Little do they know I don’t really belong here…I’m not really qualified…I got lucky—eventually they will find out that I didn’t earn my way here.
A recent study of 3,000 people in the UK found that two-thirds of women and more than half of men have felt like frauds at some point. Earlier research in the US concluded that around 70% of people will have at least one experience like this in their lives. Known as “imposter syndrome,” it often occurs in professional settings but pops up in personal life, too, with individuals secretly fearing that they are not qualified or good enough for the tasks or roles that have been given to them. Example: I have no business serving on this condo board—I don’t know what I’m doing.
Imposter syndrome can trigger anxiety, and when it recurs regularly, it can produce other damaging consequences. It drives some people to overwork, believing that endless effort is the only way they can keep their shortcomings hidden—but such overwork often ruins their personal lives. Others procrastinate, putting off until the last minute tasks that they believe they’re unqualified to do—inevitably causing them to perform below their abilities and reinforcing their fears of inadequacy. There also are those who don’t seek promotions, positions and relationships because they wrongly believe that they don’t deserve them—feeling like a fraud costs these people their chance at success and happiness.
The vast majority of these people actually are perfectly competent. In fact, many are extremely skilled and intelligent. The truth is that they’ve made it through decades of life getting rewarded and promoted rather than being seen as unqualified by the world. People in creative fields and women are especially likely to fall victim. Here’s a six-step plan for learning to accept your competence and overcoming imposter syndrome…
1. Reject the voice telling you that you’re not qualified. The voice of self-doubt is coming from inside you, but it isn’t your conscience or the voice of truth. It’s the voice of fear—fear of failure and a heightened awareness of every possible pitfall before you.
Just because the voice of fear is loud does not mean that it’s right. In fact, most of the time it is wrong—there’s almost never danger lurking in the shadows…just as those footsteps behind you are almost never a mugger. Remind yourself of that fact, and silence the naysayer in your head so you can move forward.
2. Use evidence to challenge your feelings of fraudulence. People who suffer from imposter syndrome tend to remember all of the negative comments and results that they receive but quickly forget the positives to tip the scale in the opposite direction.
Solution: Regularly reread your résumé—it’s a helpful reminder of all that you have accomplished professionally. Think about all of the successful, intelligent people you have worked with and for over the years—if you were a fraud, surely those people would have figured it out. Keep a list of all of the compliments you receive and successes you experience, even minor ones, and review this list regularly as well. Save complimentary notes in a file folder.
3. Discuss your imposter feelings with trusted friends. Not only are they likely to reassure you that you’re not an imposter…some of them probably will confess that they have felt the same way at times.
One reason you feel like an imposter is that you’re comparing the doubt you feel inside your head with the confident exterior everyone else puts on in public. That’s not a fair comparison—remember, you’re putting on a confident exterior, too. Having a friend or two admit that they also sometimes feel like imposters can hammer home a reassuring fact—virtually no one feels fully qualified all the time. And if you do have friends who share this problem, conversations on the subject can be mutually beneficial, reducing your fear that you’ll seem needy if you raise the subject again.
When you were a child, you probably looked at adults and imagined that they knew what they were doing. But when you grew up, there was no magic moment when you suddenly felt as if you had mastered adulthood. That doesn’t mean you’re a fraud—it just means that you made assumptions about those adults when in reality they didn’t actually know what they were doing either.
4. Recast your insecurities. When you experience pangs of doubt, instead think to yourself, This is my mind telling me that it’s time to review the successes I have had…or confirm that I’m ready to face a new challenge. Review your plans and preparations for whatever it is that has you feeling unsure to reassure yourself that you are indeed on track. If you feel confident of your plans, you can safely set these insecurities aside…if not, it’s time to come up with a plan to get back on track. Once you’ve done this, the feeling of insecurity has served its purpose and you can let it go.
Feelings of insecurity sometimes are a sign that you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. That’s a positive thing. If you never leave your comfort zone, you’ll never grow and improve.
5. Stop treating perfection as the goal. Perfectionists define anything short of 100% success as failure—then feel like frauds when the world lauds their 80% or 90% success rate.
Stop forcing yourself to work absurd hours or berating yourself for the partial win that you’re labeling a loss. And accept the fact that there will be some races you don’t win. It can help to read the biographies of successful people—these inevitably detail many moments of insecurity endured along the way. Examples: An editor told a young Walt Disney he lacked imagination…and Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job in television. Each one might have questioned their abilities or decided that they just weren’t good enough to pursue their dreams. Looking at it from the outside, you know that would have been ridiculous. The same is true when doubts come your own way. Moments of negative feedback do not erase your longer-term abilities and successes.
6. Don’t attribute your successes to outside forces. Imposter syndrome sufferers often chalk up their victories to luck, teammates or other external forces rather than giving themselves and their abilities the credit. If you were prepared to capitalize on your opportunities or you surrounded yourself with a skilled team, that doesn’t mean you’re a fortunate fraud—it means you’re savvy.