Eight out of 10 adults experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. Described as an ‘internal psychological experience’, it’s often characterised by chronic feelings of self-doubt and incompetence, and a fear of being ‘found out’ – despite success or achievement in one or more life areas.
For many people, these feelings last for a short time, such as in the first few weeks in a new job or as a new parent; for others, the experience can be lifelong.
So, what causes imposter syndrome?
According to psychologists, many who experience imposter syndrome grew up in families that emphasised and praised achievement, with overprotective parents, or in a high-conflict environment that offered little emotional support.
Societal pressure to achieve adds to the problem; and the advent of social media has made it easier for people to constantly compare themselves to others.
While imposter syndrome occurs in people of all backgrounds, ages and genders, experts say the phenomenon is more common in high achievers who are highly sensitive.
Why is imposter syndrome a problem?
It often goes hand in hand with perfectionism; and it’s linked to anxiety, physical and emotional exhaustion, chronic stress and even depression. Because ‘imposters’ (those with imposter syndrome) worry that others will discover them to be a fraud, they often suffer in silence.
Imposter syndrome can negatively impact relationships and prevent individuals from reaching their full potential.
Professional life: Self-doubt can stir up fear, anxiety and stress. Imposters often procrastinate; they find it difficult to ask for help; and in their effort to do things ‘perfectly’, they tend to overwork, which can lead to burnout. They typically experience lower job satisfaction, which may impact their performance. Workplaces that lack diversity, thrive on competition and have poor communication amplify imposter syndrome.
Relationships: Because imposters feel insecure and unworthy of attention or affection, they find it difficult to maintain strong connections at work and in their personal lives. They tend to keep their walls up and don’t talk about how they’re feeling, and they may push others away because of their fear of rejection. Overworking can blur their work-life boundaries, which may cause further tension in their relationships.
Think you may have imposter syndrome?
Most of us can say that we’ve experienced a moment of self-doubt at some point in our lives, but if you persistently feel undeserving or like you’re not fitting in, you could have imposter syndrome.
Common signs of imposter syndrome include:
Fear of failure and/or fear of success
Crediting luck (or other external factors) for success
Feeling unworthy of affection
Setting unrealistic goals
Delaying starting or finishing projects
Avoiding feedback at work
7 Ways to stop feeling like a fraud
While it can be frustrating, and debilitating at times, imposter syndrome is not a mental health disorder. A personal experience, it’s linked to thought patterns, self-perception and feelings – which means you can learn to manage and overcome it. Here’s how:
#1 Become self-aware.
Acknowledging that you feel like an imposter is the first step in overcoming it. Learn to recognise the signs of imposter syndrome. Monitor your internal critic; ask yourself how you might support a friend or colleague who minimises their achievements in the same way, then apply the same positive language in your self-talk.
#2 Focus on facts.
While you may feel you’re not ‘good enough’, these feelings are based on fear rather than reality. Dwelling on your shortcomings can make small hurdles seem much bigger than they are. Try to take a step back, focus on the facts – not the narrative you’ve created in your mind – and consider your current situation in a broader context. Ask yourself what actually happened; if this will matter in a week, or a year; and remember that keeping things in perspective will help keep you grounded.
#3 Let go of perfectionism.
Holding on to the need to be perfect sets you up for failure. Accept that everybody makes mistakes, and don’t be hard on yourself when you do. Instead, try seeing yourself as a work in progress, and your ‘failure’ as an opportunity to learn – in getting things wrong, you’ll develop new skills and build your resilience which, ultimately, will move you toward the success you’re seeking.
#4 Be realistic in your expectations.
Holding yourself to impossible standards for success sets you up to fall short, which can leave you feeling defeated and incompetent. By adjusting your standards slightly, you’ll make it easier to see your success. Rather than focusing on what you can’t do or haven’t achieved, keep track of your progress, which will help keep you motivated and feeling positive.
#5 Celebrate your accomplishments.
While focusing on what you didn’t achieve will amplify self-doubt, celebrating your accomplishments – big or small – will direct your focus to the positives.
Take a moment to reflect on your success and give yourself a pat on the back, call or text a family member or close friend to share your success, or do something just for fun – by acknowledging your win, you’ll start to internalise your success and boost your self-belief. External reminders can help, so keep tangible proof of what you did well. Got an email from your boss to say you did a good job on something? Keep that correspondence to read it again when self-doubt sets in.
#6 Stop comparing yourself to others.
Every time you do, you’re likely to zero in on the qualities you think you lack, which fuels your feelings of ‘not being good enough’. Instead of measuring yourself against others, start practising self-compassion to shift towards self-acceptance. Treat yourself with the same kindness, respect and understanding you’d give to a friend. Make time for self-care and practise daily mindfulness to direct your attention away from negative thinking and decrease emotional reactivity. In becoming less self-critical, you’ll free yourself from limiting beliefs and build self-worth.
#7 Connect with a coach.
Whether you struggle in your relationships, in your professional life or with your wellbeing, a specialist coach can help you leave imposter syndrome behind for good. In providing a safe and objective space, a coach will support you to:
Recognise feelings associated with imposter syndrome
Identify your strengths
Reframe the way you think about your achievements
Provide you with tools and strategies to develop self-belief
Set realistic and achievable goals
Express your feelings
Manage stress & anxiety
If you’re a leader, working with a coach can help you cultivate a culture of inclusion that fosters encouragement and employee wellbeing, and support you to build effective communication across your teams.
Today’s action steps
1. As soon as you have a negative thought about yourself today, stop what you’re doing. Find a quiet place to sit down, close your eyes, take a deep breath and exhale slowly through your mouth. Focus on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Keep doing this for a few minutes to redirect your thoughts and calm your mind.
2. Think of something you accomplished at work or in your personal life this week. For example, you finished a task on time, asked your boss for a pay rise, or dropped your child off at day care without tears. Reflect on why it went well. What did I do differently this time? What strengths or skills did I use? What did I learn? Focus on the key factors that made this a win and think about how you can replicate them in similar future efforts.
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