You’ve managed to secure a good degree and you have a fun job, the training for your next big race is going really well, and you live in a nice house, maybe with a lovely family around you. You’re always successfully completing a wide range of projects and you’re fabulous at balancing your work and private life. But sometimes you still have this sense that you’re faking it. That your boss might suddenly call you up and furiously ask what on earth you’re doing. Or that your colleagues might figure out that you have no idea how to do your job. That’s imposter syndrome right there.
What exactly is imposter syndrome?
Well, the clue is in the name: it’s literally means feeling like you’re an imposter. That means having this sense that you’ll be found out at any moment because you’re not really as smart/good/capable/funny/etc. as people think. You’re pretending to be better than you are and everything you’ve accomplished is due to sheer dumb luck. That’s what you think.
It’s a crazy thought because, when the situation is reversed, we don’t see other people that way. Do you ever feel that your friends and colleagues are pretending to be something they’re not? That they’re not really as fun, intelligent or funny as they appear? Probably not.
Where does it come from?
Contrary to what you might think, these thoughts aren’t necessarily connected to how well we can do something. It’s a false view of the outside world that makes us feel like a fraud. Our image of others is always much more positive than our image of ourselves.
We only see what’s happening on the surface with other people, making it seem as if others naturally have the knowledge, humor, and abilities they need, as this video from The School Of Life so aptly explains. What we don’t see from the outside is the range of doubts, insecurities and concerns that another person might be experiencing. Just like you.
“Often, these thoughts stem from our childhood. As a child you’ll have looked up to your parents and other adults who could do all the things you couldn’t. And they did it all so easily,” explains Soesja, a psychologist at OpenUp. What you didn’t see is that they had to learn to do these things and that they were also once young, naive children.
“You don’t have to be a superhero or go around believing that other people expect you to be one – they aren’t meeting these standards either.”
“Even the most successful people experience these same thoughts,” Soesja continues. “Big movie stars sometimes worry that they’ll be exposed as frauds.”
Research shows that 70 percent of people – young and old, famous and not, CEOs and students – experience (a degree) of imposter syndrome at some point in their lives.
Coping with imposter syndrome
The difficulty with imposter syndrome is that it often doesn’t matter how hard you work or how successful you are, you still have this sense that you’re not good enough and that other people are better than you.
Since we all experience this to a certain degree, it’s good to be aware of your imposter mind so that it doesn’t take over.
Have you noticed that your brain is in imposter mode again? These tips might help you:
1. Examine what’s behind your thoughts
“The insecurity that imposter syndrome causes is often linked to certain beliefs,” explains psychologist Margit. “Thoughts are nothing more than mental activities. Every day we have thousands of these and, although it can sometimes seem like they’re all true, that’s actually not always the case.”
“In many cases, your thoughts aren’t based on facts, which can cause quite a bit of bias. During a session we often examine recurrent thoughts together to try and figure out what might be behind them. We then challenge these beliefs by asking the following questions:
- What is this thought based on?
- Is it really true?
- Is there proof that it’s true?
- Is there proof that it’s not true?
Following this, we formulate a new belief that is more likely to serve you moving forward and gather evidence to prove that it’s true.”
Suppose you’re busy with a project at work, but you’re doubting your ability to manage it effectively. Secretly, you’re not sure how to go about it and you’ve even had to ask Google for help. Meanwhile, all your colleagues seem to have it completely under control. Why is it that they know exactly what steps they need to take?
You get swept up in all kinds of thoughts and doubt sets in. Your imposter mind takes over, but why exactly? What are you basing these thoughts on? And is any of this really true? Is there any evidence other than your non-factual ideas?
With a little distance you’d probably see that it’s unnecessary to feel this way, but secretly these scenarios play out in your mind on a regular basis. That’s why you need to remind yourself that you are good enough.
For help managing your worries see: 5 tips to stop your chronic worrying
2. Focus on the positive
Instead of focusing on your thoughts and the beliefs behind your imposter feelings, you can also look at the positives, suggests psychologist Jan.
“There’s a reason you were hired for this job, that successfully completed your studies or that your friends like being around you. It’s worth emphasizing the positives here. Which qualities do you have that often cause things to go well for you? What do other people value about you?” Focus on this instead.
A useful book that can help you here is Now, Discover Your Strengths, but also try asking your colleagues, friends, family or classmates what they value about you.
3. Talk about it
Thoughts and beliefs tend to intensify when they stay locked up inside your head. This is unhelpful because, as we’ve already said, they’re based on all kinds of biases.
By talking to another person, you can find out what’s going on in somebody else’s mind. This can be a huge relief. Particularly if you discover that you’re not the only one, and that somebody else is experiencing similar thoughts and feelings to you. You’ll often discover that they’ve also been walking around with all kinds of doubts and insecurities and they’re really not as perfect as you thought.
Do you find it difficult to talk about your feelings? Here are some tips
4. Know that it’s okay to feel this way
Self-doubt and insecurities are universal. Everybody experiences them to a certain extent. These imposter feelings are a part of life and that’s okay. The goal is not to never feel like an imposter ever again, but to learn how to manage these feelings, psychologist Audrey Ervin tells TIME magazine. “People can still have an imposter moment, but not an imposter life.”
5. Don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back
Now that you understand that’s it’s mainly your thoughts – or more accurately, mental activities – that stir up your imposter feelings, you might find it easier to identify these thoughts and set them to one side. No matter how loud the imposter is screaming, you don’t need to let these thoughts get in the way of you chasing your dreams.
It can be tough dealing with these thoughts and feelings alone. One of our psychologists can help you by asking the right questions and challenging your beliefs. We’d be happy to help.