Do you sometimes doubt your abilities, or question your qualifications for your job or degree program? Are you convinced that you made it this far on sheer luck, and that you will soon be discovered as an imposter? If you’ve answered “yes” to either of those, the odds are good that you’re experiencing imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon, but it is not a mental illness. It is a state of mind, but it is not a part of your personality. The idea originates from a 1978 study by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes published in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, entitled: The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. The study examined a population of women professionals, examining their perception of their own accomplishments and abilities, and identified a common thread of self-defeating doubt among them.
The study called its findings “imposter phenomenon,” and broke it into three components:
- the feeling that everyone has overestimated your skills
- the fear that you will be found out as an imposter
- the belief that you’ve only gotten this far on luck
Now more commonly recognized as “imposter syndrome,” this phenomenon can lead to self-sabotage among those who are otherwise successful, talented, and accomplished.
Though the above study identified imposter syndrome among women, anybody is vulnerable to these feelings, and they can occur in diverse settings. In fact, in The Imposter Phenomenon, a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, Dr. Jaruwan Sakulku and Dr. James Alexander found that 70% of people experience imposter syndrome. In other words, it is a common phenomenon, and you are more likely than not to experience it at some point in your life.
While it’s easy to see how it can affect busy professionals building their careers, it is also notoriously common among college students, especially those in graduate and doctoral programs. Even beyond those realms, imposter syndrome lurks: in parenting, in relationships, and even in hobbies and passions. Today, social media allows us to connect, and compare ourselves to, so many other uniquely talented people around the world. This can make it easy to feel inadequate in any area of your life.
Just as imposter syndrome appears in a diverse array of situations, it also manifests in unique ways for different people. In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young identifies five categories/subgroups of imposter syndrome, each with their own characteristics:
- The Perfectionist — Prone to perfectionism, setting impossibly high goals.
- The Expert — Prone to believing that you must know everything about a subject to have any authority on it.
- The Natural Genius — Prone to believing that if something doesn’t come “naturally” to you on the first try, that you are a failure, not talented, or stupid.
- The Superwoman/Superman — Prone to doing and taking on too much out of a sense that you must “make up” for shortcomings; a workaholic.
- The Individualist — Prone to isolation, feeling that you cannot accept help, and must take on difficult tasks entirely by yourself.
If any of the above categories sound familiar to you and your opinion of yourself and your abilities, you might be experiencing imposter syndrome.
Important Note on Terminology: If you Google “imposter syndrome,” you might come across a condition known as “Capgras Syndrome.” To be clear, Capgras syndrome should not be confused with the “imposter syndrome” germane to this discussion. Capgras syndrome, sometimes referred to as imposter syndrome, is a form of mental illness related to Alzheimer’s and dementia, in which those experiencing it believe someone close to them has been replaced with an imposter. It is a terrible condition, but it is not imposter syndrome as discussed here, nor as the term is generally used.
How do you Beat Imposter Syndrome?
Fortunately, imposter syndrome can be beaten. Everybody is different, and everybody can experience imposter syndrome in different, unique ways. However, there are lots of ways to confront the perceptions that come with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is not a permanent condition, which means that this state of mind — and the related feelings of stress and self-doubt — can be changed. Below are a few solid tips that may help you face and vanquish imposter syndrome. Find the combination of strategies that works for you!
1.Reach out to friends and family
Those who are closest to you know how special you are. If you’re suffering self-doubt, reach out to them; they will remind you of your talents, your skills, and the fact that you are deserving of your successes. Carry that sincere reassurance with you into your next educational or professional challenge.
2.Talk to authority figures
Sometimes it can be really helpful to hear positive reinforcement from an authority in the specific area where you're experiencing the greatest doubt. Questioning your abilities at work? Talk to your boss (presuming your boss is the approachable type). Don’t feel you belong in your grad school cohort? Talk to your professor or program director. Afraid your skills aren’t up to snuff? Talk to your mentor. Seek out those more qualified than you, explain your feelings, and trust in their assessments.
3.Connect with support groups
Whatever you’re doing, you’re not alone. At any college, there are loads of student groups representing an array of general and niche interests. Connect with them, meet with them, talk with them, and share with them. If not at school, then find groups in your community, or online, that share your interests and concerns. Discussing your knowledge, skills, and concerns with like-minded individuals and peer groups can help bolster your confidence, and spur constructive criticism and growth, instead of self-sabotage.
4.Consult a therapist
The input of an impartial listener can be extremely helpful. Therapists are, fundamentally, professional impartial listeners, trained in the art of discussing what troubles you, and offering constructive input on how to find the path to feeling better. If imposter syndrome is interfering with your life, consider visiting a therapist. Your place of employment may offer benefits that provide therapy free of charge. Most universities have mental health services on campus for students. If neither of those is an option for you, your insurance may cover therapy visits, and if not, plenty of practices offer treatment on a sliding payment scale.
5.Write out your feelings
Sometimes our feelings become larger than life because we don’t face them squarely. It can be intimidating to take the first step, but writing (or typing) out your feelings can help tame the beast. Write it out. Work it out. Get it out of your head and onto paper. Remember that you are bigger and better than your self-doubts and insecurities.
6.Make a plan
Now that you’ve put your doubts in writing, the next step is making a plan for how to beat them. Establish a straightforward protocol for what to do when imposter syndrome creeps in. Your protocol may just be a simple statement like, “When I feel this way I will…” Or it could be a detailed flowchart of confidence-building steps; whatever reassures you, comforts you, helps you feel better, or restores balance in your life. Write it somewhere prominent so that you can easily access these thoughts when you feel bad. Then, enact your protocol. It might be clumsy at first, but soon these thoughts will become habit, and resisting imposter syndrome will become a reflex.
7.Record your successes
When we feel bad about ourselves, it’s very easy to overlook and devalue what we have done well and where we excel. Record these things. Write out lists of what you are good at, what you’ve accomplished, and not just in one area of life, but in a range of areas. Keep this list somewhere close by and easy to access. Reflect on these things and remember, even if you feel bad at this moment, and you are doubting your abilities, you did these things. It wasn’t luck that brought them about. It was you. These things are real and they matter.
8.Embrace your actual shortcomings
No one is good at everything, and that’s perfectly fine. One great way to gain perspective on your real successes and talents is to admit, and even embrace, things that you aren’t great at doing. It’s healthy to acknowledge that some things just aren’t in your wheelhouse. Separate your true passions from odd hobbies and take some time to try your hand at something that you just don’t quite “get.” When you come back to what you are really good at, it will feel natural, and fluid, like it’s what you’re meant to be doing.
9.Change your vocabulary
Imposter syndrome can affect the way you speak about yourself and the way you express thoughts. By changing the language you use, you can change your mindset. Rid your vocabulary of dubious statements. If you know something to be true, don’t say “I think” or “I believe.” If you can do something, say you can do it, don’t preface it with “probably” or “I’ll try.” Bring confidence back into your vocabulary. (This doubles as a great writing tip if you’re working on papers for your classes.)
10.Remember, imposter syndrome follows success
The thing about imposter syndrome is that it feeds on success. If you hadn’t succeeded at anything, you wouldn’t feel like an imposter. Take a step back and remind yourself, “I feel this way because I’ve succeeded at what I set out to do.” Though imposter syndrome doesn’t feel good, it’s also a sign that you’ve achieved something notable. Let imposter syndrome be a reminder that you are successful, that you deserve the success, and that it’s not a fluke; then banish it to the depths.
Imposter syndrome happens to lots of people, and you’re certainly not alone in feeling it. Be kind to yourself, and do what you must in order to recalibrate. Remember that you are talented, worthy, and deserving of your successes.
If you’re interested in learning more about human perception, the mind, and other mental health phenomena, consider a degree in psychology: