Your guide to overcoming the ‘imposter syndrome’

How not to let feeling like a fraud keep you from achieving your potential

You hear the MC describing your achievements as you wait to speak.  You feel sick, but it’s not just pre-performance jitters; you “know” that you do not deserve the praise you are receiving.  “This is it,” you think.  “Now they will find out that I am a fraud, that I don’t really know anything.”

Sound familiar?  If your answer is “yes”, you are in good company.  The “Imposter Syndrome” - the chronic sense that we are a fake about to be exposed - occurs to 70 percent of us, including such non-controversially acclaimed talents as actresses Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, and Emma Watson,  Nobel laureate Maya Angelou, and WHO Chief Margaret Chan.  Even Einstein acknowledged that the “exaggerated esteem” in which his life work was held made him feel “ill at ease” and rendered him “an involuntary swindler”. 

What is the Imposter Syndrome?  

Identified in 1978, this psychological phenomenon (not a mental disorder!) prevents people from “owning” their accomplishments, despite external evidence of their competence.  Those with the syndrome remain convinced that they do not deserve the success they have achieved, attributing it instead to “luck” or “a fluke”. 

Here is the good news:  to “come down with” Imposter Syndrome, you actually need to be a high achiever (or a perfectionist); “slackers” need not apply.  Low achievers, those with low standards, and narcissists cannot be Syndrome victims.  

The feelings and behaviours of Imposter Syndrome

The first clue that you might have the syndrome is the chronic feeling that you are a “phony”, despite ample evidence that you are not.  Imposter Syndrome victims are diligent, working harder than most others, because they believe they need to compensate for not being genuinely competent. Beyond that, they believe that hard work will prevent others from finding out “the truth” about their “deficits”.  Understandably, many victims resort to use of charm to gain approvals.  The irony here is that, when they are praised, they believe it was because they were charming, not because they were successful!  Syndrome women, especially, avoid displays of confidence because believing in their intelligence and abilities may cause rejection.

Imposter Syndrome victims are overwhelmingly anxious, with feelings of insecurity, a sense of being out of their depth, and full of self-doubt.  They hold back their good ideas.  

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

You can escape this potential-denying condition.  Here’s how.

1. Fake it (just a little).  Yep, after all this discussion about you feeling like a fake, I am suggesting you go ahead and be one, temporarily.  Stick your hand up for the higher position, the challenging competition, the demanding role, even if you don’t feel ready for it (hint:  no one ever feels totally ready, but after doing it for some time, you’ll wonder why you ever doubted yourself).  I know you won’t carry the fakery so far that you act unethically.

2. Let the compliments in.  Own your successes; you didn’t get lucky by chance.  This will be easier after you . . . 

3. Look in an accurate mirror.  Here you may realistically identify what you do well.  This is easier if you have been able to . . . 

4. Take stock of your success.  Yes, I mean “stock” as in inventory:  a frequently updated, written list of your skills, accomplishments, and experiences, to understand how you are successful and strengthen your capacity to internally validate yourself (what successful people do).

5. Be strategic with silence.  There are really two rules here:  (1) don’t suffer in silence.  Rather, talk to a trusted friend, coach, or mentor about your secret fears, or expound at length into a journal/recorder.  That way you stop the Syndrome tendency to isolate yourself in your fear.  (2) Zip it up.  This opposite rule applies to any time you are tempted to publicly “confess” all your failings out of nervousness or fear.  Get a compliment?  Just say, “Thanks” and shut up!

6. Focus on the value you bring, not on attaining perfection.  Remember, if you have Imposter Syndrome, you’re a high achiever.  Pat yourself on the back for not being mediocre; rather, you are committed to giving your best, which is different from being the best.  Overcoming this thing requires some self-acceptance; you don’t have to be perfect to enrich others’ lives.

7. Comparisons are insidious; stop them!

8. Hang on to your ambitions, dreams, and goals.  In fact, pursue them.  This means you must risk exposure.  Others will now see how talented and capable you are.  The alternative?  Living a life of boring mediocrity, of “settling” for less.

It takes courage to let go of self-doubt and pursue the life you really want.  You risk exposure, falling short, and losing face.   You could be “found out”.  But what you really expose yourself to when you throw off the heavy robes of the Imposter Syndrome is a world of opportunity which is more congruent with your wholeness. 

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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