We all know what it feels like to start a new job. It’s confusing and scary and no matter how shiny your diploma or how extensive your experience, it still feels like you don’t know anything. Most people get over this feeling as they gain experience. But what if the feeling doesn’t go away?
Imposter syndrome is the persistent feeling that you’re a fraud and a fake and that someone is going to figure out that you don’t know half as much as you pretend to. It can affect people of all ages and from all walks of life and it can often stop them from achieving their true potential.
So how do you beat it? That’s exactly the question I’ll try to answer in this article, along with having a little look at what imposter syndrome really is.
What is imposter syndrome?
Most of us are familiar with the feelings that come with imposter syndrome. Feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing or that you don’t belong - even when all objective signs point to the opposite - is very common.
Self-doubt and questioning yourself are often a part of imposter syndrome, but what sets it apart from low self-esteem, is that it’s characterized by the feeling of being a fraud and the fear of being exposed as such.
The phenomenon is perhaps best summarized by this quote by Albert Einstein:
The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.Albert Einstein
Imposter syndrome has been around for a long time, although it feels like we didn’t start talking about it until a few years ago.
The term “impostor phenomenon” was coined in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who defined it as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness”.
According to Clance, there are six dimensions to the imposter phenomenon, of which a person has to experience two to suffer from “impostorism”:
- The imposter cycle.
- The need to be special or the best.
- Characteristics of Superman/Superwoman.
- Fear of failure.
- Denial of ability and discounting praise.
- Feeling fear and guilt about success.
The imposter cycle
The imposter cycle is an especially fascinating part of the phenomenon.
The cycle begins with an achievement-related task, which is usually followed by feelings of anxiety, worry, and self-doubt. The person will then respond to these feelings by either over-preparing or procrastinating.
Procrastination always turns into a frantic effort to complete the task. If the performance receives positive feedback, the person will attribute their success to luck. In the case of over-preparation, successful outcomes and positive feedback are attributed to hard work.
In neither case is the outcome attributed to the person’s true ability, but rather to a more-or-less external factor. The person will always discount positive feedback and feel inadequate and self-conscious about their abilities.
What causes imposter syndrome?
In their paper, Clance and Imes focused on such experiences of perceived fraudulence in high-achieving women. Although the syndrome seems to still be more prevalent in women, it has since been found that it can affect anyone regardless of gender, age or position.
A fair amount of research on imposter syndrome focuses on higher education and academia. Graduate students and university faculty alike often feel like a fraud. In fact, Clance and Imes’ paper mentions women who believed they were accepted to graduate programs by mistake. There’s just something about the highly competitive nature of academia that nurtures our inner critic and feeds our self-doubt.
But imposter syndrome isn’t exclusive to academia. It can be found in every profession, from mechanics to merchandisers and school psychologists, too.
The imposter syndrome most often occurs in new environments and situations. When I first started my job, I put on a brave face and used my clipboard like a shield, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. When people asked me for psychological advice, my first thought was often “Why would you ask me?!”
Thankfully, I have since learned to have confidence in my knowledge and abilities, but on some level, the knee-jerk reaction of “I don’t know!” never goes away.
Everyone might feel a little bit like an imposter from time to time, but the risk is higher for people who:
- Have high expectations placed on them by family or society.
- Have strict and/or overprotective parents.
- Are perfectionists.
- Suffer from anxiety disorders or depression.
What imposter syndrome isn’t
Although the name might imply otherwise, imposter syndrome isn’t actually a diagnosable disorder. While it is something you can certainly suffer from and it can be accompanied by disorders like depression, it’s not an illness.
Rather, it’s a perfectly natural, if unpleasant, emotional phenomenon.
Just like fear, anxiety, and stress, the feelings that make up imposter syndrome are good in small doses. The feeling of uncertainty and self-doubt can be a motivator, but when there’s too much of it, it can become paralyzing instead.
Still, you shouldn’t fear imposter syndrome, no matter how strongly it affects you. Like all emotional and psychological quirks and patterns, it’s perfectly malleable and manageable.
How to beat imposter syndrome
So how do you manage this “experience of intellectual phoniness”? Below are 5 simple ways to beat the feeling of being a fraud and find your true ability instead.
1. Talk about it
I know what it sounds like and I get it. To most people, the only thing worse than feeling like a fraud is admitting that they feel that way. But trust me, chances are that the supervisor you admire or the wonderboy of the office knows exactly what you’re going through.
As Elizabeth Cox puts it in her brilliant TED Talk about imposter syndrome:
...hearing that an advisor or mentor has experienced feelings of impostorism can help relieve those feelings. The same goes for peers.
Talking about your experiences and hearing about how others feel the same helps to normalize these feelings. And knowing that you’re not alone in this situation is a tremendous relief.
2. Focus on the process, not the product
Here’s a fun fact: you’re not actually supposed to know everything on your first day of work. Depending on the job, it may take years or even decades to become an expert.
So instead of focusing on what you don’t know, focus on how much you’re developing and learning.
This is a simple idea, but it’s something a lot of people struggle with. We are often so focused on our goals and chasing the ideal that we forget to enjoy the journey. It takes some effort to consciously shift our way of thinking, but it’s a change that is only going to do you good.
3. Change how you talk to yourself
I have written about the inner critic before, and that nagging little voice can be a big part of why you feel like an imposter.
Listen to your inner voice. What does it tell you? If all you hear is how you’re not good enough and how you’re taking up someone else’s spot, then it’s very hard to feel good about yourself.
To combat impostorism, change how you talk to yourself. Instead of “I was hired because of a mistake”, try saying: “I was hired because I am a good fit for this job”. Be more positive about yourself, be proud of who you are, and let it show!
It takes some practice to change your inner speech, but it’s definitely worth it.
4. Remember your strengths
A simple but elegant solution: write down what you are good at. Be honest and don’t go for the easy answer of “nothing”. If you need help, ask people close to you where your strengths lie. Keep that list somewhere safe and refer to it in times of self-doubt.
Also, note how I wrote “good”, not “excellent” or “perfect”. You can be good at something and still occasionally make mistakes. Just think of your favorite sport and how even the absolute tops still make mistakes.
For me, it’s Formula 1. Lewis Hamilton is a 5-time World Champion, and seeing him mess up sometimes is a powerful reminder that mistakes are human.
If you want more tips, here's our article on how to identify your strengths.
5. Stop comparing yourself to others
This one is definitely easier said than done, but at the end of the day, the only person you should be comparing yourself to is yourself. Comparing yourself to others is a recipe for disaster because you don’t know someone else’s full story, and the comparison is skewed from the start.
They say you can't compare apples to oranges. The same goes for comparing yourself to others since you never know who you are really comparing yourself to. Yes, on the surface, that colleague of yours may seem successful, but you don't know her life story.
When you find yourself trying to make another unfair comparison, I want you to remember the previous list of strengths or think back to yourself a year ago. Have you grown since then? Yes? Now that’s a good comparison. When you're comparing yourself to your past self, then you're actually comparing apples to apples.
Here's an entire article about how not to compare yourself with others.
Get Our FREE Mental Self-Care Cheat Sheet
Thrive under stress and crush your goals with these 10 instant tips for your mental health.
While most common in highly competitive fields, imposter syndrome can and does affect people from all walks of life. Feeling like you’re a fraud and fearing the day someone finds out can lead you to self-sabotage. But all is not lost - what you should take away from this article is that you are not alone and that you can beat imposter syndrome.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome? Do you have your own fun way of dealing with feeling like a fraud? Share your opinions in the comments below and let's continue the talk!