Have you ever had the feeling that you don’t belong in the place where you are?
Do you feel like you don’t deserve the things you have and the position you’ve attained?
I have, and it’s definitely a strange and quite uncomfortable feeling. There’s always something in the back of your mind that tells you any day; they’re going to kick down the door and drag you away.
They’ll find out you’re a fraud.
This is imposter syndrome, and it affects a lot more people than you might think.
It’s often caused by low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety, though it actually might be the first sign to a person who feels like a fraud that they have one of these characteristics.
Is it possible to overcome imposter syndrome?
Most experts agree that this condition can be managed and even conquered by taking the right steps, like developing new habits for genuine self-assuredness.
So, if you’ve ever felt like an imposter, I’m happy to say that it’s something that you can work past.
The specter of imposter syndrome
If you’ve ever heard the classic song Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads, you may have noticed what I think is a great description of imposter syndrome:
“And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?””
In fact, in a later stanza, the singer denies all association with any of these things that others might see as the rewards of a successful life.
And that’s what the syndrome is all about.
One academic description sums it up nicely:
“Individuals cannot internalize their success and subsequently experience pervasive feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and/or apprehension of being exposed as a fraud in their work, despite verifiable and objective evidence of their successfulness.”
What we see in imposter syndrome has two main elements. The first is self-doubt of intelligence or capabilities, and the second is fear of being discovered.
Both of these elements can be very uncomfortable to live with and take a toll on the sufferer’s confidence and happiness.
Imposter syndrome characteristics
How do you know if you or someone you know is experiencing imposter syndrome? In addition to a strong feeling of being a fraud, it’s also common to see the following characteristics in affected people.
People with imposter syndrome often fear taking on tasks and responsibilities that they worry they can’t see through.
So when these are thrust upon them, they often procrastinate, perhaps in the hope that they might somehow go away or be taken over by others.
In the end, they do what they have to, usually leaving it to the last minute. They, therefore, rush and feel tremendous stress, worrying even more that they’ll be found out as frauds who couldn’t even get their work done on time.
Perfectionism and super-heroism
Another common reaction to being given tasks is to obsess over them.
People try to be the very best and do things to an impossibly perfect level.
In this way, they’re actually trying to hide what they see as a lack of their own skills and competence behind some tasks they can actually do superbly well on.
Fear of failure
This is a huge element of imposter syndrome. When people doubt their own intellect and abilities, they fear others will eventually find out that they’re inept.
So they live in constant fear that they will fail and everyone will see them for what they really are.
They may have succeeded before by what they see as luck, and now they’re afraid they won’t be able to continue that success.
They’re driven by this fear of failure, which, ironically, often leads to more successes that they feel they don’t deserve.
Fear of success
The other fear so often seen in people with imposter syndrome is a fear of success.
This makes perfect sense from their perspective.
They’ve already miraculously landed in a position or a role they feel they don’t deserve, and if even more successes are attributed to them, they’ll feel like even more of a fraud.
So they don’t want to fail or succeed.
Denial of ability
A final piece of the imposter syndrome profile is a lack of self-confidence that’s expressed in actual denial of their abilities.
People will actually say things like “I don’t deserve this,” “I don’t belong here,” and “If I can do it, anyone can.”
They ignore other people’s objective assessments of their abilities and accept only their own subjective assessment that they are not good enough.
Where does imposter syndrome come from?
The key to overcoming this syndrome is to figure out what causes it. Where does it come from, and why does it manifest in some people?
People who suffer from this phenomenon feel that their successes always come from chance, external help, or anything besides their own skills and efforts.
There is good reason to believe that imposter syndrome is related to family expectations. People with overprotective parents or parents who expect high academic results are more likely to develop this phenomenon.
Women and people of minority populations also experience higher rates of imposter syndrome. It’s possible because they don’t see as many people like themselves in higher positions, they might feel like they, too, don’t belong.
Develop these five habits for genuine self-assuredness
If you feel like you have imposter syndrome and you want to overcome it, you’re not alone.
No one wants to live in this anxious state of worry that they’ll be discovered as a fraud.
So here are some habits you can develop to build your self-confidence and help you see your own successes more objectively.
1) Talking to others about your feelings
One great habit that really helps people with imposter syndrome is talking to others about your feelings.
You might choose to talk to a friend or family member, a support group, or even a therapist.
Sharing your feelings with others is a way to unburden yourself, but also a good way to gain some perspective. The other people you talk to might also have similar feelings, and you’ll probably find that you think their feelings of unworthiness are unwarranted.
Well, guess what?
They think the same thing about yours.
Another great person to share your experiences with is a mentor who has passed through the same situations, whether they are academic or at work.
This person knows what’s needed to succeed and get to where you are because they’ve done it themselves, so their assessment of your actual skills and abilities is going to be very useful.
By developing the habit of getting outside of your own head and talking to others, you’ll find a more accurate and realistic picture of yourself and what you really deserve.
2) Reframing negative self-talk
People with imposter syndrome are constantly bringing themselves down with negative self-talk.
They say to themselves, “You’re not good enough,” and “You don’t deserve to be here.”
And the problem with self-talk is that we tend to believe it more than what we hear from other people.
So, while you might get external praise, you focus much more on your internal criticism.
So one way to change this is what psychologists call “reframing.”
Take a negative statement like, “I won’t get this job.”
Going into an interview with this belief is going to damage your chances of getting it and turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So reframe this negative statement into something positive like, “I will get this job.”
This is a simple example that makes reframing sound too easy.
The truth is that it’s a simple solution but not an easy one – it takes a lot of effort.
You have to constantly remind yourself to make these positive statements daily, hourly, (minutely?), to counteract and expel the negative self-talk that has been doing you so much damage.
3) Increasing objectivity
When experts look into imposter syndrome, they find that most people who have it are experiencing an internal issue that has little basis in objective reality.
So, if you want to overcome this problem, start being more objective about it.
I don’t mean you should just go ahead and accept any words of praise thrown your way as gospel – those could be equally subjective.
Instead, why not turn your energy to actually measuring things and collecting data?
Actually, finding evidence of your performance and comparing it to others will probably show you that you’re where you are for a reason.
If you feel like you got into medical school through sheer luck, go back and look at your grades, then find the average grades that others have received for admissions. You’ll see real proof that you’re there for a good reason.
What about the salary you think is disproportionate to your actual value?
Go ahead and research how much people with your background and in your position make.
I doubt you’ll find you’re getting paid way more than you should be, even if it feels that way!
After you do some research, you’ll get a much better and more objective sense of your own skills and abilities and how they compare to those of others.
4) Changing your mindset
As a sufferer of imposter syndrome, you likely focus on two things: the feeling you’re not good enough and the fear that you’ll be found out.
But by changing your mindset, you can take power over the negative situation you currently find yourself in.
So you think you’re not good enough to be in the job you’re in?
Great, use that to your advantage.
Take a course to try to gain knowledge and expertise. Look at this feeling as an opportunity that will stimulate you to learn and grow.
What about if you don’t think you deserve less money than you’re taking in?
Wonderful – then use this opportunity to give more away to charity, or even take it a step further and set up your own charity project.
Either way, changing your feelings about the situation you find yourself in can bring positivity into your life and help you feel like a better, more deserving person.
5) Focusing on gratitude
Imposter syndrome, with its associated fear of being found out, causes people to focus their attention in the wrong direction.
It makes you focus on the negatives instead of the positives of your situation.
Why not turn that on its head by focusing on gratitude?
Whether or not you feel you deserve the position, praise, or salary that you’ve attained, you can still feel gratitude for it.
Remember how less fortunate most people in the world are in comparison, and this will help take the focus away from your negative feelings.
Who else has imposter syndrome?
You’d be surprised how many successful people that you might look up to suffer from imposter syndrome.
This famous author and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, became hugely famous in her lifetime. But she still felt that she didn’t deserve her accolades and worried she would be found out. All anyone found from her, though, seems to be inspiration!
Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks has starred in countless box office hits. However, he still sometimes feels like a fraud and wonders when the other shoe will fall. I don’t think it ever will.
Queen of the Monsters Lady Gaga says she still feels like the loser kid she saw herself as in high school. She has to tell herself every morning that she’s a superstar and has fans who love her.
All of us feel out of place sometimes. But imposter syndrome is a seriously skewed understanding of our skills and abilities.
Still, it can be overcome by building up self-assuredness and self-confidence to help you see that you deserve to be where you are.