How to get over Impostor Syndrome.
Updated: Mar 18, 2019
Many of us see ourselves as incompetent at work, although the evidence clearly
points to the opposite direction. Perhaps you feel inferior, unworthy of your success and worry that you're inadequacy is going to be"found out"? A common
response to avoid the fear of failure, is to work all hours or over prepare tasks. Success is seen as a result of external causes such as luck or circumstances, over
talent, brains and grit.
This phenomenon has been described in psychological literature as the Impostor Syndrome (IS). Thankfully, there are many ways of overcoming these feelings.
Over time I've noticed there's a tendency for high achieving professionals to perceive themselves as inadequate. Frequently, they believe their colleagues idolise them as
fantastic leaders with almost supernatural abilities. This is clearly an image impossible to live up to, so they never feel qualified, knowledgeable or effective enough. This nagging feeling
of self doubt leads to anxiety and displays itself through over preparing work tasks or
procrastination over a task followed by frenzied overwork.
Successes are not internalised but often dismissed as being due to external factors, such as
luck and circumstances out of their control. Objective evidence and praise for their abilities is
brushed off and instead focus is on shortcomings. Frequently, they compare themselves to
others and feel inferior. There's often a fear of being found out as being a failure. These
observations are in line with Clance and Humes who first defined the concept back in 1985,
with an addition by Mark Leary (2000) who introduced a self-presentational strategy.
Why do so many of us feel this way?
There seems to be certain criteria that have an impact on people developing IS. The
syndrome affects both men and women, but especially when the individual stand out
(Hendriksen, 2017). Studies have shown that women are typically more affected and likely to
suffer the consequences (Young, 2011). I found this particularly true for women working in a
male dominated field or taking STEM courses at university or not matching the majority of
the main culture (e.g. due to ethnicity, leaders or individuals labeled as "talented", LGBT,
Dr Christian Janet (2018) explains people are particularly susceptible to develop IS, when
there is a lack of role models to identify with within the family (e.g. a first generation
professional or first in a field). Recent studies have shown that men are also affected but in
general find it harder to open up and talk about it.
"A real bias against female competence persist"Valerie Young, 2011
The upbringing seems to have a major impact on developing the state. Dr Carol Dweck
(2008) explains that parents overpraising children means the children have nowhere to grow.
For example labelling a child as smart, who then make a mistake will question the label, e.g.
you got it or you don't. This in turn decreases their willingness to try new things for fear of
failing. There's also a tendency for perfectionism in individuals affected by IS. Frequently,
they set themselves high and almost impossible standards to reach.
A middle of the line parenting style is preferable, as over involved parents protecting their
children seems to lead to a feeling of inability to perform. Whereas a lack of paternal warmth
and/or supportive friends can also make you vulnerable to the IS state (Hendriksen, 2017).
The good news is that you can take control over this general condition and make a positive
change. Try incorporating some of the following ideas and reflect on how it makes you feel.
12 suggestions to combat the feeling of not being "good enough"
This happens to many people (colleagues, bosses, etc), remember that you are not the only
one. Successful people like Natalie Portman, Neil Gaiman, Meryl Streep and Sheryl Sandberg have openly discussed how they have coped feeling like frauds.
2. Internalise (own your successes)
You deserve to be exactly where you are.
Don’t overpromise on deliverables and focus on the project, not yourself. It does not have to
4. Challenge self-critical thoughts
Introduce more self-compassionate thoughts to replace and silence your negative and
destructive internal monologues.
Positive traits, write down your strengths and keep it to hand, revisit your resume frequently
and acknowledge your achievements.
Make sure you keep a healthy balance, do not tip over into egocentricity, but stay authentic
7. Owing up to mistakes
Do not feel you know everything, you have a lot of room for development. This creates a
culture of risk taking and openness that often builds trust. Admit to your colleagues that you are not an expert in everything. You can learn together.
Try to understand where these feelings of doubt are stemming from and do they motivate
you to do something?
Adopt a growth mindset where you view any mistakes as an opportunity to develop yourself
further. You will add a fresh perspective. If you lack knowledge in a field, invest in training.
9. Seek out a mentor
For guidance navigating intimidating environments.
Sing up to be a mentor, teach colleagues, or new graduates, as it will provide you with renewed confidence in your own abilities and keep your passion alive.
11. Reach out
Tell a trusted friend, colleague or family member how you feel. Just be careful of any
dismissal. Surround yourself with people who appreciate your hard work.
12. Accept compliments
Say a simple “thank you” and work on believing people's compliments. Ironically, the feeling that one is a fraud can inspire greater effort, conscientiousness and improving your practise, leading to more success and promotion. This in turn can trigger another round of impostor feelings with the accompanying feelings of self-doubt, anxiety and can even lead to depression. There's also a risk that you stop asserting yourself or take necessary risks, as you are fixated on not making a mistake.
There's a need to break this negative cycle in order to build up a psychologically healthier
more balanced self. If IS has an obstructive impact on you, try to incorporate some of the
suggestions above into your daily life. Remember that you can make a positive change. Do
not hesitate to reach out to a psychology professional should you require more support. If
you think this blog could benefit someone, please feel free to share this blog.
Clance, P. & Humes , 1985, "The Impostor Phenomenon - Overcoming The Fear That Haunts
Your Success", Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.
Dweck, C., 2008, "Mindset - The New Psychology of Success", Ballantine Books.
Leary, M. R., Patton, K. M., Orlando, A. E., & Funk, W., 2000, The impostor phenomenon:
Self-perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies. Journal of Personality,
Young, V., 2011, "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women", Crown Business.