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Do you know that sudden feeling you get when you are assigned a new project at work and you think you are in way over your head?
Or when people around you are talking about their careers, and you feel quietly ashamed because you don't think your success measures up?
Maybe you beat yourself up over every mistake you make, or you're sitting in a meeting when you realize it is all going over your head and you aren't worthy of being employed.
It’s as if you have to pretend to be someone else every day because you just aren’t good enough. You probably think that it is just a matter of time before someone realizes you are clueless and fires you.
This is a common feeling called Impostor Syndrome.
Everyone feels it at some point, even people with a doer personality. It’s when you believe you don’t deserve praise for your achievements or the accomplishments you make, even though you put in the effort and hard work.
Impostor syndrome is not an official clinical diagnosis, but medical professionals acknowledge that it is real, and it often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety and even depression.
This condition can impact high achievers who can't accept their success stems from their abilities, and instead attribute it to luck.
Some high achievers who are known to suffer from imposter syndrome include Tom Hanks and Michelle Pfeiffer. Even Maya Angelou, the author of 11 successful books, a poet, a civil rights activist, a singer, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a three-time Grammy award winner, has said “I have written 11 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.”
In this article, we’ll define impostor syndrome, demonstrate two techniques for testing whether or not you’re dealing with it, and then give you a step-by-step plan to help you overcome this condition.
Let’s get to it.
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is a general feeling of self-doubt, uncertainty, or deceit, despite clear proof to the contrary.
These feelings lead to a deep fear of being discovered as a fraud. It often occurs after an especially remarkable accomplishment, like earning a promotion, winning an award, or being accepted to a prestigious university.
This phenomenon was first described in 1978 in an article written by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. While Imes and Clance studied impostor syndrome only in high-achieving women, later studies found that it affects both men and women about equally.
Pauline Clance later went on to write a book, The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming The Fear That Haunts Your Success. Her book offers several insights into why people develop impostor syndrome, ranging from family history to pressure at work. She also presents many case studies that explain the condition and offer some solutions for helping people who are suffering from imposter syndrome.
How to Test to See If You Have Impostor Syndrome
Most people will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. But for some people, it is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed.
There are two great online tools that can help you determine if your impostor syndrome has grown to the point that you need to take action to remediate it.
1. Impostor Syndrome Test by NYMag.com
This tool is a shorter version of the test that was developed by Pauline Clance and published in her book.
It offers a series of nine questions that measure how comfortable you are when you receive praise, and how you think others may perceive your accomplishments.
These questions are given in a format that allows you to respond to a statement depending on how much you relate to it, with answers varying from 1 (not at all true) to 5 (very true). Once you add up your results, you are able to see if you have a low, moderate, or high level of impostor syndrome.
2. Impostor Syndrome Test by PsychTests
This tool starts with a series of seven questions that are similar to the first tool in the sense that you rate from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) how much you agree with the statement given.
This is followed by another set of questions regarding your specific demographics (age, sex, country, ethnicity, etc.), and a series of questions about your experiences (for example, “If you have taken a professional IQ test, what was your score?”) and your job title (“What position do you hold at work?”).
These questions are answered by choosing the response that you best relates to you from a drop-down menu.
This test should take about 10-15 minutes, and the results give you a score from 0-100, with 0 being the lowest level of impostor syndrome and 100 the highest. Along with your results, you will get a short personalized interpretation of your score, including a graph and some additional information on impostor syndrome.
How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
If you find that your feelings of impostor syndrome are significant enough to be causing undue stress, there are things you can do to help decrease these feelings.
Here’s a step-by-step process on how you can proactively reduce your feelings of impostor syndrome.
1. Acknowledge that you have it.
It is first important to acknowledge to you and others that you are suffering from impostor syndrome. Take the tests mentioned above to confirm that this is an issue for you, and then fess up to you and the people you work with about your fraudulent feelings. It can be extremely freeing to be able to name your feelings.
As soon as you know and are able to say what it is, you are opening yourself up to various options for handling it. While you are acknowledging it, you may find others who share your fears.
By talking about your concerns, you will find that you are not alone, which can make the fear easier to tolerate. Look for support from people who understand your belief and have already effectively moved past it themselves.
2. Remember that you’re not alone.
While the name may suggest otherwise, impostor syndrome is actually an experience anyone can go through. Dr. Clance once said, “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it's not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it's something almost everyone experiences.”
Even the person who coined the term realized that everyone struggles with feelings of inadequacy from time to time.
Find someone you trust that you can talk to. You don’t have to try to overcome this alone, even though you might think you do. Luckily for you, there’s a large community of people who also live with the daily struggle of not feeling good enough.
Studies have shown that up to 70% of people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. You have probably had teachers, mentors, bosses, and other authority figures whom you respect that also believe they were not quite good enough. This can be considered an epidemic in our competitive society that is obsessed with high achievement.
3. Realize you aren’t perfect.
Believe it when you hear other people say that no one is perfect—and acknowledge that being a perfectionist and having impostor syndrome typically go hand-in-hand. Give yourself a break and be kind to yourself.
Start by trying to declare a project before you are completely comfortable with its end result. Or, create a business plan and reach out to other people for help if you need it.
If you overthink things and wait for them to be perfect, you may never bring your significant ideas to fruition, which would rob everyone of your creativity.
4. Let go of some of your excess self-importance.
Self-importance is not only a form of isolation, it is also a type of self-loathing. A need for self-importance can be the result of the fear that other people will see that you are not always right, and that you sometimes do things that you probably shouldn't. You are also likely afraid of seeing this in you.
Self-importance can lead you to think that you are alone in experiencing this fear. Because you think that no one else would understand, you stop feeling authentic.
If you want to feel like a genuine person, you need to accept that you have positive and negative traits, and learn to be at peace with that.
Many people are walking around pretending that they are always right, when they are actually not. This is likely why people tend to work so hard to keep it to themselves that they sometimes have no idea what they are doing.
5. Take note of your achievements.
While you are coming to grips with the fact that you are not perfect, you can still think about how great you are at many things. Create a list of your strengths and achievements, and write down everything that you’re good at doing.
Follow up by making a list of areas in your life that you would like to improve. Focus on turning these weaknesses around through personal development.
Keep a “compliments and praises” file, especially about your work. This way, you can refer back to the praises that other people have given you about specific things you have done.
Every time you receive a compliment, write it down, date it, record the people who were involved, and make a note of at least one reason why you deserved the praise.
Doing this will let you see your part in the achievement, and erase the thought that your success was just an accident. Having a visual reminder of what others appreciate about you will always lift your spirits.
6. Focus on providing value.
Impostor syndrome happens a lot when you’re only focused on yourself. But when you genuinely try to provide value to your organization or help someone else, you will discover that you are truly making a difference. Consider new ways that you can help out at work.
What are some steps you can take to get your team closer to its goal? Remember, you were hired for your skills and the potential value you could add to the organization.
You can also do this in your personal life. Helping out a friend or family member with something will remind you of your strengths and the value that you can add to someone else's life. Reach out and offer to help other people, even if it is just doing something simple for them.
7. Be honest with your limitations.
Being honest with yourself and accepting the fact you have limitations is a critical first step in addressing them. Once you accept a limitation, you then need to learn to work with it or around it.
You may find that you are actually limiting yourself in some ways. This might be due to a bad attitude, fear, or the fact that you are catastrophizing something to make it bigger in your mind than it is in reality. Rather than thinking, “I can't do this,” think, “How can I do this a different way?”
Your limitations leave you with plenty of opportunities to improve. You may have to get creative and start competing with yourself rather than measuring your success against that of others. You will find that working on this will help you gain respect for yourself, and earn the respect of other people.
8. Consider every new venture to be an experiment so you don’t get frustrated if it fails.
The most successful people have the largest amount of failures. Why is this? Because they are also the people who try the most things.
When successful people fail, they are able to accept it and move on to their next projects. If you look at everything you do as an experiment, you can see what goes wrong the first time, and keep making slight changes until whatever you are trying to do works.
You may also find that what you are working on is simply a bad idea, and you need to move on to the next.
9. Notice when you’re comparing yourself to others.
Stop doing this. Trying to make comparisons to those around you can be a detrimental practice. There are a lot of great people in the world who are doing work that is similar to yours, and some are even doing it better.
This is just a fact, and there is nothing you can do about it. If you don’t think that you are able to measure up to the successful people around you, it doesn't mean that you are “less than.”
When you compare yourself to others, there is always a chance that you are comparing their highs to your lows. You don't want to forget that the successful people that you see were in your position at one point.
It may feel like some people are able to be successful effortlessly, but the truth is that everyone faces challenges and struggles that are unique and known only to them.
Value your own strengths and respect your potential, and you will see that you have a lot to offer. Do some self-awareness exercises to uncover this potential.
10. Nurture a growth mindset.
Having a growth mindset means that you believe you can improve your talents with practice. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, revolves around the belief that people are born with their specific level of talents, and they will not be improved with practice.
There are many benefits of having a growth mindset. One in particular that relates to impostor syndrome is that you will never feel stupid when you are learning something new. You will actually feel smart as you gain knowledge and are able to start figuring things out and putting pieces together.
Having a growth mindset will also help you reduce any stress you have about being perfect. If you believe that any one task or conversation at any time will be able to give you an accurate measurement of your abilities for your entire life, you will always feel the need to be perfect. But with a growth mindset, you will know that you have the ability to improve on everything you do.
Get Rid of Impostor Syndrome
Impostor syndrome is a dangerous frame of mind that can lead to negative consequences. It can cause you to have feelings of anxiety and depression, as you are having a constant feeling that you are not able to measure up to other people's expectations.
It may also lead to procrastination because you can't focus with this consuming fear that people will discover you to be a fraud. Having impostor syndrome may also lead to losing jobs or being underpaid.
If your feelings of inadequacy are obvious to other people, your low confidence may cost you your job. This lack of confidence can also prevent you from feeling comfortable asking for the salary that you are worth.
Start by taking one of the two tests mentioned above to see if you’re dealing with impostor syndrome, and to determine its severity.
If you find that you are, start implementing at least one of the 10 strategies every day to address this problem. With time, you will realize that you aren't fooling anyone besides you. You are actually good at what you are doing!