Conquer Your Impostor Syndrome and Stop Doubting

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Do you often think your success happened by accident and you probably couldn’t repeat it anyway? Then you might suffer from Impostor Syndrome.

Even though this phenomenon is widely called Impostor Syndrome, the psychologically correct term is Impostor Phenomenon (IP) and was coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It doesn’t describe an actual disorder, but rather a mental state, that about 70 % of people experience at some point in their lives.

Because of the self-confidence with which he had spoken, no one could tell whether what he said was very clever or very stupid. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Who is affected?

It’s hard to say whether more men or women suffer from Impostor Syndrome. Some sources say it’s women, and that might seem self-evident. However, a study by Topping (1983) found that men experience it more frequently than women. The reason is that men still try to behave like men, which many associate with being authoritative and unemotional. So, they will tend to suppress negative thoughts and don’t acknowledge having any form of Impostor Phenomenon.

What you can say is that it’s often high achievers who suffer from Impostor Syndrome. And that includes people you wouldn’t even consider, like managers running billion-dollar companies or speakers who entertain audiences in the thousands.

Among them are some famous names: Maya Angelou, Seth Godin, Tina Fey or Michelle Obama have already admitted to suffering from this phenomenon. Maya Angelou should probably have nothing to worry about having written a double-digit number of books, having won three Grammys, having been nominated for a Pulitzer and a Tony Award. But she does, like plenty of other famous and not yet famous people.

Another unlikely candidate? Christine Lagarde, the French lawyer, currently serving as the President of the European Central Bank. Despite her achievements, she overprepares regularly:

When we work on a particular matter, we will work the file inside, outside, sideways, backwards, historically, genetically, and geographically. We want to be complete on top of everything, and we want to understand it all, and we don’t want to be fooled by somebody else.Christine Lagarde

Is it me, or…?

To find out whether you are affected by Impostor Syndrome, check if you can relate to these situations:

  • you think your successes were based on luck rather than on your ability or competence
  • small mistakes make you question your proficiency
  • you are afraid that you might not be able to repeat your success without enormous effort (after all, it was sheer luck, wasn’t it?)
  • you fear that at some point of time in the future someone might expose you as a fraud
  • you either over-prepare or procrastinate until the last hour before the deadline (or you handicap yourself in other ways)
  • you think that what comes natural to you or doesn’t require a lot of effort from you isn’t worth anything

If some of these ring true, then you might have gotten yourself an Impostor Syndrome. Congratulations. But don’t worry, you’re not as weird as you think.

How could this happen?

First of all, don’t punish yourself for feeling that way. I say this because people with Impostor Syndrome tend to punish themselves for a lot of things, and that’s part of the reason they got here.

For some, the roots of their IP reach back to their childhood. That is not meant to blame parents, but many like to attach labels to their children. There’s always one smarter child, right? Some parents program their children with messages of superiority: They support their children so much that the child eventually believes that he or she is next to perfect.

Unsurprisingly, this will make you feel like your grades and successes are a vital part of the relationship with your parents. That is, if your grades are stellar, you will be loved until they are not. Or maybe your sibling was the smarter one and outshone you. There’s a chance you have internalized that to be loved, to be labeled positively, you need to achieve.

But often it’s just a part of your personality that makes suffering from Impostor Syndrome more likely. For example, if you tend towards perfectionism, fear of failure or anxiety in general, neuroticism, or if you continually undermine your achievements, you open the doors to feeling like an impostor.

People who need approval and validation, who are shame-prone, and ruminate a lot about less than perfect performance, are predicted to experience this phenomenon as well. The brain is usually focused on negative things anyway since good things can’t hurt us, but with your constant doubts, you might make it worse.

There is a famous quote by Charles Bukowski:

The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence. Charles Bukowski

Why you should get rid of your Impostor Syndrome

While being lonely isn’t preferable, getting yourself an Impostor Syndrome won’t serve you any better. It needs to be fed with doubts plenty of times a day, and it will leave you stressed-out, lower your self-confidence, increase your shame, and sometimes lead to anxiety or even depression.

Foremost, though, Impostor Syndrome can be an enormous barrier to successful career development. You might feel the need to know every piece of information before you even start a new project. Or you won’t apply for a job if you don’t meet all of the criteria in the posting (let me reveal a secret: everyone else applies to plenty of jobs they don’t have any clue about, you might do this as well).

Impostor syndrome can also impede your knowledge. If you sit in class, you are unlikely to ask a question because you worry others think that you are less than perfect, or that you are plain stupid.

Impostor Syndrome can make you miserable, so you should avoid getting sucked in too deep.

How you can fight Impostor Syndrome

Before you worry too much about having Impostor Syndrome – it’s quite common, and you definitely shouldn’t freak out about it. Most people experience it to a varying degree. However, that doesn’t mean you should let the phenomenon take over your life. You can fight it and stuff it back in its cage where it belongs:

  1. Acknowledgement: Recognize your impostor feelings and realize that many people suffer from it, but don’t let your doubts control what you do or who you are. Always consider the context and tell yourself that the fact that you might feel useless right now doesn’t mean at all that you are useless.
  2. Awareness: Write down a list of your achievements and skills. Note your past successes to demonstrate tangible value. Too often, we forget what we have already achieved. What you might assume a small feat, could mean the world to somebody else.
  3. Reframing: Rewrite your mental programs. It’s entirely reasonable not to know everything – you will always become more knowledgable in the process. Every human being (even Beyoncé) is a work in progress. We are never finished. So, reframe failures as learning opportunities. And remember: The only difference between someone with Impostor Syndrome and someone without it is the difference in how they respond to challenges. They are not more intelligent than you; they merely think differently about themselves. That means that you don’t have to be any different; you only have to think differently.
  4. Talking: It often helps to talk to someone you can trust about how you feel. If you don’t want to tell family and friends, consider consulting a coach or mentor. Get yourself a reliable support system and ongoing feedback to validate your efforts.
  5. Kindness: This may sound cheesy, but it helps to be more kind to yourself. We’re continually damaging ourselves by punishing us for things we did or even thought about, without realizing it. That isn’t helpful. You’ll probably deliver worse performances in the future. There’s nothing wrong with being kind and forgiving to yourself. Try it; it doesn’t make you any less of a high-achiever. It often even enables you to achieve.
  6. Visualization: Athletes already know this technique. They visualize their success before it happens. So, for example, if they want to practice penalty shots, they picture themselves shooting and hitting the target every time. They do this over and over again, day and night. Studies found that it improves their performance. Even if you aren’t an athlete, you can benefit tremendously from this technique. It will set you up for success, so you have less to worry about.

Not sure if you are affected?

The discoverer of the Impostor Phenomenon, Pauline Clance, developed a test called CIPS, the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale. It can help you determine whether you suffer from Impostor Phenomenon and to what degree. That, of course, is no replacement for an actual therapist. But it could help you at least get the ballpark right.

Afterward, compare what you do to what Bernie Madoff did for a living. If it doesn’t hold up to his "achievements", you might not be a fraud after all, just someone striving for high performance who hasn’t realized yet how close he or she already is.

Impostor syndrome might not even be such a bad thing. I believe that it’s no accident that people who suffer from it regularly achieve great success. Impostor syndrome makes you more humble; it can even make you over-prepare. That is not a bad thing since it can give you the edge over your competitors. You only have to make sure that you use it to your advantage, and not as a barrier. Prepare more and worry less.

This post has been researched thoroughly, but it represents neither medical nor psychological advice. Always consult a professional physician or therapist to receive reliable information and counsel.