In your professional life, you are successful. You are moving up in the ranks of your organization. Or you are frequently the “go to” person when your boss needs something done well. Maybe you’ve achieved the rank or salary that you’ve always dreamed about. Yet you still feel like a fraud. As if one day, your boss, or your colleagues, or your clients will see that you really don’t know what you’re doing...even though there is no evidence to support this belief. Then there are people you know who clearly don’t know what they are doing in their roles. They pretend to know information. They find ways to make others do their work because they don’t have the skills to finish projects and tasks. They project confidence in regards to tasks that they have no ability to be successful with.
The irony is that imposters rarely experience imposter syndrome.
Read that sentence again. What does that mean for you? If you are experiencing imposter syndrome, guess what? You are very likely not an imposter.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a feeling created by thoughts. These thoughts are never based in reality and, instead, grow from insecurities, fears and self-doubt. The thoughts are not supported by facts. Once the thoughts occur, they create the feeling of being a fraud. You question whether you can live up to others’ expectations. You compare yourself to others in unrealistic ways and come up lacking. You doubt your abilities, skills, education, training and background in regards to effectively and successfully functioning in your role.
Once imposter syndrome settles in, it blocks your ability to function at your best. You focus on proving yourself rather than doing a task well. You fixate on how to show others you aren’t an imposter which inhibits logical thinking and creative thinking. You stop trying new things and taking reasonable risks. You might even begin to pull away from people in your life because you are either obsessing over how to do things better or avoiding others so they don’t discover you are a fraud. Overall, you end up feeling stressed, anxious and unsatisfied with who you are and what you do.
Why do you feel imposter syndrome?
In large part, you experience imposter syndrome because of who you are. Individuals like you who are used to setting goals, working diligently towards those goals, learning and growing to challenge themselves and expecting eventual success are the ones prone to imposter syndrome. Why? To start, highly motivated, driven individuals like you tend to work around other highly motivated, driven individuals. When you compare yourself to those around you, it can create self-doubt because the standard is high.
Another reason might be your personality. Maybe you identify as a perfectionist. You are striving to do things to the best of your ability, but then you question whether you’ve done all you could. By setting up these unrealistic standards, you never attain success because the definition keeps changing. Or you might feel inadequate so you work as hard as you can to overcompensate for this feeling. Maybe you are trying to be the expert and by establishing this as your goal, you attempt to learn everything but are never satisfied that you know enough. You tend to downplay your knowledge and your expertise. For many, it is a combination of all three factors which contribute to imposter syndrome. The reality is that if you are feeling like a fraud you’ve had some measure of success in your life. You are either afraid of losing the success or, more likely, you discount the success to luck.
Why don’t the actual imposters feel imposter syndrome?
Those people who don’t experience imposter syndrome are imposters for any number of reasons:
they haven’t experienced success so they have nothing to lose;
they have a delusional perception of themselves, sometimes believing their own lies or twisted interpretations of reality;
they are genuine con artists or narcissists.
Imposters present as incredibly confident. When we are around them, we get sucked into their lies, sometimes never doubting them. When we do question them, they support their lies in stronger ways, leaving us questioning why we doubted them.
Overall, imposters are willing to exaggerate their skills in interviews or on resumes, embellish or create stories about their backgrounds, or put themselves in the spotlight to get the attention and status they want. When they are discovered as the imposters they are, they tend to react in two ways — with aggression or defensiveness, or by disappearing, removing themselves from the situation in which their lack of ability was called out.
What strategies can you use to manage imposter syndrome?
The good news is if you don’t see yourself in that description, you aren’t an imposter. What you are feeling is common in highly intelligent, very skilled, motivated individuals. If you’re feeling imposter syndrome, that alone is a sign you aren’t a fraud.
The next step is learning how to manage your imposter syndrome so it doesn’t undermine your functioning. Imposter syndrome is based on illogical thoughts so to stop those thoughts, give your brain the facts. Consider your education and training. Reflect on positive feedback you’ve received from colleagues or supervisors. These become the evidence to replace the irrational thoughts. Also identify situations in which you’ve been successful. Write these down. Ask yourself what you did to effectively produce in those situations, then do those things again. If they worked once, they’ll likely work again. Write those down, too. Then, define what success looks like to you and, you guessed it, write this down. This becomes your standard. When your imposter syndrome tries to convince you that you aren’t successful, use your definition to keep you grounded in reality rather than trying to achieve perfection.
How can you benefit from imposter syndrome?
By acknowledging your imposter syndrome, and learning how to manage it, you can move on to using it as a tool towards your success. You’ve done the first step by reflecting on what your strengths are, what makes you unique and how you are qualified for what you do. You can even review all these details because you wrote them down for this purpose. Next, use the adrenalin that comes from imposter syndrome to benefit you. Instead of assuming the physiological responses that accompany imposter syndrome are due to anxiety, nerves or fear, think of them as signs of excitement, enthusiasm and preparedness. Finally, imposter syndrome tends to come up in times when you are feeling uncertain or your skills are being challenged — that’s great! It means you are moving beyond your comfort zone where growth can occur.
When you look around and compare yourself to the brilliant, talented people surrounding you, it might be time to realize that you are one of them, rather than seeing yourself as an anomaly. You were selected to be part of the group because you fit in, because your talents were needed and your successes were recognized. And when you notice someone who is grabbing the attention, reminding everyone of their accomplishments and sticking with completely wrong statements, you might take note of the true imposter in the room.