Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Like your friends or colleagues are going to discover you’re a fraud, and you don’t actually deserve your job and accomplishments? If so you’re in good company !
These feelings are known as impostor syndrome, or what psychologists often call impostor phenomenon. An estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Impostor syndrome affects all kinds of people from all parts of life: women, men, medical students, marketing managers, actors and executives.
What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome—the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, or because their wasn’t someone better available, and not because of your talent or qualifications—was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. In their paper, they theorized that women were uniquely affected by impostor syndrome.
Since then, research has shown that both men and women experience impostor feelings. Today, impostor syndrome can apply to anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and accept their own their successes,” says psychologist Audrey Ervin.
Impostor syndrome expert Valerie Young, who is the author of a book on the subject, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, has also found patterns in people who experience impostor feelings:
- “Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.
- “Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or trainings to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.
- When the “natural genius” has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.
- “Soloists” feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.
- “Supermen” or “superwomen” push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something
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 behavioral causes. Sometimes childhood memories, such as feeling that your grades were never good enough for your parents or that your siblings outshone you in certain areas, can leave a lasting impact. “People often internalize these ideas: that in order to be loved or be lovable, I need to succeed, to be the best.
Factors outside of a person, such as their environment can also play a major role in spurring impostor feelings. “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 American universities.
How to deal with impostor syndrome?
One of the first steps to overcoming impostor feelings is to acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective. Simply observing that thought as opposed to engaging it can be helpful. We can help teach people to let go and more critically question those thoughts.
You can also re-frame your thoughts. A good friend of mine often tells me that the only difference between someone who experiences impostor syndrome and someone who does not is how they respond to challenges. People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or competent or capable than the rest of us,
Which, to me is good news, because it means we just have to learn to think like non-impostors. Learning to value constructive criticism, understanding that you’re actually slowing your team down when you don’t ask for help, or remembering that the more you practice a skill, the better you will get at it can all help.
It can also be helpful to share what you’re feeling with trusted friends or mentors. People who have more experience can reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal, and knowing others have been in your position can make it seem less scary.
Most people experience moments of doubt, and that’s normal. The important part is not to let that doubt control your actions. The goal is not to never feel like an impostor. The goal is to realize…you can still have an impostor moment, but not an impostor life.
What does this mean for me?
For myself, it never has made a lot of sense. I had no reason to be so convinced of my lack of ability, brains or talent. I was raised by a single mother, and had a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with my grandmother. As far as biological family went, that was the extent of it. I never minded, because it never felt like I was lacking. I had adopted aunts and uncles and family friends anywhere and everywhere I looked. Even more, I had a mother who was my best friend, fierce protector and biggest fan, all wrapped up in one larger than life package. We were , and are very different from each other, but as I saw her tackle hurdle after hurdle like some sort of parkour champion of life, I assumed that was what I had to do.
As I got out into the real world, I saw that through no fault of hers, it wasn’t nearly as easy as she made it look. I knew how to do stuff, but not how to show others that I did. Eventually, that morphed into a debilitating fear of failure, masking itself as social anxiety. Now I know it was a combination of things, including, at the very top of the list, some major impostor syndrome. I told myself, and everyone I knew, that I didn’t want to be a business owner, I was fine doing what I was doing. My heart wasn’t in it, but it paid the bills, for the most part. Besides….changing what I was doing wasn’t even remotely something I was willing to do.
Fast forward a few, or ten years. My body decided to make the decision for me. I had to take a good look, and see what I could possibly do that wouldn’t exacerbate my health issues, but that I was able to do, and do well. I have always been comfortable in a support position. It took me forever to realize that supporting someone doesn’t necessarily mean I need to be a subordinate, or even an employee of theirs. I knew how to edit, proofread, do all sorts of little administrative things. So, I offered my services to some writers, and eventually got a referral to a position helping a wonderful business coach with some basic social media, content and general administrative tasks. I have loved every second of it, and before I knew it, I had fallen head first into the land of Virtual Assisting, and sure, it’s not always easy, but my heart, finally is in it.
One of the biggest problems I’ve observed in people starting new jobs and making substantive changes in their careers is not the lack of confidence that comes with feeling like an impostor. It’s overconfidence. Time after time, I’ve noticed that the uncertain ones who watch, listen and grow with the job are the ones who succeed. But the people who land with confident self-certitude? Not so much. They’re too convinced of their own abilities to be open to learning and adjusting.
After a lifetime being my own worst enemy, and my own harshest critic, if I’ve discovered one important tool for success, it’s this: Embrace your inner impostor, so you can waltz toward new challenges that, in the beginning, feel beyond your abilities. My entire business is devoted to helping those working with clients in the midst of upheaval, challenges and change. To help them live their truth, their dreams and their purpose. I’m more certain than ever that at some point, they felt this way too.