The voice inside your head nags you that you’re not good enough or qualified to be doing what you’re doing. “You don’t deserve this success,” it continues. “What right do you have to be here?” and “They’ll figure out you’re a fraud sooner or later,” and “You don’t have imposter syndrome, you’re just an imposter.”
Yet, you’re successful. Promotions, awards, publications, large feats … How can this be? In your mind, your achievements don’t make sense when you consider the lack of training, experience, and intelligence that you estimate of yourself.
If this scenario seems familiar to you in any way, you may be dealing with imposter syndrome. It happens most commonly in high-achievers—they experience extreme self-doubt, think they don’t live up to their role, and aren’t capable or intelligent enough to do their job, despite all evidence pointing to the fact that they very much are.
People who suffer from this syndrome live in constant fear of being exposed, called a fake, and discovered as inadequate. This is because they really don’t believe they deserve the success they have, and usually attribute it all to luck or a huge mistake. They think that eventually, someone will find out that they lacked the skills and talents needed for the job and they will be replaced. In the meantime, they don’t feel like they belong, no matter how much proof there is to support their worth.
While imposter syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis, the phenomenon was coined in 1978 by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Today, psychologists and mental health professionals acknowledge its prevalence and the stress it can cause. There are many other consequences that can come with imposter syndrome, including:
- Feelings of anxiety and depression: The constant feeling that you’re not living up to expectations can induce negative thought patterns, sadness, anxiety, and depression.
- Procrastination: You can’t focus because you’re consumed by the fear that you will be discovered as a fraud.
- Being underpaid: If you don’t believe that you’re worth it, you won’t feel comfortable charging your worth, no matter how much training and experience you have (or how much others in your industry are charging.)
- Loss of clients or jobs: If your feelings of insecurity and inadequacy are apparent (and they usually are,) your lack of confidence will cost you clients and jobs time and again.
Do you recognize any of these patterns in yourself? If so, it’s time to deal with it. Here are the steps you need to follow to free yourself from imposter syndrome, once and for all.
1. Become Aware of Your Imposter Syndrome
You can’t overcome imposter syndrome overnight. Typically those afflicted have been struggling with it for years. The first step is a small one—but oh so important.
Next time you’re given a compliment, promotion, or award, pay attention to your:
- Internal dialogue: What do you tell yourself? If you feel like you weren’t responsible for the achievement, take note.
- External reactions: Are you offering gratitude to receive the award, or are you showing everyone that you don’t think you deserve it?
If feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, or diminishing the accolade come into play, observe it happening and recognize:
- What it is: Imposter syndrome
- What it is not: Reality
2. Share Your Thoughts and Fears
Tell someone about these feelings of self-doubt and self-worthiness—your significant other, a therapist, a mentor, a coach, a friend. When you share this feeling with others, they can help you ground what is true and what is not. If you’ve convinced yourself that the only reason you got a promotion was because you charmed your boss into giving it to you, your confidante can shed some light on the other achievements you’ve made and skills you have to deserve the promotion.
Anyone that can help you unground your negative self-assessment will help you take a step to overcome your imposter syndrome.
3. Know You’re Not the Only One
Imposter syndrome plagues many successful people. It can be lonely living with the fear that you’re about to be exposed as a fraud at any minute. Just knowing that there are many others struggling with the same thoughts and feelings can help it feel less lonely.
In fact, studies say that up to 70 percent of people have struggled with imposter syndrome at some time in their lives. You have likely had teachers, bosses, mentors, and others you respect that also think they are less-than. It’s an epidemic—especially in our competitive, achievement-obsessed culture. It affects women and those who grew up in a household of high expectations more than others.
Imposter syndrome affects CEOs, actors, writers, surgeons, managing partners, and former (likely not current) presidents of the United States. It affects famous people, many of whom you would least expect:
- Maya Angelou, an author of (only) 11 successful books, a poet, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a three-time Grammy award winner, has shared that “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'”
- Seth Godin, bestselling author of 18 books wrote in “The Icarus Deception” that he still feels like a fraud.
- Natalie Portman, award-winning actress and Harvard alumni described her experience with imposter syndrome in a commencement speech, “I felt like there had been some mistake … that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company.”
When you begin to learn about all of the highly successful people afflicted with fear of being discovered as a fraud, feelings of inadequacy, and all of the other unhelpful elements of imposter syndrome, it makes you feel less insecure and strange, and more like you’re connected to an incredibly large number of impressive humans.
4. Recognize Perfectionist Tendencies
Many struggling with imposter syndrome spend way more time than necessary completing tasks to perfection, with the fear that if they aren’t perfect, they will be discovered as a fraud.
Learn to celebrate your successes, let go of the non-important details, and enjoy the process. If you feel perfectionism is at the root of your imposter syndrome, try this meditation.
5. Give Yourself a Reality Check
In other words, ground the truth with facts instead of your opinion. Many times those who suffer from imposter syndrome will search for evidence to support their opinion—that they don’t belong and don’t have what it takes.
Next time you notice a self-assessment come into your head, analyze the thought as a thought, not as a fact.
Imagine you are an investigative journalist who must hold a neutral “just-the-facts” attitude. Ask yourself:
- What facts are there to support (make sure you have evidence that can be proven) your success?
- What facts (make sure you have evidence) are there to support your story of not being good enough?
Notice now, if those imposter syndrome thoughts are just ungrounded opinions, or actually true. (Usually you will find that they are not true.)
6. Have a Conversation with Your Inner Voice
As you observe your reactions and behaviors around accomplishment and recognize when the fear of being discovered as a fraud rises, name it. I call mine “Brittany.” Brittany represents when I notice a symptom of imposter syndrome arise—she’s the voice of the inner dialogue that surfaces. Once you name it and recognize it as separate from you, then have a conversation with it. Tell that voice in your head that you appreciate its perspective, but you respectfully disagree. Then you can move on.
“Hey there again, Brittany. I hear what you’re saying, but I actually disagree and now that I’m thinking through this, I totally do deserve that 5-star performance review and 10% raise. I worked my butt off this year. Why don’t you go find something else to do … I’m busy.”
7. Learn How to Accept Compliments Gracefully
When you deny compliments, kudos, and don’t take credit for a job-well-done, you not only deny your own self-worth, but you can also shun those around you. Think about it: When you compliment someone else, it doesn’t feel so good to be pushed away, does it?
Begin to observe your reactions to praise. If you notice yourself replying with things like:
- “What, THAT? Oh that was nothing.”
- “Oh, well, that was nothing compared to what YOU did!”
- “Oh stop, it was all luck,” with a hand in front of you to symbolize “Stop,”
… set an intention to transform your reaction. A small response of gratitude is much more graceful. Try a simple “Thank you,” or “I appreciate that” next time kudos come your way. Then, notice how much better it feels for everyone involved.
8. Practice Self-Acceptance
You don’t have to be perfect to achieve success. As someone with ambitious goals, you have to be mindful of what happens when you stumble along the way or don’t reach the goals with perfection or ahead of schedule.
Observe your tendency to feel inadequate when you fall a smidge behind on something, and breath into a place of acceptance, instead. Recognize that no one is perfect and as long as you learn from your pitfalls, you’re on a strong path to success.
9. Acknowledge Your Awesomeness
You don’t have to shout it from the rooftops, but owning the fact that you achieved, completed, progressed, won, or hit a home run is an important part of the process of overcoming imposter syndrome.
Simply put, stop attributing your success to someone else, luck, or the powers that be. Your talent, intellect, hard work, ambition, and perseverance played large roles in your success. You are quite good at accepting responsibility when things go awry; it’s time to start accepting your role in successes, too.
10. Start a Success Log
Every time you achieve something or receive a compliment:
- Write it down
- Date it
- Note who was involved
- Comment with one reason why you deserved the win
This will help you recognize your part in your achievement, and let go of the idea that your success was all an accident or miracle.
You can refer to your success log each time your feelings of imposter syndrome show up and get in the way.
11. Celebrate Your Accomplishments
If you’re good at something—especially something that is difficult for the majority of humans—why not celebrate it? Those suffering from imposter syndrome not only fear that they will be found out, but they completely bypass the triumphant process of winning and enjoying their accomplishments. Instead of questioning the reason behind your success, go to happy hour, make a reservation at your favorite restaurant, or grab a friend and do something you love to do.
Because you actually DON’T have everyone fooled. You’re just good at what you do. Cheers.
Join my monthly newsletter!
If you loved this article, join the monthly newsletter — featuring tips and reflections on leadership development and stress management in the modern world. Join the 5,000+ leaders who have it delivered straight to their inbox each month.
Join my monthly newsletter!
If you’re an executive, leader, or entrepreneur, you’ll love Melissa’s monthly newsletters.
As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.