Are you struggling to be successful and feel like you never will be? Are you successful but you never feel that it’s good enough? You could be experiencing Impostor Syndrome. Learn what this is, how to recognize it, and how to get past it.
What is impostor syndrome?
I became aware of Impostor Syndrome after reading a great book called The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young. I have been an animal care and welfare professional for almost 30 years, and in that time I have mentored many peers. In those conversations I started to notice behavior patterns that caused hesitation and doubt in bright, competent individuals. Reading this book helped me to understand the feelings and the resulting behavior.
According to Healthline “Imposter syndrome, also called perceived fraudulence, involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments.” I see it as a kind of dysphoria that can cripple entrepreneurs from being successful. A dysphoria is a self-perception that isn’t real, for example an anorexic who thinks they are fat.
Impostor syndrome is very common. According to WebMD as many as 70% of people have expressed these feelings at some point in their lives! Ironically it is most common in populations of people who are in fact competent, educated, skilled, and good at what they do. Conversely, there are people who have no idea what they are doing but will still act like an authority. We’ve all met Mr. and Mrs. Know-It-All.
Impostor syndrome keeps people from accomplishing their goals. It causes hesitation, doubt, and ultimately failure in ventures.
Do you suffer from impostor syndrome?
How would you know? Ask yourself these questions.
- Do you think you’re not good enough or your work is substandard?
- When someone compliments you, do you think they are just being polite or nice and they don’t really think you’re that great?
- Do you believe that you accomplish things due to luck, not skill?
- Do you have a drive to achieve but never feel like you’ve reached the end?
If you answered yes to any of these, you may be experiencing Impostor Syndrome.
Why does this happen?
There are a number of factors that contribute to these experiences. They include:
- Your family upheld high standards for you. You were expected to go to university, get straight A’s, become a doctor or lawyer. You were told that you are smart and must aim high.
- You were told that you are at a disadvantage and must work harder. Your family didn’t have high income, so you had to work harder than everyone else to achieve your goals in school.
- You uphold high standards for yourself. You want everything to be perfect, and nothing less will do.
- You are different from your peers. You are the first of your family to go to university. You are a person of a different gender or ethnicity than most others in the field. You feel you have to prove yourself to fit in.
- You are trying something new like opening a business, going to college, starting a new career.
These are just some of the factors that may lead to the experience of Impostor Syndrome.
The author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women lists five personality types most prone to Impostor Syndrome. While I’m not a fan of labeling, studying these types can help a person identify with their feelings and learn how to best work with them.
Most of us are familiar with this type. For the perfectionist, everything has to be a certain way, and if not then they deem it a failure. Perfectionists uphold unrealistic standards for themselves and sometimes for the people around them.
I had a colleague in high school whose parents put enormous pressure on her to excel. Every time we had a test, she would get a nosebleed. I felt so bad for her, because she believed she had to do everything perfectly or else.
The Natural Genius
The Natural Genius picks up things quickly. Some skills may come naturally, even when trying something for the first time. This is the type I most identify with, as I am able to learn some things easily, like language. The problem with this type is they believe they should be able to do everything easily and without guidance, and life just doesn’t work that way. When things don’t come easily, they feel like a failure.
The first time I picked up a bow and arrow I hit the target every time. I’d always wanted to be an archer so I was tickled that it came naturally to me. However, when I didn’t practice for a long time and returned to it, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn! Natural skill is a great way to start, but excellence comes from practice, study, and attention.
The expert feels they need to know everything about anything. They don’t like to move forward until they have all bases covered to the last detail, until they have explored every possibility. They can become paralyzed if they don’t have every bit of info necessary to take on a project.
I had an Expert experience recently. My boyfriend plays cards with his friends on the weekend, and I decided to join the game. I wanted him to show me every move, every rule, every possibility before I could participate. At some point he said, “You basically know how to play. Just do it, and you’ll learn more as you go.” So I did, and I had fun. I had to let go of the need to know everything in order to enjoy the experience.
This is you if you are fond of saying, “I don’t need help from anybody!” You’re a solo pilot, looking after yourself and solving your own problems. You identify with the mavericks in movies. You take on huge projects by yourself, believing that asking for help is showing weakness. There’s nothing wrong with being independent and self-sufficient, in fact it is healthy to degree, but in the real world sharing and collaborating with others brings out the best.
The Superhero feels like s/he needs to handle everything at once, with grace and gusto. This person will hold down multiple jobs, raise kids by themself, care for aging parents, volunteer at local charities and get a college degree, all at once. This type is hero worshiped in our culture to the detriment of those individuals and ultimately to the people around them. We are a social species and work best together collaboratively.
I recommend reading the book to learn more about each type including specific exercises geared towards becoming a more well-rounded, healthy individual.
How to combat Impostor Syndrome?
Once you realize that you are experiencing Impostor Syndrome, what steps can you take to address it? How can you work through it to start living your life free of doubt, hesitation, and insecurity?
1) Recognize what you are experiencing
Take an honest look at your feelings and behavior around accomplishments and self-worth. Brushing the feelings aside won’t help. Ever wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking about some problem you need to solve? If you’ve tried telling your brain to stop thinking you know it doesn’t work!
Recognize that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable in new situations. There is always a learning curve, a time of discomfort and uncertainty, when moving forward into a new venture whether it be a business, school, relationship, or anything else. Feeling uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re incompetent or not up to the task – it is normal and everyone experiences it.
2) Share with trusted loved ones
It can be really helpful to share feelings and experiences with a partner, friend, relative, or other person you trust. Talking about this experience can help to ease anxiety and relieve the feeling that it is a dirty secret. Understand that they might dismiss you and say you’re great, you shouldn’t feel this way. They mean well, although of course dysphoria is not so easily relieved. It’s like telling someone who believes they are unattractive that they are beautiful – they might think you are saying that just to make them feel better. However, they may surprise you and admit that they, too, have these feelings in certain situations. You never know.
3) Be kind to yourself
“Be kind to yourself” may sound like an overused trope, but it is a critical step in overcoming Impostor Syndrome. People who hold themselves up to impossible standards can be quite unkind to themselves, and it can become an unending rabbit hole of doubt and negativity. Just stop for a second and give yourself a break. Recognize the accomplishments you have made, write them down.
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” is another saying I love that is appropriate for this situation. Good enough doesn’t mean shoddy work, it means to the best of your ability with what you have at that time. Understand that no one knows everything about anything. All you need to do to be good enough at anything is to develop a working knowledge. I learned this when I started my YouTube channel. Video after video from other content creators advised newbies to just do it, set up whatever camera you have and start recording. If you wait till you have everything perfect you’ll never start.
4) Challenge yourself
A critical step in overcoming Impostor Syndrome is to challenge yourself. Take a risk. Ask for something you want like a raise at work, tell a person something you want to talk about, try a new skill. Only you know what that thing is that makes you uncomfortable but that you really want to do.
Here’s the key: it doesn’t have to go well! It doesn’t have to come out the way you want. This exercise isn’t about achieving an outcome, it’s about being uncomfortable and getting through it. This process, perhaps slowly and over time, perhaps quickly, will increase your confidence.
A surprising fact about Impostor Syndrome is that it isn’t just the fear of being a failure, it’s the fear of being successful. It’s a fear of really becoming the amazing person that you are. I encourage you to take a look at yourself, see yourself for all that you are, all your skills and talents and abilities and care for others. Challenge yourself, celebrate yourself, and live the life the way you want to