10 Proven Strategies to Banish Your Imposter Syndrome
My senior year of college, I thought I must be the only one in my class who was not cut out for the job of writing a thesis. I was convinced that somehow the university had made a mistake in admitting me. Now, after three years of managing to slip by undetected, everyone was about to find out that I wasn’t meant to be here when they read my final paper.
Nearly invisible to me was my history of strong grades and the aptitude of my own brain. As far as I could tell, those things simply didn’t exist.
Turns out those swirling feelings of anxiety and insecurity have a name: imposter syndrome. It’s an experience that’s more common than we might realize. In fact, researchers believe about 70% of people will fall into this mindset at some point in their lives.
When you’re in the clutches of imposter syndrome, it can feel pretty crushing. Getting out of that muck starts with knowing exactly what imposter syndrome is and recognizing its symptoms. We’ll cover these basics and then move on to the top ten strategies you can use to overcome your imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
If you’ve been wondering if you have imposter syndrome, see if parts of this definition feel familiar:
Imposter syndrome is characterized by the constant worry that you are underqualified and underperforming - despite concrete proof that says otherwise from coworkers, managers or other external sources.
Living with imposter syndrome is living with the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’ It’s everything I was describing above with my story from college.
It’s pretty common to have thoughts like:
‘I can’t mess this up.’ If you have imposter syndrome, failure on something like a big project can feel like a reflection on your personal worth and aptitude. It creates a scenario where delivering anything less than perfection is like showing everyone how you’re inadequate for the job. For that reason, perfectionism is a close cousin of imposter syndrome.
‘I just got lucky.’ Inversely, those with imposter syndrome will often attribute a job well done to luck, rather than personal success. They might have a hard time internalizing that the quality of their work is in fact due to their own intelligence and talent; it’s easier to pass off the credit to the right circumstances.
These are just a few of the common refrains that could be crowding your mind if you’re encountering imposter syndrome.
Where does imposter syndrome come from?
Even though it doesn’t appear in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) - the handbook of the psychological field - the phenomenon has been a topic of discussion in that professional community for several decades now.
It all started with a paper written by Drs. Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in 1978 titled, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Since that paper’s publication, more studies have been conducted showing that men, too, can be susceptible to imposter syndrome.
So what are its roots, according to psychologists? Truth is, there is no one identifiable cause, although researchers say some environments can be more conducive than others to producing the syndrome. These can include: Growing up in a family that prioritizes high achievement, the pressure of higher educational institutions, and the experience of being a minority in educational or professional settings.
The five types of imposters
The nice thing about being human is that we’re not carbon copies of each other. We take what life hands us in a variety of directions. It’s no different with imposter syndrome. The phenomenon can express itself in so many different ways.
In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young identified five common behavioral patterns in people with imposter syndrome.
She assigned each of these tendencies a name:
The Perfectionist: This person tends to set exceedingly high standards for themselves, essentially guaranteeing they will always fall short (we’re only human, after all). As a result, it’s difficult for the Perfectionist to acknowledge personal success and much easier for them to note how they don’t ‘have what it takes.’
The Superwoman (or man): While you won’t spot this person wearing a cape, you probably will notice their drive to do it all - logging long hours at work and always going the extra mile on projects. They see themselves as the sole fraud amongst a sea of qualified team members or peers, leading to a default mode of overcompensation.
The Natural Genius: This label is for people who are used to mastering new skills with ease. Kind of like the kid who never seemed to be paying attention in class, yet would still ace their tests. This form of intelligence certainly has its perks, but it also can be incredibly demoralizing when the Natural Genius meets a task that doesn’t immediately click.
The Soloist: Destiny’s Child could have been throwing their hands up at this personality type in their beloved anthem Independent Women, Pt. 1. The Soloist is used to doing it all on their own, so asking for help becomes an indication of their weakness or ineffectiveness.
The Expert: While most of us can agree it’s good practice to speak from a place of knowledge, the Expert takes this principle to an extreme: They will never know enough to offer up a valid opinion. Therefore, they often choose either to stay silent or become obsessive about mastering a subject area, all to minimize the risk of being exposed as ignorant.
There’s another way to understand each of these personality types. They are all behaviors we adopt to protect ourselves from the underlying fear of being unmasked as an imposter. If we are only enough of a perfectionist, or a genius, or an expert (and so on), then perhaps we can avoid being ‘caught.’
Of course, human nature - full of possibilities for slip ups and mistakes and misunderstandings - can blow even the most well-crafted cover. Not to mention how exhausting it is to maintain many of these mechanisms!
Especially if you found yourself exclaiming ‘That’s me!’ while perusing the categories above, read on for strategies you can use to overcome your imposter syndrome.
10 proven strategies to overcome your imposter syndrome
When you’re feeling like your imposter syndrome has got the best of you, there are some practical steps you can take to quiet that corner of your brain.
01. Bring awareness
The first step is always putting a finger on what is happening. It’s basic logic: It’s hard to change what we cannot see. Simply noticing the patterns in your thinking can open up the door to making healthy adjustments.
02. Normalize your feelings
Identifying the source of your imposter syndrome - from school, family or a boss - can help break down the hold it has on you. In other words: It’s not you, it’s your context. Just as you once learned to doubt your adequacy, so too can you learn to believe in your competency.
03. Open up
Imposter syndrome thrives on secrecy. Our biggest fear is being found out, so we build protective fences around that secret. Admitting that we feel like an imposter would be like giving up the game. However, sharing our insecurities with trusted friends or family members dismantles the risk of sudden and unexpected exposure. It’s like outmaneuvering imposter syndrome.
Once you’ve recognized that you could be experiencing imposter syndrome, find ways to rewrite the lines you feed yourself. If you generally hold yourself back in team meetings because you’re not ‘qualified’ to share your thoughts, remind yourself of the gaps in conversation your particular vantage point could fill. Or of moments when you contributed an idea and a coworker responded with ‘Good point!’
05. Redefine failure
Messing up on a group project or an assignment doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Even amidst wrong answers or a flopped presentation, there’s a lot to be learned. Search for kernels of wisdom you can apply next time around and try hard to block out the taunting thoughts that all your hard work went down the drain, or that the disappointing results are a personal reflection on your worth.
06. Celebrate the little wins
If you know yourself to lend a disproportionate amount of airtime to your inner critic, actively look for ways to pat yourself on the back each day. Whether it was asking for help when you felt stuck, or pushing yourself to speak up in class, pay yourself a big mental compliment that celebrates an aspect of your professional growth. You deserve it!
07. Take stock of your skills
Another way to build up your self-confidence is doing some honest accounting of what you’re good at. Get old school with a pen and paper and start writing - don’t hold back! Reminding yourself of your strengths (including the praises others sing about you, even if you don’t quite believe them yet) will give you a solid foundation on which to stand and help counteract the need to ‘prove yourself’ to others.
08. Mentor others
You’re probably thinking, ‘How am I supposed to guide someone else when I have nothing to teach?’ Well, you’d be surprised how much knowledge you’ve probably accumulated that others are salivating to learn. Daring yourself to accept a mentorship role can bring all of that hidden expertise to the surface. Plus, the confidence boost that comes from seeing another person look up to you is priceless.
09. Seek professional help
In cases where you notice imposter syndrome is wielding major control over your life and some of the suggestions above don’t seem to be helping, speaking to a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional can be really helpful. They can help you understand where your thought patterns are coming from and you can work together to figure out how to slowly break them down, one by one.
10. Practice gentleness
Remember, this is a process that takes time! Overcoming imposter syndrome requires significantly rewriting the way we see ourselves. Take it one bite-sized piece at a time, celebrate moments of progress and don’t beat yourself up when you notice yourself reverting to old patterns of thought - you can always try again tomorrow.
Joanna Kramer, UX Writer at Wix
Raised in D.C. and now living in Jerusalem, Joanna can usually be found listening to a podcast, at a Gaga dance class, or studying Talmud.