How To Deal With Imposter Syndrome (I’ve Got It, Too)

I, like many hard working men and woman around the world, suffer from imposter syndrome. Even knowing that I suffer from it and that I have it, doesn’t change it or really help me overcome it. No matter what I do and how I do it, I always feel insecure about what I am doing in my life.

In this article, I’m going to explore what it is and isn’t, and start working through some potential solutions for myself and for others, so we can all work together to feel a lot better about ourselves and own achievements.

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What is Imposter Syndrome?

Dictionary.com says it is “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as the result of one’s own efforts or skills.” (It is also spelled Impostor–with an ‘or instead of an ‘er, either seems to be acceptable these days).

These feelings of doubt persist even in the face of massive and obvious success.

In experience, it is this persistent feeling that you are constantly “faking it” in just about everything you do. You feel like a fraud, or an actor, and that eventually, like Oz in the Emerald City, someone is going to pull back the curtain and see the little tiny person back there with no magical skills whatsoever pulling the levers.

You don’t feel like you belong.

Others describe it using the words:

  • inadequacy
  • self-doubt
  • intellectual fraudulence
  • overestimated

What are the signs of Imposter Syndrome?

Wondering if you or someone you know suffers from Imposter Syndrome? If they experience, do, or say any of the following, they just might:

  • Fear of failure (being found out)
  • Feel that failure is constantly imminent
  • Believe that success (like an award, good grade, promotion, getting a job) was the result of someone else’s mistake
  • Believe that luck was the real reason something good happened
  • Downplay success
  • Discount achievements
  • Exhibit extreme modesty/humility

People who struggle with Imposter Syndrome may also struggle with generalized anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and frustration.

I think Imposter Syndrome goes well beyond being humble about achievements. You can be outwardly polite and humble about a big win, while still believing inside of you that you are deserving of the recognition, and that it was the direct result of your hard work, ability, and other attributes that made it happen.

People with Imposter Syndrome truly struggle and usually fail to internalize the belief that the win, the award, the promotion, the job, the recognition, the great thing, is something they deserve and that no one else is more deserving of it.

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Is Imposter Syndrome a real mental illness?

Is Imposter Syndrome even an illness? Or a mental illness? The fact that the word “syndrome” is used is confusing, I think. Imposter Syndrome is not currently recognized by the DSM or ICD, though some of the symptoms or characteristics of sufferers are recognized symptoms of other diagnoses (depression, low self esteem, etc).

The term itself was one that has been around for many years, coined by psychologists back in the 1970s. (source) The paper that I liked as the source is actually quite interesting if you go back and read it. At the time, the paper focused on women as the primary sufferers of this condition, though subsequent studies have shown that both men and woman suffer from it.

But the paper suggested that men were more like to believe that their successes were the result of their abilities, and be comfortable with their prowess in general. Conversely, women were more likely to believe their failures were the result of their inadequate abilities, while men were more likely to attribute their failures to luck or difficulty.

At the time (in the 1970s) there was a lot of focus on the lack of support women were receiving as they moved into the working world from the home, and I think some assumptions that were made during the study are not as applicable now as then.

In subsequent studies, it has been found that this “syndrome” if we can call it that has much less to do with gender and a lot more to do with low self-esteem and anxiety, which strikes at both men and women.

I just really found it fascinating (and I recommend you take a detour and check it out).

Who suffers from Imposter Syndrome?

There seems to be no real recipe for the circumstances that produces someone with Imposter Syndrome. In general, those who suffer from it are the ones you’d be least likely to suspect suffer from it. People who are high performing individuals, perfectionists, over achievers tend to struggle with it.

People who are discouraged at home from achieving, even though they are very smart and capable, can end up with Imposter Syndrome.

People who were brought up to believe they can accomplish anything can also end up with Imposter Syndrome.

I would actually suggest that most of us suffer from it to some degree. Think about every high achieving person that you know. CEOs. Teachers. Authors. Every one of them started somewhere, and had to push to get to where they are today. If they believed that they were truly already good enough, experienced enough, educated enough, way back in the beginning when they started, it is really unlikely that they would have ever pushed so hard and ended up where they are today.

For some, this Imposter Syndrome could be looked at as a person’s super power. People who worry about being found out as an imposter are always working hard, always pushing to learn more, to do more, to be more. They often push past limits and boundaries when others become complacent.

For others, Imposter Syndrome can be a weakness, a hindrance, the opposite of a super power (kryptonite). The epicenter of Imposter Syndrome is a lack of self-confidence. In some cases, that self-doubt can prevent you from taking on projects that you don’t believe you can complete. or trying new things because of your fears of failing. Imposter Syndrome may keep a particularly susceptible person from taking any risks whatsoever, setting them up for a completely mediocre existence.

How does one overcome Imposter Syndrome?

As a sufferer myself, I think the primary way that I can get there is to address the underlying issues that produce Imposter Syndrome. I seem to be lacking in self-confidence in certain areas, and I have not made the effort or put in the world necessary to gain confidence that I need to succeed.

I also need to be okay with sharing my fears and concerns with others, so that I can receive in turn the support and reassurance I need to move forward, past my insecurities. Having a support group can ground you and provide you with a sounding board to let you know when your fears are legit or just your mind tricking you.

I need to be okay with failing. Why should I worry about failing? Why does it matter if I am not an expert, or the best at something. WHO CARES! WHY DO I CARE? If you can get to the root of these two questions, and then set them aside, can you imagine how free you would feel? If you could make moves in your life without this crippling fear of failure, of people finding out about that failure? I would try so many new things and be happy looking so stupid while doing it!

I need to be kinder to myself. Period. I just do. I am very critical and hard on myself and there is no real reason why this is necessary.

Recognize imposter feelings. Know what they are, where they come from, and why they are popping up. If you understand what is happening to you, you can more quickly address them and move past them.

Summary

Imposter Syndrome is something that you can work through, and get past, if you are willing to challenge it. Part of it is finally coming to the realization, staggering as it is, that you are worth something.

I don’t know why this is so hard for so many people (especially women) to internalize. But it is.

So I’ll say it. And work on hearing it myself.

You are valuable.

The world is a better place because you are here.

I am valuable.

And the world is a better place because I am here.

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