Outing the Imposter: Strategies for Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is when, no matter what level of success one might achieve, an individual doesn’t feel like they earned it, deserved it, and/or that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. This feeling of not being not being good enough can stop people from trying something new. It can diminish their efforts, because if you’re going to fail anyway, how much effort will you put into it? It can also, at minimum, increase anxiety and decrease pleasure surrounding the task.

Those individuals that are likely to experience imposter syndrome includes successful women. (In fact, the original research paper in which the term “Imposter Phenomenon” (1978) was coined, was on high achieving women.) It is also prevalent in entrepreneurs, high achieving performers, athletes, and anyone trying something where the outcome is unsure.

There are many reasons that imposter syndrome may manifest itself in gender stereotypes, cultural norms, having had skills and abilities belittled, and self-comparison to others.

The strategies to help overcome imposter syndrome begin by understanding its triggers.

  1. Believing you’re the only one feeling this way. You’re not! According to Psychology Today*, 25-30% of high-achievers experience imposter syndrome. This includes people such as Tina Fey, Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama, and Tom Hanks.
  2. Being a perfectionist. Perfectionism is a sure way to be disappointed in yourself because perfection is never attainable. Learn to accept and be happy with doing a good job and providing value to others.
  3. Believing that failing at something makes you a failure. The label of “being a failure” plays into the hands of the imposter. Approach new endeavors as “experiments” that simply carry the expectation of working or not working with increased knowledge being the outcome either way. You can keep a journal of those “experiments” and write down the things that you learned from it. Focusing on what you’ve learned helps keep the effort a positive thing. “The one who falls and gets up is stronger than the one who never tried. Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.” -Roy T. Bennett.
  4. Comparing yourself to others. The judgement of your own value or success by comparing yourself against others is unfair. Other’s perceived lives or successes is an incomplete story. We see what others want us to see. Everyone puts their best foot forward because they want you to think highly of them, hiding their own struggles and insecurities and allowing you to make this lopsided comparison.
  5. Not affirming your own capabilities and successes. It is the nature of our society to dwell on the negative and not the positive. i.e. How many positive stories do you see in the news? Train yourself to look for your successes not your failures. Based on an idea taken from Shawn Achor’s “The Happiness Advantage”, write down three things that you succeeded at each day (and they have to be different things each day). This helps you to refocus and look for the positive instead of the negative. This practice can help you to own your own successes.

Experiencing imposter syndrome can hold you back from reaching your full potential and diminish the pride and enjoyment from the successes that you do achieve. Knowing imposter syndrome’s triggers and coping strategies can help you overcome them.

Further readings on imposter syndrome:
“Overcoming the Impostor: Silence Your Inner Critic and Lead with Confidence” by Kris Kelso
“The Imposter Cure: Escape the Mind-Trap of Imposter Syndrome” by Dr Jessamy Hibberd


Are You an Imposter?

The real question I want to ask is, do you feel like an imposter? Imposter syndrome is a feeling, despite finding success and/or respect from others, that you are somehow fooling them and that one of these days they’re going to find out that you’re not that smart, or gifted, or talented. It often occurs when someone is brought up with the pressure of achieving excellence, whether that is in academics, sports, art or whatever. This pressure impostermay have come from parents, teachers, coaches, or can even be self-imposed. It’s also that the individual knows that there is still so much more they could know. As Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” (Unfortunately, those who think they know it all, don’t suffer from imposter syndrome.) It is also associated with those that are perfectionists, people who are always seeking to be better/do better. The syndrome creates anxiety in the person experiencing it which can hold them back from achieving even more (not to mention how constant anxiety can be detrimental to your health).

Let me be frank with you (arrgh, see, already an imposter)… Let me be Mark with you. 😉 Seriously, though, I’ve felt like an imposter off and on throughout my life. One example that stands out in my mind is when I served on a national personal trainer exam committee and, while I am very knowledgable in many areas of our industry, much of what I know has been self-taught. I only hold a BS in physical education/kinesiology, whereas my peers on this committee held either a MS or a PhD. I would always work extra hard to prove to myself that I earned my place on the committee. I know that not having my Masters degree has always made me feel a little sub-standard when I compare myself to my peers. I also continually ask myself, with so much to know, how can I possibly know enough?”

The imposter syndrome is not a rational feeling. Most of those that are effected by this have worked very hard to get to where they are and, more often than not, are well deserving of their achievements and acclaim. Celebrated author, poet, activist, Maya Angelou once said: “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.”imposter2

So, how do we overcome feeling like an imposter? Here are some possible ideas on it.

  1. Own your success. Even those people who did get a “lucky” break worked hard to put themselves in the position to be available for that opportunity. Tell yourself that you deserve your success. You don’t have to repeat daily affirmations like Stuart Smalley, “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” (unless, of course, that helps), but know that you have done the work to bring yourself to where you are.
  2. Stop comparing yourself to others. Often, when we compare, we look at our weaknesses compared to others’ strengths. Not fair. *side note, did you know that the top colleges have high drop out rates. That’s because, even though everyone has to be exceptional just to get in, the smart people are comparing themselves to the super smart people and then feel inferior, like they don’t belong there.
  3. Let go of the perfectionism. Maybe you don’t have all of the answers. You don’t need to. Ask yourself instead, do you have enough to deliver value?
  4. Continue to put yourself out there and accept new challenges. Realize that very few people are as driven as you can be, which means that you have the capacity to make someone’s world (or maybe the world) a better place. Keep on keeping on.

Some of the most successful people in every field have suffered from imposter syndrome, so you are in good company. But, you have to learn to overcome that self-doubt if want to enjoy your success (and life) more.