Have you ever felt like a fake or a fraud in your workplace or graduate program? Worry that other people might “figure you out?” Impostor syndrome is that insecure feeling, deep down inside, that you don’t believe you deserve the job or career you have, despite maintaining high performance. It is that nagging fear that you will be “found out” for not being as smart or as experienced as people think.
I became very fascinated with impostor syndrome after meeting with several highly qualified, bright, and successful clients that felt they managed to “fool” everyone. One example was a Stanford doctoral graduate who worked as an engineer at a big tech company. He would constantly argue that he was not smart enough, and that others would soon discover that he did not belong in the field. Examples of success were quickly downplayed as luck, a fluke, or a result of deceiving others.
Research shows that impostor syndrome is common in high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their successes and instead attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability. Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou once said “I’ve written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
Race and gender are also crucial in understanding impostor syndrome. People from underrepresented backgrounds (i.e. women, people of color, first generation graduate students) are more susceptible to feeling like an impostor. When you do not see others like you in your own profession, it is easier to attribute success to luck instead of merit.
Although imposture syndrome may drive some people to work harder and achieve more, it can also lead to chronic self-doubt, low self-esteem, and burnout. Therefore, it is important to practice ways to overcome these feelings of insecurity.
- Lower your standards of perfection. You don’t have to attain perfection to be worthy of the success you’ve achieved. If you continually set the bar at a level of perfection, you will always feel disappointed. Set the bar at a realistic level so that you don’t always fall short.
- Focus on the unique strengths you bring to the table, not on being perfect at everything. Everyone brings their own unique set of strengths and growth areas to a group. It is impossible for one person to be great at everything.
- Own your own successes. Most people have an easier time focusing on their failures and mistakes, rather than on their accomplishments. It is important to have a balance. Write down a list of things that you have achieved or succeeded at in the last year. These deserve space as well.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. Comparisons are often biased and rarely helpful. I often hear, “but everyone else seems to be doing fine.” This is a false assumption. We often compare our internal insecurities to others external appearance of confidence. You only have access to your own self-doubt so you mistakenly conclude that your self-doubt is more accurate. We are aware of how much we’re struggling, and falsely assume that others are getting by more effortlessly. The reality is that many people are struggling just like you. In addition, we do not compare fairly; we tend to compare our weaknesses to others people’s strengths, leaving us to feel inferior. We say things like, “But I am not as creative as Johnny” or “as efficient as Susan.” Meanwhile, Johnny and Susan may be wishing they were as detail oriented as you are.
- Take more risks. It takes great courage to take on challenges that you fear you will fall short. If you can accept your failures you can succeed much quicker.
- Talk about your own insecurities. We are very good at hiding our insecurities and putting on a mask at work. It is these false displays of confidence that leave our peers feeling alone in their own struggles. When you see someone you respect opening up about their struggles it is easier for us to hold realistic opinions about our own work and feel comfortable sharing about our own insecurities.
- Counseling can help! A therapist can help you with the tools needed to break the cycle of impostor thinking.
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