I’ve been having trouble getting started on this article. You see, I suffer from Impostor Syndrome: that nagging feeling that no matter the evidence to the contrary, I’m just not good enough. For me, the sticking point with the article is research. Despite 49 years of personal experience, I just don’t feel that I’m well enough informed about the topic to actually start writing. If I’m being real with myself, however, I must acknowledge that the point of knowledge mastery will never come. At some point I have to embrace that incomplete knowledge is good enough.
Time to plunge in and see what happens. You be the judge: do I know what I’m talking about?
One definition of Impostor Syndrome describes it like this: “At its heart, the impostor syndrome… refers to people who have a persistent belief in their lack of intelligence, skills, or competence. They are convinced that other people’s praise and recognition of their accomplishments is undeserved…. Unable to internalize or feel deserving of their success, they continually doubt their ability to repeat past successes. When they do succeed they feel relief rather than joy,” (Young, 2011). Pauline Clance is credited for heralding the existence of the syndrome with her 1985 book The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success. Sakulku and Alexander (2011) state that nearly 70% of people will experience the Impostor Syndrome at some point in their lives.
Symptoms of the syndrome include feelings of incompetence, worry about being “found out,” and trouble with achievement, including discounting one’s successes and difficulty receiving praise.
When we are in the grip of the Impostor Syndrome, there are many mechanisms that we use to cope. Over-preparing is an old standby. That’s the one I’ve been caught up in trying to get this article written. I keep doing research, and though I find little new material in each new source I peruse, I keep thinking that I need to know more.
Playing small is another symptom of Impostor Syndrome. By keeping a low profile, we don’t expose ourselves to the judgment of others. This poses the obvious benefit of making it less likely that we will be discovered as impostors. Somewhere we have unconsciously decided that we would rather be rejected for not playing the game (or at least not fully participating) than for giving our all and failing. The latter would be too painful and would put us at risk of our primary fear of being found out.
Those with Impostor Syndrome easily fall into patterns of procrastination, or, when we do rally our resources to start projects, we often leave them incomplete. Again, I think this relates to picking our poison: we’d rather fail for lack of effort than for lack of competence. Go ahead, call us lazy, just don’t call us an impostor.
The three previous symptoms fuel a fourth: self-sabotage. This is the inevitable result of indulging in procrastination, playing small, and over-preparing. We undermine ourselves by engaging in unproductive behaviors.
So, what is to be done about Impostor Syndrome? The first step to overcoming any problem is to develop a keen awareness for the issue. If you suffer from Impostor Syndrome, then hopefully this article has already provided some perspective by helping you see that you’re not alone. Gaining insight into the origins of the problem can also be illuminating.
There are three key places to look to:
- Culture and upbringing
- An over-active defense mechanism
While the Impostor Syndrome may seem rather pernicious, there are several specific things you can do to overcome Impostor Syndrome.
First do a reality check. Is your ‘syndrome’ actually rooted in a well-founded cause? Sometimes we legitimately get anxious when taking on tasks that are new to us. That’s okay, and it’s an expected part of the learning curve. But don’t mistake the anxiety you feel around your competence in new areas as Impostor Syndrome. So, the first question: Is it real?
Next, embrace failures as opportunities to learn. Some people believe that the only true failure is the failure to learn. When we fall short of our expectations, that’s always hard, but emphasize the benefit of what the situation has to teach you.
If you’re suffering from Impostor Syndrome, chances are that you do not give yourself credit where credit is due. You probably have really high standards. Ask yourself, if someone else achieved what you did would you give them credit? Many people hold lower thresholds for other people. Treat yourself like you’d treat a good friend or a child who you are trying to encourage. If you deem something a success by this criteria, make sure that you are celebrating it.
2) Acknowledge that Imposture Syndrome is a limiting belief
Impostor Syndrome is a particular form of limiting belief. A limiting belief is a belief that that no longer serves us. Because many of our beliefs emanate from our unconscious, they are hard to identify and to update when new, conflicting information becomes available. I’ve written a workbook on how to discover and change your limiting beliefs which you can get here.
3) Make mindset shifts
Embrace Failure. As I mentioned earlier, one important shift in perspective is to embrace failure. Failure is a critical and unavoidable part of the learning process. You can’t learn to walk without falling. One basketball player noted, “On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot… and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed.” That was Michael Jordan. If you’re not failing often enough, then it may be because you’re not putting yourself out there enough.
Permanent Beta. The concept of permanent beta embraces the spirit of failure. Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn co-founder) and Ben Casnocha coined the term. Beta testing is a term from the IT industry referring to the phase of testing where the intended audience tries out the software. To be in permanent beta is to acknowledge that you are never a finished product, that you will never achieve the highest state of readiness that you are capable of, and that showing up imperfectly is better than not showing up at all.
Hoffman and Casnocha quoted a Jeff Bezos letter to Amazon employees in explaining the concept of permanent beta: “’Though we are optimistic, we must remain vigilant and maintain a sense of urgency,’ [Bezos wrote]. In other words, Amazon is never finished: it’s always Day 1. For entrepreneurs, finished is an F-word. They know that great companies are always evolving. Finished ought to be an F-word for all of us. We are all works in progress.”
Drive Out Perfectionism. Perfectionism is often at the root of the Impostor Syndrome. Several mindset shifts can address perfectionism: realistic thinking, perspective taking, looking at the big picture, and compromising (anxietyBC.com). These mental activities will help you to shift perspective and to set more realistic expectations. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help with these shifts in mindset:
- What would be a more realistic expectation of what I can hope to accomplish?
- How might someone else view this situation?
- What is the worst that could happen?
- What level of imperfection am I willing to tolerate?
4) Take action
One of the best techniques for defeating Impostor Syndrome is simply to take action. The syndrome is often rooted in an over-active defense mechanism that protects you from the perils of trying too hard. But what you need to overcome the internal logic of the defense mechanism is evidence that the mechanism has it wrong: you need to try and to succeed. Begin by setting up small experiments to test that logic. Take some baby steps and pay careful attention to the results. Initially, these experiments should be designed to allow you to succeed and to start demonstrating to yourself that your defense mechanism is telling you lies.
As you achieve success, starting initiating greater challenges. Use all of the advice above: reflect on your experiences, use the techniques for overcoming limiting beliefs, embrace failure and permanent beta. As I note in the Banishing Limiting Beliefs Workbook, at first, you will feel discomfort as you push yourself out of your comfort zone. Embrace this feeling: it’s a sign that your brain chemistry is changing. Push past that pain. As you build up the evidence against the syndrome’s logic, it will eventually start to quiet down, and you can ride that momentum to a level of success that your inner impostor could never dream about.
I hope that you’ve found this article informative and that you can put to use some of the tips for challenging your Impostor Syndrome. If you found something valuable included here, I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know. I’d love to shove it in the face of the voice of my Impostor Syndrome.
Clance, Pauline (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success. Peachtree Publishers, Ltd.
Hoffman, Reid and Ben Casnocha (2012). The Start-Up of You. Crown Business New York.
Salkulku, Jaruwan and James Alexander (2011). The Impostor Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6 (1), pp. 73-92.
Young, Valerie (2011). The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Sufer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Crown Business New York.