Conquer Impostor Syndrome: A Comprehensive Guide
Last Updated on 19th October 2020 by Freddie Chirgwin-Bell
Have you ever felt like you’re not good at your job? That you don’t deserve your job, your success or your achievements? That people are going to ‘find out’ you’re a ‘fraud’? Well, you’re not alone.
This is a fairly recent discovery, a psychological effect called Impostor Syndrome.
Heard of it? Most people haven’t but it’s getting known.
An estimated 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives, according to an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science.
For most people it’s just a passing temporary feeling. A down moment amongst their usual bed of confidence in their skills and abilities. But, for others, this can be crippling causing a lot of other mental health issues.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is a simple idea. It’s and idea that you may tell yourself.
That you’ve only succeeded and all of your achievements, are due to luck. They’re not your achievements or success through your talent, skills, qualifications, or hard work.
It was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. As they examined their results they found that it affects nearly everyone from almost every industry.
However they also found (and later studies into this have proven) is that it more commonly affects women than men and that there’s also a racial bias because more people from minority groups are likely to get it.
The quickest test to see if you have ever had it, or have it, is by reading the below and then asking “Have I ever said this to myself?”
‘I must not fail’
If you’re telling yourself this, you’re focused on the idea of not failing rather than working towards success.
There can be a huge amount of pressure to not fail in order to avoid being ‘found out.’
Obviously there are going to be big projects or tight deadlines that you may tell yourself this, but we’re talking regularly. Even on smaller projects or tasks.
It can be so bad that success also becomes an issue.
The added pressure of responsibility, keeping your achievements going, and everyone’s eyes feeling like they’re focused on you.
This can lead to you not enjoying success, it becomes almost shameful as you feel you don’t ‘deserve’ it.
‘I feel like a fake’
Do you believe you don’t deserve success? You don’t deserve the praise or admiration of your colleagues or professional awards? You may also be feeling that somehow others have been deceived into thinking you’re good at what you do?
The consequence of all this is that you fear being ‘found out’, ‘discovered’, or ‘unmasked’. That when they discover you’re an ‘impostor’ that you’ll lose their love, respect, friendship etc.
Often you believe you don’t deserve a position or a promotion, or that your knowledge and capabilities have been greatly exaggerated.
This lack of belonging can cause great emotional and mental stress on a person, one desperate to not be ‘found out’.
‘It’s all down to luck’
The tendency to attribute success to luck or to other external reasons and not their abilities is a clear indicator of impostor syndrome.
You may typically say or think: ‘I just got lucky’ or ‘it was a fluke’ usually because you think you will not be able to succeed the next time.
This is a slightly trickier one as no one likes to brag in today’s society, especially in the UK where humility is prized. However, if you start genuinely believing it for everything you have achieved, that’s where the issue is.
‘Success is no big deal’
The tendency to downplay success is classic impostor syndrome. Again this is another common British trait, but when you start telling yourself that and believing it, that’s the ‘impostor’ talking.
You might attribute your success to it being an easy task or having support and often have a hard time accepting compliments.
Instead of celebrating and enjoying your achievement, you think your success is down to luck, good timing, or just others not understanding fully what you’ve done.
If you have told yourself any of these, or are telling yourself any of these statements regularly then you may well be having impostor syndrome.
So why do people experience impostor syndrome?
There’s no single answer. Some experts believe it has to do with personality traits—like anxiety or neuroticism—while others focus on family or behavioural causes.
Factors outside of a person, such as their environment or institutionalised discrimination, can also play a major role in spurring impostor feelings.
‘A sense of belonging fosters confidence,’ says Valerie Young, leading expert in Impostor Syndrome. ‘The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.’
This is especially true ‘whenever you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence,’ Young adds, including racial or ethnic minorities, women in STEM fields or even international students at universities where the language isn’t their native tongue.
Whilst it’s easy to just provide a blanket definition there are in fact different types of the syndrome for different people. Valerie Young identified five different types based off of how people work in different environments.
Before you can fix the issue you have to understand what kind of issue you have, so which one are you?
The Types of Impostor Syndrome
There are five types of impostor syndrome, each one is different and each one has a different solution. Now while you may not identify 100% with a particular type, if you match 70% and above, then that’s the type to work with.
The key here is to identify the type of impostor you are only, not to beat yourself up or deride yourself over it.
Perfectionism and impostor syndrome often go hand-in-hand. That’s why it’s the most common form of this issue.
Think about it: Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach a goal, they experience major self-doubt and worry about measuring up.
It’s also the one most commonly self-diagnosed, with many people, maybe even ourself commenting of ‘how much of a perfectionist you are.’
Whether they realise it or not, this group are most likely control freaks, feeling like if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves.
If they’re managers they often have a tendency to micromanage with difficulty handing tasks over.
Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:
- Have you ever been accused of being a micromanager?
- Do you have great difficulty delegating work? Even when you’re able to do so, do you feel frustrated and disappointed in the results?
- When you miss the extremely high standard you set yourself on something, do you accuse yourself of ‘not being cut out’ for your job and think about it for days afterwards?
- Do you feel like your work must be 100% perfect, 100% of the time?
For perfectionists, success is rarely satisfying. They’re always criticising or downplaying their work believing they could’ve done even better.
This is not productive or healthy. Owning and celebrating achievements is essential if you want to avoid burnout, be happy with your work, and cultivate self-confidence.
Are you a hard worker? Or more accurately, do you work hard but never think it’s enough? Are you the one who’s first in and last out every day?
This type of impostor thinks that because they are ‘fake’ that the only way to ever achieve ‘real’ status or even just to cover up their ‘fakeness’ they have to work harder and longer than everyone else.
But this is a cover-up for their insecurities. These people work and work and work and work. As you can imagine this can quickly lead to burnout. Burnout is very common amongst a lot of people, especially office workers whose jobs are based on their own thinking and setting their own goals.
This overload may harm not only their own mental health but also their relationships with others.
Not sure if this applies to you?
- Do you stay later at the office than the rest of your team, even past the point that you’ve completed that day’s necessary work?
- Do you get stressed when you’re not working, often taking work home, and find downtime completely pointless?
- Have you stopped doing activities and hobbies you enjoy because you don’t have the time because of work?
- Do you feel like you haven’t truly earned your title (despite numerous degrees and achievements), so you feel pressed to work harder and longer than those around you to prove your worth?
These kinds of workaholics are actually addicted to the validation that comes from working, not to the work itself.
If you’re seeking praise for your hard work, thinking that it will prove your worth then this may be an issue.
The Natural Genius
Have you ever been told ‘You’re really smart’ or ‘You’re really good’ even though you’ve done very little effort to achieve that? Then you may be this type of ‘impostor’.
Young says people with this competence type believe they need to be a natural ‘genius.’ As such, they judge themselves not by the difficulty of work but by how easily and quickly they can do it.
In other words, if they take a long time to master something, they feel shame. If something starts becoming difficult for them and they have to work hard to struggle through it, they feel like a fraud.
Exactly like perfectionists, the natural genius sets the bar ludicrously high.
They don’t just judge themselves based on ridiculous expectations, they also judge themselves based on getting things right on the first try.
When they’re not able to do something quickly, easily or on the first try, their alarm sounds.
Not sure if this applies to you?
- Are you used to excelling without much effort?
- Do you have a track record of getting ‘straight A’s’ or ‘gold stars’ in everything you do?
- Were you told frequently as a child that you were the ‘smart one’ in your family or peer group?
- Do you dislike the idea of having a mentor, because you can handle things on your own?
- When you’re faced with a setback, does your confidence tumble because not performing well provokes a feeling of shame?
- Do you often avoid challenges because it’s so uncomfortable to try something you’re not great at?
If you’re this kind of impostor you’re going to take any form of struggle, let alone failure hard. If someone provide constructive feedback you’re going to take it very personally, maybe even seeing it as a dig at your intelligence or your ability. It’s not the case, you can’t be good at everything all at once.
These are the MacGyver’s, the one man/woman army that does it all. They’re similar to the Superwoman/man type earlier, except, they don’t play well in a team. In fact they prefer to be alone.
Sufferers who feel as though asking for help reveals their phoniness are what Young calls Soloists.
While it’s good to be independent, it’s not good or healthy to refuse assistance so that you can prove your worth.
Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you firmly feel that you need to accomplish things on your own?
- ‘I don’t need anyone’s help.’ Does that sound like you?
- Do you frame requests in terms of the requirements of the project, rather than your needs as a person?
If you are the kind of person that feels the need to do it all on their own, not just working hard but getting results without any assistance, then you are a soloist. This often ties in to feeling you don’t belong so you must ‘prove’ your worth by doing it all.
Experts measure their competence based on ‘what’ and ‘how much’ they know or can do. Believing they will never know enough, they fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable.
- Do you shy away from applying to job postings unless you meet every single educational requirement?
- Are you constantly seeking out training or certifications because you think you need to improve your skills to succeed?
- Even if you’ve been in your role for some time, can you relate to feeling like you still don’t know ‘enough?’
- Do you shudder when someone says you’re an expert?
Yes, there’s always more to learn. Working to improve your skills can be great and healthy, but taken too far, the tendency to endlessly seek out more information can actually be a form of procrastination and worse can hinder your progress and success.
Now that you’ve seen the types of impostor you should have a clear idea which camp you fit into. Remember, the whole point of this is to help you understand the issue, so that you can then conquer and defeat it.
How to conquer Impostor Syndrome
First, to be clear, people who feel like impostors are anything but. Your successes and achievements are because of you and your work and your skills.
Just thinking and telling yourself ‘You can do it,’ or ‘You deserve to be here’ won’t lead to conquering impostor syndrome.
Yes they can be useful, but they’re only short term solutions for a bigger problem.
It’s simply not enough to move your mental state to somewhere better.
Why? Because those who don’t have the syndrome think differently about three specific things:
- Failure (which includes mistakes and criticism)
Here’s an example.
Constructive criticism. No one likes criticism, however, what is an accepted necessary evil is we all get this at some point. In fact, constructive criticism is a good thing.
However, those with the syndrome will see it as proof that they’re not good at their job, that they’re fake, that they are ‘impostors’.
All of this leads to fear of failure, fear of being seen as incompetent and fear of being ‘exposed’.
So the core concept of all of this is simple. The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.
However, changing how you think and it slowly changing how you feel, that takes a little time and effort, but use these proven steps to build
Identify and pinpoint your feelings.
The first important step is to recognise that you are experiencing these feelings. We’ve already touched on this by you finding which type of impostor you are.
Awareness is the first step, that way you can understand your feelings. The moment you know and say what it is, you are opening yourself to different possibilities of handling it.
Remember that your experiences are unique, but that people will have gone through similar, so listen as much as talk so that you can help others and yourself.
Talk and Let it out.
There may be many others who share the same fears as you. Even within the same team and the same company.
By sharing your concerns you may find out that you are not in this alone which makes the fear far more bearable. Remember what Valerie Young said: ‘A sense of belonging fosters confidence. The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.’
Seek support from those who identify with your belief and have effectively conquered it. That way you are going to speed up the whole process as well as get to know others.
Understand Failure is Part of Success
A big part of Impostor Syndrome is the fear of failure, as this will lead to being ‘found out.’ It’s okay to be wrong, to fail or to not know everything. No one is an expert in everything or skilled at everything.
Occasionally being wrong or not knowing doesn’t make you fake or non-deserving.
Remind yourself that you will learn more as you progress. Top notch teams sometimes lose, the best players often miss the goal, and there are many businesses that have had spectacular failures.
Evaluate the impact of what could go wrong by asking yourself, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ This will help mitigate the fear.
You should also reframe the failure as an opportunity to learn. No one really knows the outcome, no one can see into the future. The fact that you are trying even when you are unsure makes you admirable and not fake.
Be Kind To Yourself and build Self-Worth.
Accept your success and be kind to yourself. We’re often told to not praise our own successes or blow our own trumpet, however, there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your work and accepting your successes and achievements.
Don’t shy away or dismiss compliments by attributing your success to external factors. Own it! When you feel undeserving, go back and review previous accomplishments or positive feedbacks. Recount the people whom you made a difference to, but also who made a difference to you.
This will help assure you that nobody belongs here more than you do. You are valued, spoken with, consulted, helped and are a helper to others. No one is telling you to be arrogant or have your chest puffed up all the time, but downplaying your success will help no one.
There’s an old phrase your parents or grandparents may have said ‘comparison is the thief of joy.’
It’s true. Comparison can be lethal. There are many famous people out there who are doing similar to what you do and even better. But this is not a justified comparison.
If you don’t measure up against successful people around you, that doesn’t mean you are any less.
Never compare other people’s highs to your lows. Your situation is unique and vastly different than theirs. Remember, these very successful people were in your place once.
It may even seem that some people achieve success effortlessly but the reality everyone is facing a unique set of challenges and struggles, known only to them. Learn to value your own strengths and once you start respecting your own potential, you will soon realize that you have a lot to offer.
Understand the environment and the situation
Us humans have a great ability to remember stressful experiences. It helped us survive for millions of years. So when it comes to a new situation, recalling how you handled and got through past experiences can be extremely useful.
There are going to be lots of situations where you’re not going to be 100% confident, but ask yourself, ‘Do you always feel this insecure and uncertain?’ ‘Has there been a time when you felt good about this?’
Using a bank of experiences and remembering the tips and techniques that got you through, and even the ones that made things worse, will help build your strategy and help you cope, giving you the confidence to proceed.
Chase Your Goals Relentlessly
The best way to beat impostor syndrome is to continue taking action, irrespective of how you feel. By doing this you will not only achieve more, but you will also develop the confidence to overcome and conquer those feelings should they arise in future.
It takes a lot of courage, discipline, and willpower to pursue challenges even when you’re doubtful, even when you don’t want to do it. By exercising this discipline you can understand how to conquer impostor syndrome and excel at your work, being happy with your achievements.
More Tips for Each Type
Mistakes are a perfectionists and the natural genius worst nightmare. However, as we said earlier, failure is part of success and your mistakes will show that you do belong and are constantly learning.
Learn to take your mistakes in stride, viewing them as a natural part of the process. Also, push yourself to act before you’re 100% ready. Force yourself to start the project you’ve been planning for months.
Truth is, there will never be the ‘perfect time’ and your work will never be 100% flawless. The sooner you’re able to accept that, the better off you’ll be.
Supermen/women, natural genius, and soloists, you need to start training yourself to veer away from external validation.
No one should have more power to make you feel good about yourself than you—even your boss when they give your project the stamp of approval. On the flip side, every type should learn to take constructive criticism seriously, not personally, benefitting from the lessons you learn.
As you grow your self worth you will be able to nurture your inner confidence that states you’re competent and skilled, you’ll be able to ease slow down and do more, even as counter productive that sounds.
For experts and natural genius types, start practising just-in-time learning. This means acquiring a skill or knowledge of a subject when you need it–for example if your responsibilities change or are tasked with a brand new project–rather than hoarding knowledge for false comfort.
Using this style of CPD is really useful in rapidly changing industries as you need to keep your knowledge fresh of the things you use every day. So when you need it, learn about it. If you keep needing it then it becomes and expertise that you can use and develop further.
Soloists and superwomen/men! Realise there’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. If you don’t know how to do something, ask a co-worker. If you need help with a project or a task, ask. If you need time off to recover and get yourself back in order, ask your boss. If you can’t figure out how to solve a problem, seek advice from a someone who’s done it before, a supportive supervisor, or someone else.
To move past this syndrome the best thing is to see yourself as a work in progress. Accomplishing great things involves lifelong learning and skill-building. It involves mistakes and asking for help. That doesn’t mean you’re an impostor, it means you’re the real deal.
Rather than beating yourself up when you don’t reach your impossibly high standards, identify specific, changeable behaviours that you can improve over time.
No matter the specific profile, if you struggle with confidence, you’re far from alone. To take one example, studies suggest 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their career.
If you’ve experienced it at any point in your career, you’ve at one point or another chalked up your accomplishments to chance charm, connections, or another external factor. How unfair and unkind is that? Take today as your opportunity to start accepting and embracing your capabilities