Impostor syndrome: What it is and how to beat it

Something that many people moving on and up in their careers — or starting new businesses, raising their prices, etc. — suffer from is impostor syndrome. Wikipedia offers a fairly straightforward definition:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

In other words, people doubt themselves. But there’s more, and this is important:

Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostorism incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.

Many of these people may have started with the attitude “fake it ’til you make it,” and when they’ve put in the work and actually made it, they still feel like they’re faking it.

Aside: Although I’ll generally refer to it as a syndrome, the DSM doesn’t identify it as a pathology to be treated.

Megan Dalla-Camina points out that it is often situational — that there are circumstances in which we feel perfectly confident, but if we move into a different situation, KA-POW!, impostor syndrome.

While you may feel fully confident speaking to a group of more junior people, addressing your peers could completely undo you. Or you could be fine at work, but having to speak up at the local school meeting? Forget about it.

Kirsten Weir writes in terms of graduate students moving their way into the world of work, teaching and research (not that teaching and research aren’t work; you know what I mean). She cites pressure to achieve as a common driving factor, and quotes psychiatrist Carole Lieberman:

Most people experience some self-doubt when facing new challenges, says Lieberman. “But someone with [imposter phenomenon] has an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes.” Even if they experience outward signs of success — getting into a selective graduate program, say, or acing test after test — they have trouble believing that they’re worthy. Instead, they may chalk their success up to good luck.

Weir offers a few suggestions for overcoming — or at least working through — impostor syndrome:

• Talk to mentors
• Recognize your expertise
• Know what you do well
• Don’t be a perfectionist
• Change your thinking
• Talk to someone who can help (like a coach or a therapist)

Ellen Hendriksen identifies several flavors, if you will, of impostor syndrome (we’ll get to Valerie Young in a minute, don’t worry):

“I’m a fake:” The fundamental fear is being discovered or unmasked. Achievers often feel like they’ve made it thus far under wraps, but the day will come when their cover is blown and they will be revealed as a fake.

In other words, people don’t believe in their own achievements.

“I got lucky:” The second flavor of Impostor Syndrome attributes achievements to luck. A twist on this is “I’m not smart/talented/gifted. I just work hard.”

I actually take issue with this. I coasted through high school on being smart, and got hit with the “you’ve never had to work for anything” stick in college. Smart gets you a 1320 (out of 1600) on your SATs with a bloody nose after studying for a week. Hard work gets you places in life, while smart only gets you so far. Anyway.

“Oh, this old thing:” In Impostor Syndrome, sufferers truly can’t take a compliment. In the last variation of Impostor Syndrome, the receiver of an award or recognition discounts or downplays the honor.

Hendriksen likens this to the scene in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George compliments Violet’s dress, and she replies, “Oh, this old thing?” It might be actual modesty, or a humble-brag, or, in the case of someone with impostor syndrome, she truly couldn’t take the compliment.

Kelvin and I discussed this on JKWD a while back. It can be difficult to take a compliment, but, hey, fake it ’til you make it, right? Just say thank you — eventually, you get the same compliment enough times, you’ll start to believe it.

Valerie Young is perhaps the most prominent expert in impostor syndrome these days. She first heard about it in 1982 when a fellow student read from the original paper identifying impostorism by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.

Melody J. Wilding summarizes five distinct types of impostor syndrome identified by Young, and offers some solutions for combating them.

First, perfectionists:

Perfectionism and impostor syndrome often go hand-in-hand. Think about it: Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach a goal, they experience major self-doubt and worry about measuring up.

Basically, the prescription here is get over it. Maybe saying it that way isn’t helpful, but it’s really what it all comes down to. In Wilding’s words:

For this type, success is rarely satisfying because they believe they could’ve done even better. But that’s neither productive nor healthy. Owning and celebrating achievements is essential if you want to avoid burnout, find contentment, and cultivate self-confidence.
Learn to take your mistakes in stride, viewing them as a natural part of the process. In addition, push yourself to act before you’re ready. Force yourself to start the project you’ve been planning for months. Truth is, there will never be the “perfect time” and your work will never be 100% flawless. The sooner you’re able to accept that, the better off you’ll be.

Yeah, basically, if you’re a perfectionist, you just need to learn that you’ll never actually be perfect and most of the time you’ll exceed everybody’s expectations except your own.

The next type is the superman/woman:

Since people who experience this phenomenon are convinced they’re phonies amongst real-deal colleagues, they often push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up. But this is just a false cover-up for their insecurities, and the work overload may harm not only their own mental health, but also their relationships with others.

Hey, guess what? Busy-ness isn’t sexy. Neither is burnout. You don’t need kudos for working longer hours — prove yourself by working smart and well, not long.

The third type is the natural genius:

Young says people with this competence type believe they need to be a natural “genius.” As such, they judge their competence based ease and speed as opposed to their efforts. In other words, if they take a long time to master something, they feel shame.

This is the “I’m not smart, I’m just lucky” bit Hendriksen writes about. The fix, writes Wilding, is to build your skill set. Practice stuff and get better at it, rather than avoiding things because you’re just not good at them.

The fourth type is called the soloist:

Sufferers who feel as though asking for help reveals their phoniness are what Young calls Soloists. It’s OK to be independent, but not to the extent that you refuse assistance so that you can prove your worth.

I stopped suffering from do-it-all-yourself-itis at the beginning of the year. You’ll notice that’s not my voice over the intro and outro of the Better Humanhood podcast. I didn’t sit at GarageBand for hours composing the music clip like I did on previous versions. You’re probably never going to be great at everything. We grew as a species because we could cooperate. Why would we go solo now?

The final type is called the expert:

Experts measure their competence based on “what” and “how much” they know or can do. Believing they will never know enough, they fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable.

Wilding offers up some good advice here:

Start practicing just-in-time learning. This means acquiring a skill when you need it–for example, if your responsibilities change–rather than hoarding knowledge for (false) comfort.

Here are some (more) action items if you’re dealing with impostor syndrome, culled from the sources above, a couple of others, and some personal experience.

Don’t wait for perfection. You can always improve later. From the founder of a small website you may have heard of called LinkedIn:

Do some affirmations. Here’s a variation on an exercise I picked up from the Master Key Experience. Get 50 index cards. Set 25 of them aside for the moment. On each of the 25 in front of you, write one thing you’ve accomplished in your life, big or small. “I graduated high school” could be one. “I won the third-grade spelling bee” could be one. “I raised a child to adulthood” could be one. Whatever. They’ll come easily pretty quickly.

Every day, you’re going to shuffle the cards and read through them when you wake up, around lunch time, and before bed. Over the next five days, you’re going to add five cards a day, so your total is 50. If you want to keep adding after that, go for it. You don’t have to shuffle through 150 cards at a time if you don’t want. Read 20 at a time if that gets you through.

After a week or two, you’ll internalize that you’ve made a lifelong habit of accomplishing things. It’ll be easier to keep accomplishing after that.

Celebrate small victories. We learned in our series on happiness that reaching a goal brings a feeling of relief, like taking off your pack at the end of a hike. But checking off milestones along the way floods us with happiness chemicals. Having small victories to celebrate can build confidence, and confidence kills impostor syndrome.

Posture. You know the victory pose? The one people display when they win a race — or basically anything else? Arms overhead in a V, head back, back arched? This one –> \o/

Even blind people, who never saw anybody do it, strike that pose at moments of victory.

There’s strength in how you stand. Here, watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on the subject.

Practice. Impostor syndrome is, in part, about not having confidence that you’re good enough at something. It can never hurt to get better, but, as we saw above, don’t wait until you’re perfect.

Be objective. Have you ever slow-cooked some food over the course of several hours? Some ribs or brisket, maybe, or some marinara? If you stay in or near the kitchen for five or six hours or however long you’re cooking, you’ll never smell it. But if you walk out of the house to check the mail, you’ll notice the delicious aroma the moment you walk in the door. You didn’t notice the product of your work until you stepped away.

Do that for your life, your career, whatever you’re feeling impostor-ish about. Step back. Take an objective look at your qualifications. If you’d hire the person with those qualifications for the job, you’re good enough for the job.

Now, go forth and rock.


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