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Imposter syndrome: how to recognize and overcome it

Are you an imposter? Do you sometimes feel like a fraud? Many of us do.

Running a business can be tough on your self-esteem and confidence. If you’re having a hard time getting work and clients, there can be a lot of rejection to deal with, and it’s easy to start to feel like a loser who just can’t cut it. And even when you have some success and accomplishments, you’d think everything would be hunky dory. But for many people, it’s just not the case.

This is called imposter syndrome. It’s an inability to recognize and internalize your accomplishments despite ample evidence of success. It’s a feeling that you don’t deserve whatever success you have achieved, accompanied by a persistent fear that you’ll be found out to be a fraud. All along, you’ve been succeeding by fooling people that you’re more competent than you are, and sooner or later you’ll be exposed.

Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term in the late 1970s, and it gained more widespread attention thanks to Clance’s 1985 book on the subject. While impostor syndrome isn’t officially a clinical diagnosis, per se, it’s recognized by psychologists as a very real “experience,” as one of its early researchers preferred to think of it.

According to studies, about 70% of us experience impostor syndrome at some point in our professional lives. Though the initial studies looked at women, researchers say that men are likely equally vulnerable to the experience, though they may process it and display it in different ways than women do.

Many of the people who experience imposter syndrome are high achievers who are doing quite well. And because the syndrome is common among these kinds of people—who are outwardly energetic, bright and successful—it often goes undetected. And that’s a problem.

People who fall victim to impostor syndrome tend to dwell upon their mistakes, their failures and negative comments they’ve received from others. If not addressed, it can cause them to be overly cautious about taking advantage of new opportunities for fear of failure, and they can experience an array of negative emotions and mindsets, from low self-confidence, anxiety and stress, to shame and depression.

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Here are some things to look for to see if you’re falling prey to imposter syndrome. Bear in mind that it can manifest itself differently for everyone, but these are some of the common signs:

  • Are you a perfectionist?
  • Do you put in later hours than others at work and try to do more work than others?
  • Do you tend to undermine or disregard your own achievements?
  • Do you have a fear of failure?
  • Do you often discount praise from others?

If these apply to you, then you may be experiencing imposter syndrome. But there are things you can do to counteract it.

Recognize it and acknowledge it

Does your inner voice say things like “I feel like a fraud,” “I must not fail” or “I was just lucky”? When you have these kinds of troublesome thoughts and feelings, know them for what they are and call them out. Even literally say to yourself, “This is impostor syndrome.”

That will help take away some of its power. When you train yourself to recognize the “impostor” voice inside you, you’ll be better able to take it on and defuse it.

Get into the habit of writing down these kinds of disruptive thoughts when they occur. When your inner imposter says to you “I didn’t deserve that praise” or “I’m not good at giving presentations,” jot it down and look at it. It’s probably not true. Being humble is one thing, but fear-inspired self-sabotage is something else.

Beware of perfectionism

Many people who fall victim to imposter syndrome are also perfectionists. Understand that you aren’t perfect. Nobody is. There seems to be a persistent belief that perfectionism is something to be admired. In fact, it’s often more of a problem than an advantage.

For instance, do you often work on a project right up to the deadline, tweaking this and that until it’s…perfect? You probably could have let it go long before that, saved yourself some stress, and had extra time to put towards other projects. Next time, just decide that it’s ready to turn in before you think it’s perfect. Chances are, it’s just fine.

Or do you dwell on the plans of a project or ruminate on a big idea, to the point where it never comes to realization because you were waiting until you got it flawlessly worked out in your mind? If your perfectionism means that your idea never comes to fruition, then it’s hurting your success, not helping.

There’s a difference between trying to do your best and trying to be perfect. The first is attainable; the second is impossible.

Shift your thinking

When you experience imposter-ish thoughts, realize that they aren’t based in reality. To paraphrase a line in Pulp Fiction, that’s just fear messin’ with your head. Here’s how to mess with it right back: recast your thoughts to address the anxiety and inadequacy you may be feeling. Flip these thoughts on their heads, like an Olympic wrestler would. Spin them around so they’re more positive.

If you find yourself thinking things like, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” try reframing it with a more positive spin. “I’m not totally sure what I’m doing, but maybe no one else is either. If they can do it, so can I. Maybe I can just ask someone a few questions to get some clarification about whatever I’m uncertain about.” It’s okay not to know everything. No one does. You’ll see things more clearly when you take all that pressure off yourself.

Recognize your achievements

True imposters don’t have a track record of accomplishments. If they did, they wouldn’t be imposters, would they? They’d be the real deal.

So, make a list of your achievements. It’s likely you’ve accomplished quite a bit—successfully completed academic programs or other training, landed several jobs, maybe you’ve even received awards or promotions.

It’s more difficult to feel like an imposter when you’re looking a list of everything you’ve accomplished.

Realize that you’re not alone

The majority of people who struggle with impostor syndrome are unaware that others have the same thoughts and feelings of inadequacy. Chances are, you’re surrounded by others who suffer from imposter syndrome too.

But you don’t have to go through it alone. Therapists can help, but maybe start by simply talking to someone you trust—a friend, a mentor, a colleague. In addition to recognizing your own achievements, you can also help others by celebrating their achievements and successes, even small ones. Lots of big changes start with small steps and little gestures. Did a colleague just give a killer presentation? Tell them!

It’s also worth noting that if you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, you’re in good company. People who have reported experiencing the syndrome include multiple-award-winning, bestselling writers such as Maya Angelou and Neil Gaiman, acclaimed actors like Tom Hanks (two Best Actor Oscars), Tina Fey, Emma Watson and Michelle Pfeiffer, business exec Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO and former VP at Google) and US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Would you call any of them “frauds”?

So if you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, there’s a lot you can do to overcome it. Start today by beginning to accept and celebrate your abilities, your achievements and your potential to keep succeeding.

Disclaimer

The information and tips shared on this blog are meant to be used as learning and personal development tools as you launch, run and grow your business. While a good place to start, these articles should not take the place of personalized advice from professionals. As our lawyers would say: “All content on Wave’s blog is intended for informational purposes only. It should not be considered legal or financial advice.” Additionally, Wave is the legal copyright holder of all materials on the blog, and others cannot re-use or publish it without our written consent.