Impostor syndrome describes individuals' fears of not being as adequate, competent or intelligent, as others view them. Typical symptoms may include feeling like a fraud or a phony. This can lead to anxiety about being unmasked or being "found out" as an impostor. Those who experience impostor syndrome may suffer from self-doubt. This may make them incapable of taking credit for their accomplishments and successes. They may feel that their success is a fluke, which can lead them to belittle or discount their achievements.
Impostor syndrome typically involves individuals who are high achievers, intelligent and accomplished. There's a misconception that impostor syndrome primarily affects women, and especially professional women or women in business. But men, too, are subject to it. It can affect anyone from scientists, academics, programmers, actors, authors, librarians, to entrepreneurs and executives. A 2015 study by Vantage Hill Partners, a UK consulting firm, shows that even CEOs experience impostor syndrome. The study, which involved 116 companies, revealed that one of the top fears of CEOs is being found to be incompetent.
Even Albert Einstein may have experienced some aspect of this syndrome. "The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held," he said, "makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler."
If you think you might suffer from impostor syndrome, try this test. It might help you determine whether you have impostor syndrome characteristics.
So, what can be done to manage, or overcome, impostor syndrome? Here are some suggestions to consider:
1. Don't fake it.
Well-meaning advice is to "fake it until you make it." But this might only reinforce the feeling of being an impostor.
Instead of faking anything, consider focusing on increasing your competency in whatever you undertake. Devoting whatever time and effort is required to own your area of expertise can help you feel less like a phony. When we genuinely practice what we know, there's no need to fake it. There's power in being authentically who we are and doing work we're qualified to do.
In that vein, you may not want to take on any challenges where you genuinely feel that you aren't qualified or where you know you don't have what it takes in that particular area. If it's too much, acknowledge it. Acknowledging legitimate concerns can help free you to focus on what you're good at.
2. Boost your self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is not our ability to do something, but rather our belief in our ability. One way you can increase your self-efficacy is through mastery experiences. This means having successful experiences through repeated effort. Let's take public speaking as an example. By repeatedly speaking in public, or delivering presentations, you can overcome obstacles to speaking well. Successes that you achieve through persistence and doggedness can lead to mastery experiences.
Another way to boost your self-efficacy is through vicarious experiences. This means watching individuals who are similar to you achieve success through perseverance. This can increase your belief that you, too, can improve your performance in similar activities.
3. Cut yourself some slack.
It's safe to say that almost everyone who is a high achiever may have, at one time or other, worried that they may not be as capable as others may view them. Perhaps this is what philosopher Bertrand Russell had in mind when he said that "the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."
Instead of self-flagellation, consider practicing self-compassion. Reminding yourself that you're not alone in this can help you reduce your fears.
Worrying about how others may view you is natural. It's an indication that you care. There's humility in worrying and some humility is an attractive trait. It can trump arrogance. And here's something to keep in mind: Real impostors probably don't experience the pangs of the impostor syndrome!
4. Practice metacognition.
Metacognition is not only an awareness of our own thinking, but also an analysis of our own thinking. Simply put, it's thinking about thinking. Since impostor syndrome typically involves thoughts and feelings about one's performance, rather than the actual performance itself, it pays to raise your awareness of what's happening in the moment.
One way to do this is to try and catch yourself when self-doubt starts to creep in. Pause for a moment, and ask yourself:
- Is my self-doubt justifiable?
- What hard evidence is there to validate my fears?
- What scripts am I carrying in my head?
- Who put them there?
- Am I allowing my emotions to highjack my logical brain?
- Are my feelings a result of emotional exhaustion? (e.g., Have I over-extended myself?)
- Do I need to change my strategy?
5. Cultivate mental and emotional poise.
When we practice mental and emotional poise, we're more likely to achieve that wonderful state of balance, of equilibrium. We can do this when we acknowledge that we're doing our very best to learn and know our craft. There are other ways to achieve this: For one thing, stopping the tyranny of comparisons. As Mark Twain put it, "comparison is the death of joy." As well, stop seeking external validation. Why choose to depend on others' judgments, opinions and possible biases?
Finally, consider reminding yourself that the costs of perpetuating impostor syndrome far outweigh any possible benefits. For example, the anxiety that accompanies such feelings can be an unnecessary distraction. Feeling like an impostor can cause you to undersell yourself.
Whether you're a business owner, a professional or an entrepreneur, impostor syndrome can sap your energy and discourage you from going out there and pursuing your goals for success. Acknowledge it—and take comfort in the knowledge that many others, especially successful people, experience the same feelings. Then resolve not to let it stop you in your tracks.
What advice can you give your peers for overcoming impostor syndrome?
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