Have you ever been in a situation in which the people around you were telling you that you were achieving at a high level at something, but you just couldn’t see what they saw? Perhaps they gave you feedback that you made an excellent presentation, but all you could think about was the moment that you had to take a second to settle your nerves at the beginning. Or, perhaps your boss has told you time and time again that you’re destined for greatness in your career, but you find yourself struggling with self-doubt, feeling that you’ve somehow tricked her into thinking that you’re competent.
If you find yourself feeling that way, you could be struggling with the imposter syndrome.
The imposter syndrome (which is also known as the Imposter Phenomenon and Imposterism), is a term developed by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. (Fun fact: Dr. Clance was one of my supervisors in grad school and was even on my dissertation committee). Someone experiences the imposter syndrome when he or she feels inadequacy or self-doubt, regardless of how much they achieve. As a result, imposters are unable to internalize or truly enjoy their success.
Although for many people, accomplishments can help them to feel more confident, for those who feel like imposters, they can create more anxiety and discomfort, because they are fearful that others will find them out to be the fakes that they believe they are. Instead of tying their success to skill, ability, or intelligence, they’re prone to attribute their success to luck, good timing, perseverance, or even the ability to make themselves look more capable than they really are.
The imposter syndrome is also linked to perfectionism. Therefore, one common thought process associated with it is the feeling that one should never fail or make mistakes. If you think this way, the prospect of success can feel even more daunting or threatening, because with more responsibility or visibility, you might become more fearful that you will have a bigger audience to witness any misstep you make.
If these thoughts seem familiar, you are in good company. A lot of people feel like imposters at some point or another. Even really famous people like actress Natalie Portman, Howard Schulz the CEO of Starbucks, Emmy award winner Tina Fey, Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou, media mogul Arianna Huffington, Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Kate Winslett, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have expressed that they have struggled with imposter feelings at some point or another. I’ve also experienced it too – whether feeling like getting a PhD wasn’t that big of a deal, having self-doubt before conducting a presentation, or wondering why someone felt that I would be perfect to provide expertise on a topic.
There are a variety of potential causes for the imposter phenomenon. Sometimes, your child experiences may play a role. For example, if you grew up in a family in which you were held to exceptionally high standards and were criticized for anything falling short of perfection, you could be more prone.
Environmental factors can play a role as well. Research suggests that women and people of color can be more prone to it, particularly if they are in situations in which they are in the minority. For example, I’ve heard some clients tell me that when they make a point they get ignored, but when a colleague makes the same point later in the conversation, they are complimented. Or, if someone is the victim of “mansplaining,” that might undermine her confidence. That’s why diversity isn’t enough in organization – people also need to feel included to perform at their best.
How to Deal with Imposter Feelings
1. Recognize that these sorts of feelings are normal
When I listed some of the people who have struggled with imposter feelings, did you think to yourself, “why would they ever feel that way?” Once you realize the number of people who experience self-doubt, it can help to put your own concerns into perspective. After all, which is more plausible – all of the people I mentioned are just really good at fooling people? Or, is it more likely that they’re all really competent and talented, and just experience wavering confidence at times? When you find yourself doubting yourself, it’s important to affirm yourself and remind yourself that you are just as capable as others.
2. Understand that self-doubt frequently crops up when you’re in a new situation
When you are put in a new position, or are learning something new, feeling out of your depth is normal. However, if you can focus on the fact that you are learning and growing, and aren’t supposed to be perfect, that just might help you to take some of the pressure off so that you can enjoy the process. Recognize that just because you might feel useless in a given situation, it doesn’t mean that you truly are. It is just a thought that you are thinking.
3. Note the successes you have had in the past
When you are experiencing self-doubt, take a step back and think about your past successes. Then, instead of explaining them away by attributing them to luck, or focusing on your shortfalls, own your success. Have there been times when you felt as though you couldn’t do something, but then you achieved your goal? Reflect on those moments to remind you that even though you might have thoughts that you’re incapable of something, you have plenty of evidence to the contrary.
4. Get professional help
If you’re constantly under-estimating yourself, it can hold you back from fulfilling your potential. If you feel that your imposter feelings are getting in the way of your success, then it can be helpful to work with a psychologist or coach, who can help you to better understand your feelings and provide you with the tools to really do something about them.
We can all feel like imposters sometimes, but you don’t have to let those thoughts hold you back. Affirm yourself, get help if you need it, focus on growing, and you’ll be able to push through and accomplish great things!