How to Beat Imposter Syndrome

13th February 2020

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong are about to be found out; you shouldn’t really be in this job or deserve your accomplishments?

If so, you are not alone. These feelings are known as imposter syndrome. An estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Initially when identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, it was thought that it only affected women, but that has since been shown to be untrue; Impostor syndrome affects all kinds of people from all parts of life, irrespective of gender, age, status or position, whether  teachers, CEOs, or musicians.


The syndrome has been classified into 5 categories:

  • “Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence- and they usually notice even the tiny things that aren’t 100% perfect, and then berate themselves for not being good enough.


  • “Experts” feel the need to be fully equipped and know every piece of information before they start a project. It feels unbearable to not know things that they believe they should know. They constantly look for new qualifications or trainings to improve their skills and prove their worthiness to do their job. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria* in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.


  • The “Natural genius” has always achieved success through seemingly little work or stress. If they have to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. Having to struggle to achieve seems strange to them and they believe it is proof that they aren’t good enough.


  • “Soloists” are those who feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own; they feel they should be able to manage, sort it out or understand everything without help. If they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.


  • “Supermen” or “superwomen” push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something. 


Why does Imposter syndrome happen?

There is no one simple answer that experts agree on; some say it is a personality trait, more like a genetic disposition, whilst others believe it is due to personal experiences during your upbringing; For example, if your parents emphasised that you always need to work really hard and achieve high grades it could leave you feeling that your worth is reliant on outward success and anything less that the top isn’t enough.
Current circumstances: also impact on these feelings; some work environments foster a sense of strong competition where someone’s worth is judged by how well they are doing, and mistakes and failings are quickly pointed out. Our Social environment can also contribute to this feeling of inadequacy; Instagram, Facebook and other social media create an environment by which people continually judge each other-the lens of the telescope is constantly pointing at each person who engages with it. If you don’t “fit in” it can be hard to feel okay. Just today x factor winner Jessy Nelson from Little Mix revealed that online bullying following her appearance on X Factor drove her to try to kill herself. Judgment can affect our self-esteem and belief in our abilty and right to hold jobs and positions within society.


How to deal with it

Firstly, you need to recognise your thoughts and see them for what they are. Observing and not engaging with them can be really helpful. They are just thoughts and not necessarily truths. Ask yourself how these thoughts make you feel- are they helpful, do they make you feel better about yourself or worse? You don’t have to give them power. It may help to only allow yourself to give them a shred of credence if you can fully substantiate them- i.e. find hard evidence from external sources- ask others or objectively observe whether there is truth in them. If there is truth you now know what it is you need to work on. Develop a plan, get support and put it into action. However, most likely is it isn’t true.   Talk to others about it- it’s amazing how many people have thoughts like these.

You can also reframe your thoughts- the only difference between someone who experiences impostor syndrome and someone who does not is how they respond to challenges. “People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or competent or capable than the rest of us,” Young says. “It’s very good news, because it means we just have to learn to think like non-impostors.”
Underneath it all it may be that you don’t give yourself the credit you deserve. You may well recognise the talents, attributes and skills of others and readily hand out recognition and praise to them but turn a blind eye to your own. Try writing out an extensive list of. Now re-read this as if it was your best friend you are reading about- what would you be thinking of them?
If you are struggling with these feelings seek professional help; a counsellor or coach will offer support and ways to work through it with you.
Helen Lickerish
* One researcher found in a survey she piloted in 2014, that men typically apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the requirements, whereas women wait until they meet 100% of those same requirements. 

Topics related to this post:
2020, Imposter Syndrome, Helen Lickerish

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