How to Beat Imposter Syndrome

Julia LaFauci, LCSW November 22, 2021

If you’ve ever felt like a fraud where you should belong, you probably know what imposter syndrome is like. Humantold offers tips to understand and manage these feelings.

If you’re unfamiliar with imposter syndrome, you’re certainly not alone. But chances are, you have experienced this phenomenon at some point in your life without knowing the language to describe your experience. It’s the feeling that you don’t belong, or like your colleagues or friends will learn you’re a fraud. These perceptions can be detrimental to your mental health. Here’s an explanation of what it is and how to beat imposter syndrome.

What is Imposter Syndrome? 

Two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, coined the term imposter syndrome in their 1978 study on high-achieving women. After hours of individual psychotherapy with a cohort of successful, intelligent women, Clance and Imes found that the group lacked an internal sense of success.

This was a stark contrast to the male counterparts they interviewed, who collectively attributed their successes to individual strengths and blamed failures on external causes. The idea of being an ‘imposter’ emerged. Subsequent studies after 1978 then confirmed the phenomenon as one where women ignored any evidence supporting their intellectual achievements.  

The term applies to the human experience of doubting our capabilities, coupled with a crushing pressure to achieve perfection in our careers or positions. It’s an overwhelming fear that we are fraudulently in a role, undeserving of the prestige or position. 

Do I Have Imposter Syndrome? 

Imposter syndrome is interviewing for a job you are qualified for and fearing you are utterly foolish for even attempting to apply. It’s earning that extra bonus on a paycheck and feeling like your work doesn’t merit such a reward. It’s getting into college, questioning the decision of the admissions team beyond reasons other than your passing test scores and glowing academic records. 

Looking closely at the phrase, the word ‘syndrome’ stands out as a misnomer for what occurs, as the term itself implies there is a set of diagnostic criteria to meet, an affliction that warrants swift intervention. Imposter syndrome is quite simply a feeling. And while it may just be a feeling, it can be a problematic lens through which we view our accomplishments or successes. It can lead to chronic feelings of anxiety and depression. 

Imposter Syndrome Test

A quick way to understand if you have imposter syndrome is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you feel like you deserve success?
  • Do you think your accomplishments were a fluke?
  • Do you have a difficult time accepting compliments?
  • Do you believe others when they praise your skills?
  • Do you feel like you’ve earned the rewards you get for your hard work?
  • Do you downplay your achievements because you don’t find them as impressive as other people’s?
  • Are you afraid that people will think you’re not intelligent or accomplished enough?

People who experience imposter syndrome may also feel like they don’t belong, and like any fraud, believe everyone will figure that out sooner or later. While there are many imposter syndrome types, those examples are common.

Types of Imposter Syndrome 

You don’t have to be female to experience imposter syndrome. The imposter phenomenon affects almost everyone at some point in life. Many people experience imposter syndrome in relationships or school, particularly college and grad school.

Studies shed light on the specific characteristics that make up imposter syndrome. Those who experience it may have inherent traits of perfectionism, emphasizing higher achievement starting in adolescence. It may also come about when one struggles to accept praise, worries about failure, or fears alienation from others if they achieve success.

Although decades have passed, the experience of imposter syndrome remains. It has become pervasive across gender, race, and class—considerations that did not factor into the founding study. Their glaring absence has some experts wondering if there is too much emphasis on the individual, with minimal accountability on the systems that continue to uphold, foster, and exacerbate this experience. 

It also raises larger questions. Are we all susceptible to feeling like an ‘imposter’ in moments of achievement? Or are systemic issues like racism and sexism precipitating factors that make way for the feelings of imposter syndrome? Should we stop telling women they have imposter syndrome altogether? What makes imposter syndrome stronger for some more than others? 

How to Deal With Imposter Syndrome

While the conversations around imposter syndrome are ongoing, the good news is that there are ways to approach these troubling feelings. Here are some places to start:

1. Be mindful of how you talk to yourself: As humans, we are hard on ourselves and often don’t extend the same grace to ourselves that we would to others in a similar position. Say your colleague received positive feedback. You wouldn’t say to her she is undeserving or “just got lucky.” Remember to treat yourself with the same kindness and positive regard. 

2. Accept praise: Practice learning how to accept compliments and praise from others, both personally and professionally. Imposter syndrome often leads people to respond with a justification or negation to the praise. Get in the habit of saying “Thank you for noticing” or “I appreciate your feedback.” Simply saying “Thank you” can also be a complete sentence. 

3. Reframing: This is a common technique in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for eliminating cognitive distortions. It requires looking at thoughts or behaviors in a more positive way and shifting the way you think. The fear of failure can be reframed as an opportunity to gain experience and grow despite the outcome. The more you practice it, the more natural it will become.

4. Normalize it: 70% of people have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their lives—this means you are likely to find friends, family members, and colleagues who understand exactly what you are feeling. Seek out networking opportunities or mentorship roles from someone who has been in your shoes before. 

Resist the urge to work harder or hold yourself to higher standards to combat your imposter feelings. Doing so will only lead to anxiety, depression, guilt, and burnout. Using these techniques can help you learn how to beat imposter syndrome over time. When you experience the opposite of imposter syndrome, you instead feel awesome, confident, and self-assured.

How to Fight Imposter Syndrome

Although the term imposter syndrome began as a phenomenon in women, it does not affect females alone. You may feel like an imposter in various settings outside the workplace, like in your relationships or schooling. But you are not a fraud.

The more you talk about and normalize your feelings, the better you will feel. Remember, you are not alone. If you find yourself experiencing imposter syndrome, start with these small steps. And know that we are here to help if you need it.

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