I feel like an impostor.
I don’t deserve my success.
People are going to find out I am a fraud.
These are classic impostor syndrome thoughts—believe me; I face them all the time. How about you? Have you ever felt like a fraud? Do you worry people will eventually discover that you aren’t really smart or successful?
Do you worry people will discover the real you and be disappointed?
If so, you are not alone.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people feel they don’t deserve their accomplishments. Internally, they feel like a fraud, or they worry that one day someone will find out that they are not good enough.
No matter how successful someone is on the outside, or how much external evidence there is of their skills or competence, people with impostor syndrome are convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have achieved.
Studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.
Even though impostor syndrome is very prevalent, not enough people talk about it! Hugely successful people, including Michelle Obama, Neil Gaiman, and Maya Angelou, have come out and admitted to having bouts of impostor syndrome.
“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
If you’re struggling with impostor syndrome, it’s vital to get to the bottom of it, understand it, and find ways to move past it, because, believing we don’t deserve our success contributes to greater feelings of depression, inadequacy, difficulty in relationships and low self-esteem.
In this article, I’m going to talk about impostor syndrome so you can recognize the signs and take the steps you need to heal.
Who Gets Impostor Syndrome?
Let’s start by learning the beast we’re dealing with before we go any further, so we know later on exactly what we’re tackling.
Impostor syndrome is a form of intellectual self-doubt.
Generally, it impacts high achievers such as successful business owners and academics. People suffering from impostor syndrome feel as though they are lying to the world, and that their success has only been due to luck or error.
There isn’t much research out there on the causes of the impostor phenomenon, but it can probably be attributed to a mix of nature and nurture. Children who have been told to not bring attention to themselves or to not feel that they are better than others are more likely to be predisposed to impostor syndrome, as are firstborn children, due to the expectations of success placed on them as youngsters.
It is likely we will all succumb to the effects of impostor syndrome at some time in our life. We know that it can be triggered by new and daunting experiences, such as starting a new management job or pursuing a PhD.
It’s estimated that around 70 percent of people in the US have experienced impostor syndrome.
Scientists have recognized that it occurs more frequently in women than in men. This is because women are more likely than men to feel an external cause (such as luck or good timing, etc) is responsible for a success, where men are more likely to attribute success to their own ability and hard work. This is likely due to socializing boys to be risk takers while socializing girls to be more careful.
Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term “Impostor Syndrome” after observing many high-achieving women who tended to believe they were not competent, and that they were over-evaluated by others. What’s important to note is impostor syndrome is not a personality trait.
Impostor syndrome is a reaction to certain situations.
The question is…what triggers you? If you have impostor syndrome then you are likely being triggered by something (or someone) in your life. The first step is to think about who or what is triggering you.
Types of Impostor Syndrome
Everyone has a different type of impostor syndrome. These may vary throughout our life as our personality changes and develops and we become better people, or as different situations arise within our life. Understanding the types of impostor syndrome can give us a better understanding of how to deal with the feelings.
This type of impostor sets extremely high expectations for themselves—higher than they would ever expect of someone else. The perfectionist will still feel like a failure even if they meet most of their goals. For example, scoring 90% on an exam won’t please a perfectionist—they want 100%. And even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.
The experts feel like they need to know absolutely everything about a specific subject before they start a project, and will seek out training to improve their skills in that area. This can hold them back in various ways, such as not applying for jobs unless they’re absolutely perfectly qualified, or by not asking a question in a meeting because they feel they should already know the answer.
The “natural genius’”—an academically or socially intelligent person who rarely has to struggle to learn—will have bouts of impostor syndrome when they find something difficult. This is because they are used to learning new skills easily. When a task requires effort, they feel it is because they’re actually an impostor and not very intelligent at all.
Soloists don’t ask for help, since they feel they have to accomplish all tasks on their own. This means they rarely delegate tasks around the home to other family members, and they struggle to allow other members of the team to take some of their workload. This situation of needing to ask for help leads them to feel they are a failure.
This type of person pushes themselves to work much harder than people around them in an effort to prove that they are legitimate and not impostors. Pushing themselves so hard in all aspects of their life, from their career to their relationships, has a negative affect on their well-being, as they rarely give themselves time to just relax
How Impostor Syndrome is Holding You Back.
Impostor syndrome is often rooted in a fear of both failure and success, and can therefore 1) hold people back in their career, because they are less likely to strive for higher positions, and 2) reduce people’s salary since they are less likely to ask for a higher wage. Additionally, research suggests that people who are impacted by impostor syndrome are also likely to score lower on career optimism, which causes a lower job satisfaction
Fear of failure is defined as “a tendency to appraise threat and feel anxious during situations that involve the possibility of failing.” Fear of success, on the other hand, is a fear of doing something great. This is often due to fearing disappointment or not feeling “worth” success. In impostor syndrome, the two go hand in hand.
For example, someone might feel anxious about going for a job interview in a higher management role because they are scared they will fail, but simultaneously fear getting the job in case they lose their friendships with their new success.
It’s no wonder this psychological discomfort is holding you back—even if it is unconsciously.
Do you think you have ever turned down an opportunity that would have been great for you, out of fear of failure or fear of success? If so, check out our impostor quiz below.
Do You Have Impostor Syndrome? Take the Quiz!
The symptoms of impostor syndrome are quite distinctive. Crucially, it is the experience of being unable to internalize success. For example, an actor may have had all sorts of awards naming them as actor of the year, but still can not shift an inner sense of feeling like a fraud.
They might think to themselves that these awards are all just luck, or that they managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes the last few years but will soon be found out as nothing more than a fraud.
Where other people receive positive feedback that makes them feel good about themselves and confident in their ability, a person with impostor syndrome perceives praise from others as an overestimation of their abilities, rather than an accurate reflection.
If this sounds like something you can relate to, look at our impostor quiz below and answer yes or no:
____ Do you ever feel you don’t deserve your achievements?
____ Do you ever worry that people will find out you are secretly not worthy?
____ After a success, have you dismissed it as just good luck or timing?
____ Do you think you have tricked others into thinking you are more successful than you actually are?
____ Do you think others ovevalue your success?
If you answered yes to more than two of these you might be experiencing a level of impostor syndrome.
This quiz can only give a very basic insight into your potential impostor syndrome. If you feel like you are struggling, it might be worth seeing a therapist to get a formal assessment and treatment plan.
How to Fight Your Impostor Syndrome
1. Name and Tame
The good news is that just recognizing you are feeling impostor syndrome thoughts can help you stop them. This means you need to get in the habit of hearing your own self-doubts by analyzing your thoughts as they happen. If you hear yourself say, “Oh I don’t deserve this” or “It was just luck,” pause and note in your head or in a journal that you are having these impostor syndrome thoughts.
Just noticing these thoughts will have some effect on your impostor syndrome.
It might feel strange at first, but if you stick to this for a couple of weeks you’re bound to see a difference. If you find that the days are passing and you’re not noticing impostor thoughts as they’re occurring, it can be worth setting aside specific quiet time every day to reflect on the events of the day and the thoughts that came with those events.
2. Let Yourself “Go Mad” for 30 Minutes
I don’t know you, but I can promise you that you are not as weird as you think you are. You are human, and all of us have good bits and not so good bits.
All of us have parts of us that we hide from most people.
Part of impostor syndrome is believing that your inner psyche and who you are, areis stranger than everyone else. To prove this to yourself, it can be worth letting yourself delve into parts of you that you feel you are hiding from others. It might sound counterproductive, but facing these issues head on can be a positive way to tackle them.
To do this, get a piece of paper and a pen and write down everything about you that you are trying to hide: your most ridiculous beliefs, the worst parts of your character, and all the things about you that make you feel like a fraud.
While this exercise won’t help get rid of these bad things, externalizing them can help you put them into perspective and feel better about them.
It will feel like a weight off your chest.
If you’re feeling brave, you could even share these with a close friend who might be able to talk to you about some of your thoughts. For example, you might write that you feel like you’re selfish because you don’t visit an elderly relative as often as you feel you should or that you find yourself boring and not very funny. When you speak to your friend about this though, they might remind you that you do take care taking responsibilities for your young nieces and nephews, and that–actually–you’re hilarious.
This type of conversation can help you to come out feeling more understood, and might also bring to light some positive parts of your character that you haven’t considered before
3. Keep a “Nice Things” and / or a “Gratitude” Journal
Nothing grounds you more than writing down what you are grateful for. Writing therapy has proven to be a great remedy for impostor syndrome. When you are feeling those self-doubts, you can pull out a journal and write about the 5 things you are grateful for. You can also write about your proudest moment. This gets those good juices flowing.
When you’re trying to make progress with your impostor syndrome, you could also have a journal for uplifting things other people have said about you, and records of your accomplishments so you can reflect on them properly. This might include an award at work, a Facebook comment saying someone loved an event you recently held, or a love letter from a romantic partner.
Sometimes we forget that we are worth it.
If you know you have impostor syndrome tendencies, I want you to start to gather success reminders to put into this journal. These can be emails from colleagues or from friends and family. They can be letters you have received. They can be pictures of times you were proud.
If you’re battling with impostor syndrome, remember, you’re not alone. These things should help, but alongside working on your impostor syndrome directly, it can also be beneficial to work on your confidence and self esteem. This can give you a better emotional foundation to work on while you continue your self development.
Next: check out our post on How to Look and Feel Confident.