“I feel like an impostor.”
“I don’t deserve my success.”
“People think I’m a fraud.”
Have you ever said these phrases to yourself? If so, you might have a case of Impostor Syndrome. And you aren’t alone—studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.
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.
I also got a chance to interview Dr. Kevin Cokley. He’s a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism. Watch our fascinating interview on impostor syndrome below:
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which you feel like you don’t deserve your accomplishments. You might feel like you don’t belong, don’t deserve your success, or are “out of place.” You might even be constantly worried others will expose you as a fraud.
People with impostor syndrome are unable to internalize success. For example, an actor may have earned all sorts of awards naming them Actor of the Year but still cannot shake 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.
Who Gets Impostor Syndrome?
Even though impostor syndrome is prevalent, not enough people talk about it!
Impostor syndrome can affect anyone—from professionals to students to highly accomplished and successful people. Even Michelle Obama, Neil Gaiman, and Maya Angelou have come out and admitted to having bouts of impostor syndrome.
Check out this video where Tom Hanks admits he feels like a fraud (timestamp 0:18):
Even though all people are vulnerable to impostor syndrome, some are more susceptible to it than others, particularly women and people of color.
Do You Have Impostor Syndrome? Take This Test
If this sounds like something you can relate to, look at our impostor quiz below and answer yes or no for each question:
- ____ 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, do you dismiss 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 apologize for yourself even if you didn’t do anything wrong?
- ____ Do you think others overvalue 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.
The 5 Types of Impostors
People who have impostor syndrome aren’t all the same. Impostor syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young found there are 5 types of impostors. Take a look below and see which type best describes you:
#1: The Perfectionist
The Perfectionist focuses on how something should be done—they want 110% from any project or assignment, each and every time. When these standards aren’t met, however, impostor syndrome kicks into gear.
If you’re a perfectionist, these characteristics might apply to you:
- You always hold yourself to the highest standard.
- You’re sometimes accused of being a micromanager.
- Even if you deliver a successful presentation, you’ll kick yourself because you forgot one minor detail.
- You never settle for less than gold; anything else is a failure.
Impostor Fix: To overcome your perfectionism, try the GEQ Method.
GEQ stands for “Good Enough Quality.” In other words, it’s better to hand in something that’s good rather than strive for the best. Perfectionists want to spend more time preparing, so you’ve got to break that cycle with action.
Embrace being nonperfect with these actions:
- Imperfect Affirmation: Whenever you’re feeling like a perfectionist, keep a positive affirmation in mind. Try “It’s OK to be 75% done and not 100%” or “It’s better to do it well now than wait and do it perfectly later.” Repeat this affirmation daily, or choose from our list of positive affirmations.
- Incomplete Drawing: Take out a pen and paper and start drawing with an idea in mind. It could be a person, your home, or even a musical instrument. Set a timer for 2 minutes and start drawing! Aim to get as much detail in as possible, but don’t draw too quickly. At the end of your timer, take a look at your drawing. If you didn’t finish, great! The goal of this exercise is to embrace your unfinished work with complete acceptance.
- Realistic Goals: Do you keep a list of your goals? If you do, take a look at them. Are they realistic, or are you overachieving? Try to be realistic with yourself and your deadlines. Head on over to our Goal Setting article to really narrow down your goals.
#2: The Natural Genius
Do you think you should always be smart, be a fast learner, or excel at everything you’re taught? Then you might be a Natural Genius.
It’s often people who are hard workers, high achievers, and perfectionists who are most likely to feel like frauds. Natural geniuses have a tendency to look at the pros in their field and wonder: Why am I not there yet?
They often don’t realize there’s a mid-stage process called learning that takes beginners to the pro level, so when faced with setbacks, they usually question their own competency.
Natural geniuses share these traits:
- They believe people are born talented or skilled.
- They get frustrated easily and may quickly switch from one hobby to another.
- They see everyone around them as achieving success while they are the only ones failing.
Impostor Fix: To overcome your genius complex, try cultivating a growth mindset.
A growth mindset is the belief that with effort, you can improve your abilities, skills, and talents. The opposite is a fixed mindset, which believes that people are born with talents or skills rather than earn them.
When you have a growth mindset, you’ll start believing in the power of putting in concentrated effort toward your goals. Check out more about the growth mindset here.
#3: The Expert
Experts strive for more—more knowledge, more experience, and more awards. Even if they have success and fame in their field of expertise, they think they don’t have enough.
In fact, the original term “impostor phenomenon” was coined in 1978 from examining professionally accomplished women who constantly felt they were underachieving and were just fooling others.
Experts strive to be perfect because they want to please others. They feel like an impostor because there’s always someone better out there.
If you’re an expert impostor, like me, you might relate to the following:
- You tend to prepare yourself fully by diving into books, courses, trainings, etc. before attempting a big project or presentation.
- You avoid applying for jobs because you don’t meet all the qualifications.
- Even if you’ve been teaching or working in your job for years, you still feel like you’re not enough.
Impostor Fix: Experts should recognize there’s never an end to knowledge! So instead of always accumulating more knowledge/skills, try to accumulate them only when needed.
This means focusing 100% on accumulating one skill instead of dividing your attention to learn everything. For example, if you’re interested in computer programming, leadership training, and engineering skills, but you’re going to be promoted for a manager position soon, it’s probably a good idea to focus 100% on the leadership training now.
#4: The Rugged Individualist
The Rugged Individualist believes they can do everything themselves and prefers to do things without asking for help. They believe asking others is a sign of weakness—after all, shouldn’t they know what they’re doing?
As a rugged individualist, you:
- feel like you need more time for prep
- prefer solo projects versus group tasks
- don’t ask for help, even if you need it
Impostor Fix: It may be hard, but the problem of not asking others may be because you haven’t found the right people. Ask yourself: “Who are the top 5 people I spend the most time with?” If they are dream builders and not dream crushers, then you’d naturally want to learn from them.
I recommend joining a mastermind or other support group to find incredible people you’d want to seek advice from.
#5: The Superwoman/Man
The Superwoman or Superman loves to take on more responsibility. They have a hard time saying no and often work harder than their peers. A superwoman or superman often juggles many tasks at once, even to the point of over-exhaustion.
Here are signs you may be a superwoman/man:
- You juggle multiple tasks at once—work, chores, school, side business, etc.
- You often find yourself working overtime, even past your normal team’s working hours.
- You neglect your friends, family, or hobbies in order to work more.
Impostor Fix: Chances are, if you’re running in super mode, you’re also a people pleaser. You strive to do good not only for yourself but for others. You want to impress, and taking on extra responsibility is your idea to get there.
Check out our article on how to stop people-pleasing, or take the quiz below to find out if you’re a people pleaser!
How to Deal With Impostor Syndrome in 6 Steps
Now let’s take a look at my top 6 tips for beating ALL types of impostor syndrome.
The Coué Method
Want to change how you talk to yourself? Who better to ask than Émile Coué, psychologist and father of the Coué Method?
The Coué Method is a way to change your self-talk to guide your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and can be done in 3 simple steps:
- Choose an anti–impostor syndrome phrase, such as a positive affirmation or your own personalized phrase that helps you break out of impostor syndrome. My go-to phrase is “I got this!” or “Small wins.”
- Choose your safe space where you’re free from distraction. Your safe space can be as simple as a small cushion in the corner of your room. I love being in nature and find the awe and the oxygen really calm me. When I am in full-blown impostor syndrome, I take a walk or sit outside no matter the time of day.
- Choose a mental image. This part is key—you want to be able to choose your own unique mental “image” you can visualize and associate with your chosen expression. Every time you think of this image, you’ll be reminded of your own unique expression. I like to mentally picture a butterfly, as it symbolizes freedom and happiness. Repeat your phrase while visualizing your image. Try this for just a couple minutes twice a day.
Over time, your brain will become more hardwired to believe your own thoughts.
So if you’re always thinking you’re an impostor, give this method a try for a couple weeks and notice how your inner impostor syndrome slowly fades away.
It certainly helped with my own impostor syndrome!
Pro Tip: 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. Then repeat your phrase and visualize your image. Visualize when you catch yourself saying something negative. Visualize before speaking events. Visualize before a meeting. These will all help to reinforce the Coué Method.
“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 uncovering the issues that give you impostor syndrome in the first place—the 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 of your elderly relative 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.
The Power of Small Wins
A student of mine asked me the other day, “Should I be taking on more risks?”
It’s a question many people with impostor syndrome might ask themselves, maybe because they feel like they aren’t doing enough or they should be working harder.
So how did I answer them? With a resounding: “Yes, if they are purposeful!”
Because here’s the deal: When we take risks and succeed, we often feel a “winner’s rush,” or that flood of dopamine that makes us feel good about ourselves. And the more success we feel, the higher the chance we become even more successful! It’s a success loop in the making!
But doesn’t achieving more lead to even MORE feelings of impostor syndrome!?
Sure, it can… if you don’t capture your wins properly.
Success is great, but we need a “sinking in” time to really absorb those successes into who we are. That’s why 70% of lottery winners go bankrupt after a few years: because they never develop what it takes to become successful in the first place.
In fact, a huge study of over 12,000 journal entries from 238 employees found that capturing small wins helps increase motivation and build self-confidence. So to capture your successes, try keeping a success journal or gratitude journal. This leads me to the next tip…
Keep a Success File
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 5 things you are grateful for. Or take a screenshot and save the picture in a folder labeled “Success File.”
You can also capture your proudest moment of the day or any small wins you’ve accumulated. This gets those positive juices flowing.
When you’re trying to make progress with your impostor syndrome, you could also have a file for uplifting things. Write about what 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 gathering 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 constantly checking social media, you may be unfairly comparing yourself to others.
Social media can be a trap that causes people to feel like they don’t measure up. Influencers, models, and people living their best moments are not great things to look at—especially if your life doesn’t “match up” to theirs.
So to stop comparing, I set a goal to take a yearly or biyearly digital detox. A digital detox is when you unplug and get off social media and email for some time—say, 10 days. You can do it from home or even on vacation if you’re a remote worker.
After coming back from a digital detox, you might notice you compare yourself to others less and feel happier. Learn how to do a digital detox in the video below!
Default to Yes
If you’re NOT overburdening yourself with too much responsibility…
Try saying “yes” more often. If you have impostor syndrome, you might feel you’re not good enough for that job. Or you’ll make a mistake on a big project, so you don’t take on more responsibility.
Change your default answer to yes.
- Apply for that new job, even though you don’t meet the requirements.
- Take the new project your boss offers, even though you don’t have a clue how to do it.
- Give yourself permission to fail, even if it means getting rejected by your crush.
Side Note: If you’re a people pleaser, this tip may NOT be for you. Instead, you might have to learn to say no instead.
Set Reasonable Goals
If you’re facing impostor syndrome, one reason may be that you’re not setting reasonable goals. For example, if you consistently set goals that are unachievable, you might be reinforcing the belief that it’s OK to fail.
How do you set the best goals for yourself? Follow this scientific framework:
How To Set Better Goals Using Science
Do you set the same goals over and over again? If you’re not achieving your goals – it’s not your fault!
Let me show you the science-based goal-setting framework that will help you achieve your biggest goals.
Watch This TED Talk if You Have Impostor Syndrome…
OK, so maybe you’re stuck with impostor syndrome.
But it’s not all bad. Mike Cannon-Brookes, Australian billionaire and CEO of Atlassian, shares his own impostor syndrome story and how he turned it into a strength:
What is the Opposite of Impostor Syndrome?
There’s another phenomenon for those who have the OPPOSITE of impostor syndrome, and it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
You may have heard about this in a college class: the Dunning-Kruger effect is when you think you already “know” everything or brush off other people’s advice.
People who experience the Dunning-Kruger effect are super confident and even arrogant—but the fact is we’ve all probably experienced this effect at times.
For example, an engineering student may decide to skip studying for a test because they think
they already know the answers—only to fail miserably since they were underprepared. Yikes!
Is it possible to have a case of impostor syndrome AND the Dunning-Kruger effect?
Yes! You can feel like an impostor in some things but be overconfident in others.
However, both lead to negative consequences if not properly addressed. If you’re suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, read up on Survivorship Bias.
Bonus: Stop Feeling Like a Fraud
If you’re battling impostor syndrome, remember, you’re not alone!
To recap, watch my video on impostor syndrome and how to stop feeling like a fraud:
Remember, it’s OK to feel like an impostor every once in a while, but don’t let your impostor syndrome define you. And you’re never alone! These tips 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.
So what did you think? Let me know about your own personal impostor syndrome story in the comments section below!
Next: check out our post on How to Look and Feel Confident.