inadequacy and poor self-esteem as well as feeling overly modest about one’s achievements and accomplishments, says Robyn McKay, PhD, a psychologist and career advisor. McKay co-authored the book Smart Girls in the 21st Century: Understanding Talented Girls and Women.

Who experiences impostor syndrome?

Anyone can experience impostor syndrome, but Wiercyski says she finds impostor syndrome to be more prevalent in women and minorities. “When you go through life with any sort of minority status, you’re in a sense being constantly told that there are pieces of you that don’t fit in with the culture, that you’re not living up to pre-conceived standards,” she says. “If you’re constantly told to change, to bend and shift to adapt to expectations, then standing up in a situation where you are the expert, where you do need confidence, is so much more difficult.”

A 2017 study suggests there’s a link between discrimination and impostor syndrome in racial minority groups. In a New York Times article, Kevin Cokley, who co-authored the study, explained the correlation between imposter syndrome and discrimination. “Feeling like an impostor can exacerbate the impact of discrimination,” he said in the Times article. “This is what we found with African-American students in our study. I suspect that discrimination can also exacerbate the impact of impostorism.”

Even the most high-achieving, talented people experience it. “I work with women in tech and medicine primarily—and even those at the highest levels of leadership and influence report feeling at times like they’re going to get ‘found out’ as less intelligent or capable than what they’ve led their colleagues to believe,” says McKay.

Weircyski notes that impostor syndrome can be isolating, but it’s important to remember that if you’re experiencing these feelings, you’re not alone. Nobody wants to talk about the feelings associated with imposter syndrome because they fear being “found out,” and although there are few solid statistics on the number of people who experience impostor syndrome, both experts agree that it’s very common.

Do I have impostor syndrome?

As mentioned before, impostor syndrome isn’t believed to be a psychiatric disorder, so there are no strict criteria for diagnosis. However, Clance, one of the psychologists who coined the term “impostor phenomenon,” does have a self-guided test you can take if you believe you’re experiencing imposter syndrome.

People who have impostor syndrome might engage in the following:

Downplaying Achievements

“They may be overly modest about their accomplishments, and even unwilling to advocate for their career advancement because they don’t want it to seem like they’re bragging,” says McKay. When praised, they might respond by saying “I just got lucky!” or “Anyone can do it.”

Always Needing to Know More

People with impostor syndrome constantly feel doubtful of their knowledge. They might over-research something even if they’re very knowledgeable on the topic. “This isn’t a matter of faking it until you make it; folks who experience this have objective knowledge and expertise in a topic but will turn down opportunities to share their knowledge,” Wiercyski says.

Insisting on Working Alone and Micromanaging

Wiercyski says that people who have impostor syndrome often feel like they have to do all the work, not because they think they’re the only one competent enough to do it, but because they’re afraid other workers will realize they’re a fraud if they see how they work. As such, they might be afraid to share their work or delegate to others.

Perfectionism

People with impostor syndrome often want their work to be perfect before showing others. “This is because they feel like if it’s not perfect, then they’ll lose credibility or respect,” Wiercyski says. “Often, perfectionism can be one of the biggest things that fuels imposter syndrome. Either the perfectionist takes too long to get something done [or] it doesn’t happen, and that reinforces the idea that they’re a fake.”

Volunteering

They might take on too many responsibilities to prove their worth, or they might volunteer for jobs below their pay-grade, says McKay.

Being Excessively Shy in Meetings

“They may not speak up in meetings and may have difficulty finding places to add value to a project,” McKay says. They might believe they have no ideas or innovations and wonder why they were chosen for the team when others confidently contribute, McKay adds. “They might not sit at the table in meetings, but instead take a seat against the wall.”

“When you spend time focused on your accomplishments, you start to feel the same way you felt when you achieved those things. This will help provide objective evidence of your capabilities and also help you feel more confident.”

—Desiree Wiercyski, life coach

How can I overcome impostor syndrome?

If you’re experiencing impostor syndrome, you can overcome it by working on the following:

Acknowledge the thoughts and understand where they’re coming from.

It’s impossible to shift and reframe thoughts if you don’t have a crystal clear idea of what’s causing the thoughts and feelings,” says Wiercyski. Ask yourself where the feelings are coming from: What makes you believe you’re inadequate? Once you realize there’s no definite proof that you’re a fraud, and you see a lot of evidence to the contrary, it’s easier to remind yourself that you deserve your achievements.

Get a clear handle on your mission, vision, and purpose.

If you are unclear on your purpose, it’s easy to slip into the impostor syndrome,” McKay says. Remind yourself of where your passions and talents lie. When you’re fueled by your own purpose, that motivation might shake you out of the self-sabotaging habits associated with impostorism.

Keep a journal of your achievements.

Write out every single accomplishment, training, and qualification you have as well as the praise you’ve received on big projects. “When you spend time focused on your accomplishments, you start to feel the same way you felt when you achieved those things,” Wiercyski says. “This will help provide objective evidence of your capabilities and also help you feel more confident.”

Talk about it.

When you realize you’re not feeling alone in your impostorism—and that many other people experience it—you’ll realize those negative thoughts don’t mean you’re actually ill-accomplished. We can’t all be frauds, can we? Wiercyski suggests talking to others about it like therapists, support groups, and friends. “Not only will you get the support you need and assistance from others in gaining perspective, you’ll also likely find that you’re not alone in experiencing those feelings,” she says.

Reframe the thoughts.

When negative thoughts come up, counter them with the evidence of your achievements, Wiercyski says. “For example, if you got a new job and the thought ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’ pops into your head, you can reframe and say, ‘They hired me based on my experience and knowledge, I have the key things I need to be successful.’”

Impostor syndrome is a common experience that can contribute to mental strain, but fortunately, it can be overcome with a little self-love and a lot of positivity.

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