Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internalized belief system where you keep believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be.
In simple words, impostor syndrome is the experience of feeling —as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don’t belong where you are, and you have only got there through dumb luck. It can affect anyone irrespective of their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.
Some of the common signs of imposter syndrome may include:
- An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
- Attributing your success to external factors
- Berating your performance
- Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
- Sabotaging your own success
- Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short
Sometimes, impostor syndrome might appear to fuel feelings of motivation to achieve, however, this usually comes at a cost of constant anxiety. You might over-prepare or work much harder than necessary just to “make sure” that nobody finds out you are a fraud.
The problem with impostor syndrome is that in spite of doing well at something does not change your beliefs about your abilities. No matter what you accomplish that thought keeps nagging in your head, “What gives me the right to be here?”
Your core beliefs about yourself are so strong, that they don’t change, despite the presence of evidence to the contrary.
Eventually, these feelings worsen anxiety and may lead to depression. People who experience impostor syndrome also tend not to talk about how they are feeling with anyone and struggle in silence, just as do those with social anxiety disorder.
It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon in their lives.
In order to identify if one has imposter syndrome, following questions might prove to be helpful:
- Do you agonize over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
- Do you attribute your success to luck or outside factors?
- Are you very sensitive to even constructive criticism?
- Do you feel like you will inevitably be found out as a phony?
- Do you downplay your own expertise, even in areas where you are genuinely more skilled than others?
The imposter syndrome tends to appear in various possible ways. Some of them include:
- The perfectionist: Perfectionists are never satisfied and always feel that their work could be better. Rather than focus on their strengths, they tend to focus on the pettiest of their flaws. This often leads to a great deal of self-pressure and anxiety.
- The superhero: Because of feeling inadequate, they try to push themselves to work as hard as possible.
- The expert: They keep trying to learn more and are never content with their level of understanding. No matter how skilled they might be, they underrate their own expertise.
- The natural genius: These individuals set extremely lofty goals for themselves, and then feel crushed when they don’t succeed at their first try.
- The soloist: These people tend to be very individualistic and prefer to work alone. They tend to consider asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence.
The imposter syndrome might be due to some past trauma when you might have failed or faced a terrible criticism regarding your abilities which bestowed you with a belief system that you are not worthy or good enough. Maybe you come from a family that highly valued achievement or had parents who flipped back and forth between offering praise and being critical. Entering a new role can trigger impostor syndrome too. For example, starting college or university might leave you feeling like you don’t belong and are not capable.
Firstly, you need to start asking yourself some hard questions. They might include things such as the following:
- “What core beliefs do I hold about myself?”
- “Do I believe I am worthy of love as I am?”
- “Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?”
In order to let go of these feelings, you need to become comfortable confronting those deeply ingrained beliefs you hold about yourself. This can be tough because you might not even realize that you hold them, but here are some techniques you can use:
- Share your feelings: Talk to other people about how you are feeling. These irrational beliefs tend to prevail when they are hidden and not talked about.
- Focus on others: While this might feel counterintuitive, try to help others in the same situation as you. If you see someone who seems awkward or alone, try asking that person a question to help bring them into a group maybe.
- Assess your abilities: If you have long-held beliefs about your incompetence in social and performance situations, make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your accomplishments and what you are good at, and compare that with your self-assessment.
- Take baby steps: Don’t focus on doing things perfectly, but rather, do things reasonably well and reward yourself for taking action.
- Question your thoughts: As you start to assess your abilities and take baby steps, question whether your thoughts are rational. Does it make sense that you are a fraud, given everything that you know?
- Stop comparing: Every time you compare yourself to others in a social situation, you will find some fault with yourself that fuels the feeling of not being good enough or not belonging. Instead, during conversations, focus on listening to what the other person is saying. Be genuinely interested in learning more.
- Stop fighting your feelings: Don’t fight the feelings of not belonging. Instead, try to lean into them and accept them. It’s only when you acknowledge them that you can start to unravel those core beliefs that are holding you back.
- Refuse to let it hold you back: No matter how much you feel like you don’t belong, don’t let that stop you from pursuing your goals. Keep going and refuse to be stopped.
Remember that if you are feeling like an impostor, it means you may have some great degree of success in your life which you are attributing to luck. So, maybe you could try to turn that feeling of being an imposter into that of gratitude.
However, If you’ve tried doing everything and still feel like your feeling of being an impostor is holding you back, it is important to speak to a mental health professional.