Impostor Syndrome is real. A lot of us have it. And its negative effects can go beyond just limiting our career opportunities to changing the very ways that we feel about ourselves and our potential for success.
“You don’t belong here.”
“Everyone’s going to find out how stupid you are.”
“You don’t deserve any of this and everyone knows it.”
If you spend your time in at work in fear of the eventual day when everyone will find out what a huge fraud you are, you’re not alone.
Even though an estimated 70% of us will experience Impostor Syndrome during our lives, historically we’ve been terrible at being open about how we’re suffering and sharing ways to overcome it. First identified in 1978, Impostor Syndrome is an overwhelming and insidious belief that everything you’ve achieved is because of luck and not your actual talent or skills. It’s the deep down belief that you’ve only made it because you’ve faked it.
Impostor Syndrome is subtle, complex and can manifest in a lot of different ways. Psychology Today lists symptoms including generalized anxiety, depressive symptoms, lack of self-confidence, worry, extreme introversion, a need to look smart to others, and a propensity for shame.
Left unmanaged, your invisible impostor can have a some very real impact on your career. It can lead to you self-limiting your own opportunities, leaving new job prospects unexplored or not giving it your all for a promotion or to be part of new teams and projects in your office. It can hamper your overall curiosity around not just learning new skills but around new ways of doing things. It can change the way you think.
There’s no single reason why we can feel like Impostors. Psychologist Dr. Audrey Ervin says some experts believe other personality traits, like anxiety or neuroticism, can be to blame. At the same time, behaviours or family experiences can have long lasting impacts.
“People often internalize these ideas: that in order to be loved or be lovable, ‘I need to achieve,’” says Ervin. “It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.”
The experience of Impostor Syndrome is different to everyone. Based on our backgrounds, personalities and circumstances we’ll live with our internal impostors in unique ways. But digging a little deeper into what kind of impostor we think we are can be the key to helping us face it head on.
So what can we actually do about our own Impostor Syndrome?
Dr. Valerie Young is an expert on Impostor Syndrome and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. She’s spent decades digging into the reasons why particularly ambitious people so frequently end up feeling like frauds.
In her research, Dr. Young has identified five common “competency types.” These are the sets of rules and beliefs people with Impostor Syndrome tend to build for themselves as a coping mechanism. Over time these bad habits can evolve into full-fledged limiting beliefs and have a drastic impact on our self-image and the ways we think about success.
By looking into which type we relate most closely with we’re a step closer to being aware of the day-to-day patterns that we’ve used to cope with our feelings of inadequacy but that which in the long run are holding us back from realizing our full potential.
“The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.” - Dr. Valerie Young
Try to be honest with yourself about any of these behaviours. You can observe that you’re having an impostor thought without engaging and perpetuating it. Being more aware of how you’re thinking is the first step to changing your thoughts, starting with some of these actions from The Muse.
With this tendency you protect yourself by setting expectations of success and perfection that are impossible to reach. Even if you hit 99% of your goals, you’ll feel like a complete failure and beat yourself up over missing the last 1%. Even a small, understandable mistake will make you question your abilities and doubt your competence.
What to do next:
For you success can always feel empty because no matter what you think you could have done better. Try to own and celebrate your achievements. Make a list of everything you’ve accomplished and look it over whenever you feel tempted to doubt yourself. Avoid burnout by learning to take your mistakes more in stride by seeing them as part of an ongoing process and not an end point of failure. Your work will never be 100% flawless — nobody’s ever is — but you can train yourself to feel growth over failure.
Superpeople believe the only way to succeed is by working harder and longer than anyone else, no matter how unrealistic or unhealthy it actually is. The antithesis of “work smarter, not harder,” they’re driven by a need to accomplish all of their goals in all aspects of their life at the same time. When one ball drops, they feel unworthy of everything else they’ve achieved and focus on their failures above everything else.
What to do next:
Workoholic impostors can actually be addicted to the feeling of external validation that comes from the way they’re working instead of getting joy from the actual work itself. One of the healthiest steps any of us can take is to look for validation internally rather than from others externally. Dr. Ervin shares:“People who experience perceived fraudulence are often unable to internalize their successes and seek external, as opposed to internal, validation. Seek counselling to work on increasing internal validation and decreasing your reliance on external validation. If you depend on internal validation, you can be in control of how you feel about yourself instead of letting other people’s opinions dictate how you view yourself and your abilities.”
The Natural Genius
On the surface Natural Geniuses have it lucky. Typically intelligent and highly skilled, they’ve attained a lot of success in life but this has led them to feel vulnerable and afraid of having to work hard or try new things. They’re unused to feeling positive about hard work. Whenever they struggle they’re not able to see it as an opportunity to achieve more but as proof of their hidden inadequacy.
What to do next:
For even the most accomplished and confident people, their lives and careers are a series of individual events. Try to see yourself as a work in progress. Look for specific and changeable behaviours that you can use to get more skilled at something over time rather than feeling you need to be immediately amazing or else you’re not capable of it. Skill-building is part of a lifelong learning process that can be broken down into smaller more achievable micro-tasks. It’s not all or nothing and nobody is going to be able to do anything the first time they try it.
Some alone time can be nice, but Soloists take it to the extreme. They believe they should be able to do absolutely everything on their own. If they need to ask for even a small amount of help they see it as an immediate failure and paradoxically, an inability to do anything on their own despite the huge amount that they do get accomplished on their own.
What to do next:
Break the silence around what you’re feeling. Shame came keep a lot of people from speaking up, but for a Soloist knowing that there’s a name for what you’re feeling, and that others experience it too, can be extremely freeing. Know that you can always re-create the right rules for yourself. If you’ve been believing that it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help, see a switch as you reframe this as a way of asserting your rights to ask for to something you deserve. Recognize that you’re worthy of having others help you and that asking for it is a sign of strength.
Experts are deeply afraid of feeling stupid or embarrassed. To make up for feelings of not being being experienced enough, they feel a deep need to know absolutely everything before they’ll speaking up in class or a meeting. They find it difficult to start a new project and use the need to constantly gather new information to procrastinate and feed their Impostor Syndrome, leading them to not apply for jobs, put their hands up for stretch assignments or enter into situations that they can’t control.
What to do next:
A positive attitude toward lifelong learning is important. There’s always more to learn if you we can figure out how to have a healthy approach, driven by curiosity and not fear, to building knowledge. Think about practicing “in-time learning” and look to develop skills when you know you need them and not only theoretically. Think about becoming a mentor or volunteer to others as a way of sharing knowledge and experiences in a safe way that will also benefit others.
If you want to dive more deeply into any of these feelings, Dr. Young recommends one-on-one time with a career coach, counsellor or psychologist.
“Most people experience moments of doubt, and that’s normal. The important part is not to let that doubt control your actions. The goal is not to never feel like an impostor. With the right tools and information they can learn that having an impostor moment doesn’t mean having an impostor life.”