What is Impostor Syndrome? 

When something good happens in your life, such as when you get a promotion at work or are accepted into an MBA program, do you pat yourself on the back for the accomplishment or doubt you earned it? Do you fear you don’t belong? If your reaction to success is to question your abilities and fear failure, you could be struggling with imposter syndrome.

A common occurrence, the definition of impostor syndrome is when a person is unable to internalize their accomplishments, doesn’t feel worthy of their successes, and has a deep fear of being exposed as a fraud.


Who Has It?

Most people feel that they are frauds at some point in their careers, and there are times when it is more prevalent. Starting something new such as a job or educational program, can stir up thoughts of inadequacy. Minorities may experience more of it in the workplace, believing they are an outsider and don’t belong. Discrimination in the workplace can compound feelings of rejection, regardless of a person’s credentials. For example, women in male-dominated fields may feel like they aren’t as good as the men. If they’re treated unfairly, those fears may become paralyzing. Let’s look at some examples of imposter syndrome. 


Examples of Imposter Syndrome

You show up to your first day of class, feel lost in the material, and are convinced it’s all a big mistake. You think, “The school should never have accepted me. I’m going to fail miserably.”  

You get a promotion and tell yourself that you just got lucky. You think, “They needed someone to fill the role quickly and didn’t have other options, so they had to pick me.” 

You cringe when someone calls you an expert when they introduce you to lead a workshop. You think, “I just know someone will ask a tough question, and I won’t have the answer.”

You receive an award for your contributions to your field and are convinced they picked the wrong person. You think, “How mortifying. Everyone knows I don’t deserve this award. I can think of many other people who are better than me and more deserving.”

Distorted thoughts and beliefs are the driving force of impostor syndrome. For some people, their belief that they must do everything perfectly prevents them from appreciating the success others believe they deserve and bestow upon them. For some people, it’s a belief that they are not intelligent and capable that paralyzes them when faced with a challenging new opportunity. Any criticism or suggestions for improvement can reaffirm their belief that they are not capable. These thoughts can not only prevent people from experiencing the joy of success but can be debilitating and lead to poor performance. Symptoms of impostor syndrome include anxiety, guilt, shame, low self-confidence, and in some cases, depression. 


Successful People Also Struggle With Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome is so widespread that even people at the top of their fields and all ages experience it. Small and big successes alike can trigger feelings of inadequacy for someone dealing with impostor syndrome. So, while it doesn’t always lead to poor performance, it can sure take away the joy out of work. 

Famous women like Emma Watson, Lena Dunham, and Jodie Foster have discussed their struggles with impostor syndrome. 

English actress, model, and activist Emma Watson discussed her struggles with it in 2013 for Rookie Mag, saying, “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am and what everyone’s expectations of me are. It’s weird — sometimes [success] can be incredibly validating, but sometimes it can be incredibly unnerving and throw your balance off a bit, because you’re trying to reconcile how you feel about yourself with how the rest of the world perceives you.” 

American actress, director, and producer Jodie Foster explained how winning an Oscar for her role in The Accused triggered thoughts of inadequacy during an interview with 60 Minutes in December 1999, saying, “I thought it was a big fluke. The same way when I walked on the campus at Yale, I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back.” 

American actress, writer, director, and producer Lena Dunham discussed how imposter syndrome drove her to work to the point that it was bad for her health in an interview with Glamour in February 2016, saying, “Making my deal with HBO as a 23-year-old woman, I felt that I had so much to prove. I felt like I had to be the person who answered emails the fastest, stayed up the latest, worked the hardest. As much as I loved my job, I really, like, injured myself in some ways. If I had felt like, ‘You’re worthy of eight hours of sleep, not four; you’re worthy of turning your phone off on a Saturday,’ I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of the show. 

I could have worked with a sense of joy and excitement, rather than guilt and anxiety of being ‘found out.’ The advice I would give any woman going into a job if she has a sense of impostor syndrome would be: There will be nothing if you don’t look out for you. And I can’t wait, on my next project, to go into it with the strength that comes from, like, valuing your own body and your own mental health.”


How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Lena’s reflection of her experience with impostor syndrome and her advice for women is a great start for overcoming impostor syndrome. Here are nine concrete steps you can take to deal with impostor syndrome. 

  1. Identify your triggers. Is it when you fail at something, when others congratulate you for your success or when someone criticizes you?
  2. Honor your accomplishments by writing them down, both big and small.
  3. Cultivate a growth mindset so that failure and criticism can be the seeds for growth.
  4. Talk to someone you trust, like a mentor, about your feelings of inadequacy.
  5. Offer to be a mentor to someone with less experience in your office.
  6. Assess your environment. Are you in a supportive workplace where your efforts are validated or a toxic environment?
  7. Confront your fears of failure by asking your mentors and others you admire to tell you about their failures and how they overcame and learned from them.
  8. When you notice a negative thought, such as comparing yourself to others, replace that thought with a compliment to yourself.
  9. Set realistic expectations before a new experience, and give yourself permission to make mistakes.
  10. In situations where you feel powerless or like an impostor, you may notice you’re taking up very little physical space, perhaps crossing your arms or allowing your shoulders to slump. Instead, adopt an expansive posture to occupy more space, such as standing up straight or placing your hands in a superwoman position. This simple act will make you feel more powerful. 

By carrying out these steps, you will cultivate a new mindset that allows you to reach your goals and enjoy your successes along the way.

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