Key Points: Feeling like a fraud at work and being afraid of being exposed as such is a classic symptom of the so-called “impostor syndrome,” sometimes also spelled “imposter syndrome.” Learning how to overcome impostor syndrome can make a tremendous impact on your quality of life. Why? This feeling of inadequacy can cause chronic stress and anxiety. So here, we will explore the mechanisms that cause impostor syndrome and measures you can take to let go of this limiting attitude. This will help you to increase your self-esteem and confidence in your own abilities.
What is Impostor Syndrome, and What Are Some of its Common Symptoms?
To sum it up in a simple sentence, if you suffer from impostor syndrome, you feel generally incompetent in your field of expertise. But that is, of course, not all there is to it. This feeling of faking it in your area of expertise can cause an overall lack of confidence and self-esteem. It influences your life in all categories because you cannot stop worrying about feeling like a fraud at work.
If you perceive yourself as an impostor, experiencing success in something or achieving something usually will not make you feel any better about yourself and your abilities. Someone who is not affected by impostor syndrome can build up their confidence every time they have mastered a project or a challenging task. But the self-assumed impostor doesn’t attribute any success to their own abilities.
So, for example, if you have to speak in front of a group of people for the first time, it is absolutely normal for everyone to feel nervous and probably a bit anxious. Usually, once you go up on that podium, your speech goes well, and the audience applauds you feel good about yourself and your presentation. Next time you have to speak publicly, you would probably still be nervous, but your confidence will have increased from your previous experience. As a result, you will be less scared than before. But what if you suffer from impostor syndrome? Well, as an “impostor,” you won’t attribute that success to yourself but to either luck or any other favourable external circumstances, and you might come up with all kinds of excuses. For example, it would have been impolite for the audience to not clap. Or, you might even conjure up the improbable scenario that everybody felt sorry for you and your poor performance, and so they applauded to comfort you. In any case, if you think of yourself as an impostor, you will not be able to accept that the audience actually really liked your speech and that you did a good job writing and delivering it.
In many cases, if you have not yet managed to overcome impostor syndrome, you are dealing with chronic self-doubt daily. To make it even worse, many self-assumed “impostors” have difficulty asking for and accepting help, even when they are really struggling with a task. Why? As soon as you need help with something, you feel like you aren’t competent enough to do it yourself. It makes you feel like a fraud and as if you were just faking to be good at what you are doing.
As a self-assumed impostor, your worrying about being exposed as such can turn into a paralyzing fear of success. Like any kind of anxiety, this can lead to inaction and stagnation in your career and your whole life. With impostor syndrome, dealing with success is hard for you because you fear that the more you achieve in your field of expertise, the more people expect you to contribute. But the more you have to deliver on a subject you feel you don’t know much of, the more you are afraid of being exposed as a fraud. So, for someone suffering from impostor syndrome, it seems logical to avoid success. This is really tragic because it holds you back in so many ways.
Thus, typical symptoms of impostor syndrome are playing down your own success and not accepting compliments. You will rarely hear a self-assumed impostor simply reply, “Thank you, I appreciate it,” when somebody pays them a compliment. Usually, a “but …” will be appended here, like for example, “Oh thank you, but it was nothing,” or “Thanks, but that really was just luck,” or maybe not even a “thank you” at all, like for example “Oh you know, anyone would have been able to do this.”
The 5 Different Types of Impostor Syndrome – Which One Are You?
According to Valerie Young,1Check out Dr. Valerie Young’s website on impostor syndrome for more information on impostor syndrome. Also check out her book, “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.” for detailed information. not everybody experiences failure-related shame the same way. She has done extensive research on the complexity of impostor syndrome and published some of it in her book “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.” Young has identified 5 different types of impostor syndrome.2Check out Valerie Young’s blog post on the 5 different types of impostor syndrome.
If you are a perfectionist, you want to be, well, perfect. But what does it mean to be perfect, and what does it mean to fail? A perfectionist already feels they have fallen short if their work gets rated “almost perfect,” and that makes them feel like an impostor. They strive for this 100% perfection mark, and this one missing percent causes the perfectionist to feel shame about their work. Perfectionists tend to take criticism very personally, and sometimes they can be their own worst critics. To avoid external criticism and to reach perfection, perfectionists tend to lose themselves in countless details. This, however, causes a few other problems: Trying to bring every small element up to precision is very time-consuming. Thus, deadlines are a massive issue for perfectionists as they add another level of stress and pressure. The absence of a deadline can pose yet another problem for the perfectionist. Without a set time limit, chances are this project will never be finished because, as a perfectionist, you will keep researching and refining as long as nobody will force you to present your work to anyone else.
The “expert” is another type who needs to learn how to overcome impostor syndrome. As an “expert,” you have quite some similarities to the perfectionist, with the slight distinction that for the “expert,” the focus of competence mainly lies on their knowledge. So, what does that mean? Basically, as an “expert,” you feel you need to know everything there is to know in your field of expertise, and even a slight lack of knowledge makes you feel like a failure and an impostor. But, of course, it is impossible to know everything (unfortunately – I really sympathize with all “experts” out there). So, a very likely scenario is that at some point, someone will ask the “expert” a question in his field of expertise that they do not have an answer to. If you are not affected by impostor syndrome, it is not a big deal to say, “Hey, I really can’t remember right now. Let me look it up and get back to you later.” However, for a self-assumed impostor, this is tragic. You feel like you lack the necessary knowledge and like a fraud in front of the other person.
If you fall into the category “Soloist,” your fundamental problem regarding impostor syndrome is that you feel like a failure if you need help with a task you are supposed to complete. For “soloists,” asking for help is usually out of the question, which, of course, can pose problems if there really is something they struggle with, but the task needs to be finished.
Accepting help they had not asked for is usually, also, out of the question for the “soloist.” If a soloist could choose between someone helping them with a task that would save time or work on something more hours but on their own, the “soloist” would opt for the latter.
Learning how to overcome impostor syndrome is something the “natural genius” would definitely also benefit from. If you suffer from this type of impostor syndrome, you measure your competence based on how easily something comes to you. So, if you struggle with a task and you need several attempts to complete it – even if it turns out perfect in the end – this will make you feel like a failure if you are a “natural genius.” As this type of “impostor,” you will always feel failure-related shame if you don’t ace a task the first time.
As a “superman” or “superwoman,” you feel competent if you can master all the “roles” you take on with perfection. It is not only your career you want to excel in but all categories of your life. So, you don’t just want to be successful in your job, but you also want to be a perfect partner, a perfect parent, a perfect friend, a perfect volunteer, and so on. But even if you think you should handle all of this perfectly and effortlessly, reality will throw you curves. There is no way you can master every category in your life with perfection. This, however, leads to frustration and a feeling of having failed.
Although each of these types of impostor syndrome has a dominant pattern of experiencing failure-related shame, I would not say that you can only fall into one category. You may have traits of any of these five types integrated into your behaviour, and when you are looking for ways to overcome impostor syndrome, you should pay attention to all of them. Especially “supermen” and “superwomen” are prone to take on traits from other types, but they are not the only ones.
What Causes Impostor Syndrome?
What it basically comes down to is: How do you define success and competence? What is your definition of these concepts? If you suffer from impostor syndrome, your interpretation of these two concepts is very likely unrealistic, unsustainable and unattainable. Holding yourself up to these standards can only result in frustration, shame, anxiety and stress because there is no way of reaching them.
Of course, everyone arrives at such a definition differently. It is based on what you have experienced throughout your life and especially your childhood. Accordingly, impostor syndrome might manifest itself in one or the other of its different flavours. There seems to be one common theme, however. Success and competence are not the same for both men and women. Men often define themselves based on their career; women strive to be perfect partners, mothers, household managers and friends and many other things besides acing their job. So, more women than men tend to fall into the “superman / superwoman” category, and generally, more women suffer from impostor syndrome than men.
This is rooted in how differently boys and girls are being raised. This might not be as bad anymore as it used to be, but still, there are noticeable differences. For example, girls are traditionally told to be modest. Parents and teachers tell them not to brag about their success and their achievements. Thus, many women might not even believe in their own success but rather start attributing it to something else, like luck or other favourable circumstances, but not their own abilities. Often, women even feel uncomfortable when someone praises them for their success or achievement. This can make them feel like they made a mistake. So, more women than men tend to avoid reaching their goals, play down their own achievements, and reject compliments.
Solutions: How to Combat Impostor Syndrome
Before you tackle impostor syndrome with specific measures, first ask yourself one vital question: Are you really passionate about what you don’t feel competent in? Is your career path really the one your heart is attached to, or are you doing what you are doing just because you think you have to? Be honest with yourself. Do you feel stuck on a path that you actually dread continuing? Then your best solution for overcoming impostor syndrome might be to leave this path for one you actually do want to continue on. This might take a lot of courage, and I’m not trying to tell you to simply quit your job without any plan B worked out. And quite frankly, there is no guarantee changing careers will make you really happy, but do consider your options and try to find a way that works better for you than the one you are on at the moment. Meditate on what you really want and what would make you happy and research ways to get there.
When we are forced (or force ourselves) to do something we aren’t passionate about or even dread or hate, becoming competent in this field is almost impossible. It is hard to remember details about things you are not passionate about. Plus, you are not as motivated to research such things and to spend time on them. If you switch to something that fuels your passion, impostor syndrome might actually dissolve all by itself.
If, however, you already are passionate about the thing you feel incompetent about, then read on and look into the measures you can take to overcome impostor syndrome.
As already mentioned, the root cause of impostor syndrome is an unrealistic, unattainable and unsustainable definition of success and competence. You might not have been aware of this at all, and you might not have brought any consciousness to this aspect of your belief system so far, but this is key to overcoming impostor syndrome.
Without being aware of what you believe, you have no way of changing any aspects of it. Swapping out a limiting belief with an empowering one doesn’t work from one day to the next. It is something you have to work on continuously. Dedicate 15 minutes a day to meditating on the new, empowering beliefs you want to take on, and try to catch yourself in the act when you are falling back into negative patterns of impostor syndrome. You can only overcome impostor syndrome if you reprogram your subconscious mind. To do this, you need to remind yourself several times a day to let go of your limiting beliefs and to take on empowering ones.
You can also track this in a habit tracker and assign yourself a “point” every day you manage to act on your new beliefs instead of the old ones. Overcoming impostor syndrome also means preventing burnout from trying to live up to your own exaggerated standards.
If, for example, you believe that you have to be perfect in everything you do, if you have been a straight-A student when you were in school and if you have thought that you need to carry this behaviour over into your work life, this belief has been with you for years. You can’t just convince yourself from one day to the next that being 100% perfect isn’t necessary, but you have to do it every day and every time you work on something. You could put a post-it note on your computer screen that says “Remember: Nobody is perfect” and, of course, bring more awareness to it in your daily meditation practice.
Perfectionism only holds you back. That doesn’t mean that you should become sloppy in your work because done is not always better than perfect, but try to give yourself a break because “perfect” is quite a subjective and personal concept. Something person A considers to be perfect might be totally inadequate for person B. For example, there is simply no way to design “the” ideal house because everybody has different needs and preferences.
When faced with our own insecurities, we sometimes forget that many people experience the same fear and anxiety. There are countless people out there who try to overcome impostor syndrome, and there are probably even more people who suffer from it who don’t even know that there is a term for how they feel. Unfortunately, our fast-paced, modern society is very success-driven, so that many people – needlessly – feel like there is some sort of stigma attached to impostor syndrome. Thus, they do not talk about it or admit to having it. Knowing that the next person you meet might feel about this just like you do might, however, calm you down in certain situations and help you to release some of your fear.
If you suffer from impostor syndrome, honestly admit it to yourself. Do not try to gloss it over or repress this feeling because it would only cause it to resurface even more intensely. Instead, explore your underlying fear, and try to find out what caused it. Try to pinpoint trigger events from your past and invalidate them. As a child, did you pick up the belief that it is not suitable for a girl to be better at something than a boy? And do you believe today that, as a woman, you don’t beat a man in a tennis match because it would scratch the man’s self-worth and make him dislike the woman for it? To overcome this limiting belief, look for all the examples you can find that disprove this opinion. There is absolutely no reason why a woman shouldn’t be better at something than a man or earn more money than a man. So, if, for example, you fear you won’t be loved by your partner anymore if you excel at something he considers “his” domain, then talk to him about that fear. A partner who loves you will support you and help you overcome this limiting belief.
Besides that, fear is what makes us grow and evolve as a person. Do things you feel uncomfortable with and see how it goes. If you manage them well, attribute it to yourself. If you fail, try again and don’t let it discourage you. We almost always have to leave our comfort zone to make improvements to our lives. If this is something you have never tried before, start out small. Maybe say something nice to that grumpy cashier who annoys you whenever you shop at the grocery store or tell your co-worker that you didn’t like the way they treated you last week, or start even smaller at first.
Another method to overcome impostor syndrome is to brush up on your knowledge in your area of expertise if you feel like this will make you feel more competent. But, and this is especially important for “experts”: Don’t go overboard with it. Read a book on your main topic every once in a while or attend a class, but remind yourself that there is no way of ever knowing everything there is to know about something. Actually, according to the so-called Dunning-Kruger Effect, the more you expand your knowledge about something, the less you feel you know about it. That is because the more you research, the more aware you become of how vast that area of information is. So, if someone who doesn’t know anything about a topic reads one book about it, will feel like a real expert sometimes despite knowing less than 1 percent of the subject. On the other hand, someone who truly is an expert in his field of expertise will feel like he only knows a fraction of what there is to know.
From now on, when someone pays you a compliment, accept it. Don’t add any justifications for why it was easy or that it wasn’t anything special, and so on. Thank them and tell them that you appreciate their feedback. Slowly train yourself to be comfortable when you receive a compliment. Let go of the feeling of awkwardness you attach to receiving compliments.
As someone who suffers from impostor syndrome, you probably feel as if you have achieved nothing at all so far. This is because we tend to forget about our achievements, especially if we don’t think they were significant in the first place. But we usually underestimate the significance of what we have achieved, so take out a notebook and list your successes, even if you don’t regard them as such. You can limit this to the last 5 to 10 years, or you can look at your whole life. List the skills you have learned or expanded that you need for your job, the milestones you have achieved, or even list that you got a job at all if you had not had one before. And don’t limit yourself to just your career successes, but also write down things from your private life. Maybe you have raised your kids to be really great people, or you’ve learned how to fix a computer or how to renovate an apartment without professional help. All these things are things you can be proud of and that you should give yourself credit for.
This process is similar to Vishen Lakhiani’s “Reverse Gap Exercise” mentioned in his book “The Code of the Extraordinary Mind.”3Vishen Lakhiani also has an online course called “Be Extraordinary” on his personal growth platform Mindvalley
This method for overcoming impostor syndrome is primarily for perfectionists and “natural geniuses,” but everybody else can also benefit from it. Having a beta mindset means not expecting something to be perfect right away but being open to criticism. Actually, with this mindset, you not only expect criticism, but you invite it. First drafts are rarely perfect, and of course, neither are final versions, but especially when you show something you have created to someone for the first time, know that there will be criticism.
It is perfectly normal that others criticize your work, and getting feedback from others is actually a good thing. It can significantly improve the final outcome of the project. Why? We all have different experiences throughout life, and thus everybody has a unique view of the world and everything in it. There are no two people who see everything exactly the same way. So, the feedback you receive might come from angles you didn’t think of and wouldn’t ever have thought of because the experiences you have made so far don’t open up this view for you.
Constructive criticism is something you should appreciate, not feel ashamed of. And in any case, you shouldn’t take it personally. Somebody criticizing your work is doing just that – evaluating your work but not you as a person. You are not your work – your work is just something you do, but not something that makes you you. This is especially true if somebody doesn’t offer constructive criticism but simply says, “I don’t like this,” “This is stupid,” “This sucks,” or something along these lines but can’t tell you why or what they would improve. In this case, the other person probably has a problem with themselves, not with your work, and you should let that simply bounce off of you.
And always remember: “Perfect” doesn’t exist, and everything can be the foundation for something even better. Just think of computers from 40 years ago. If you compare them to modern computers, they can’t do much, but back in the day, they were magnificent. We wouldn’t have the technical standards we have today if there had not been someone who started developing and probably failed several times at first. Having the courage to do something despite knowing there will be setbacks is what inspires innovation. Remembering this can really help you to overcome impostor syndrome.
Human beings seem to have a natural tendency to compare themselves to others. We look to our neighbours and compare their house to ours and feel bad if ours isn’t as big or not as luxurious. If we don’t accomplish as much as our co-worker, who seems to complete twice as many projects as we do, we feel bad. But comparing ourselves to others can do nothing but make us feel bad, and that without being necessary at all. Usually, we simply judge by what we see, but we don’t know the whole situation and can’t see the big picture. Maybe your neighbours spent every spare cent on their house and sacrificed other things for it, like going on vacation, eating out, going to the movies etc. And who knows what your co-worker sacrifices for completing all these projects in pursuit of a promotion? Maybe they work extra hours in the evenings or on weekends from home just to achieve the goal they are striving for. But: Would having such a house or getting such a promotion be worth it to you if you had to sacrifice other things? Might these people not actually be unhappy and envy other people for the things they had to give up for their priorities? So really, stop comparing yourself to others. There is no point to it.
Believe in Yourself
Overcoming impostor syndrome is, of course, easier said than done, and I can tell you from my own experience that even after years of starting to combat impostor syndrome, self-doubt will come up sometimes. So, it is crucial that you continuously work on yourself, your beliefs and your mindset because we very easily fall back into old patterns if we stop paying attention to how we feel inside and why we feel how we feel. Meditation and mindfulness techniques are great tools to check in with yourself daily. They help you to become aware of your inner world and to notice in time if you start to drift off your intended path. They are helpful tools to remind you to resume implementing the techniques mentioned here more consciously again. Take care, and believe in yourself.
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