Have you ever had any doubt about your knowledge, skills and/or abilities? Have you ever thought you were “just lucky” to have that degree, that job, or that promotion, and that you only got it because you were at the right place, at the right time, with the right people (delete as appropriate)? Have you ever asked yourself why people give you such positive feedback about something you are not impressed with? If you have answered yes to these questions, you have experienced the impostor syndrome.

What is the impostor syndrome?

The impostor syndrome was first coined in 1978 by two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes, after they conducted a research on a high achieving women. They found that:

Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.

These women downplayed their achievements, were underestimating their abilities, and didn’t have a sense of their own success. This self-sabotaging mental process made them feel like they didn’t deserve praise and recognition.

The two researchers found that this originated from gender stereotypes, but also education and the cultural background. This is more present in women than men, who tend to be more confident and aware of their strengths. However, this can affect anyone at any moment, so here’s what you can do if it happens to you.

How to overcome the impostor syndrome

Understand how it makes you feel in the moment

We talk a lot of about emotions in The Institute of You, and for a good reason. Our body knows before our brain does. It is quite common to become aware that something is happening by realising that our body already reacted to it. The awareness of it allows us to label it. In order to put a name on it, it is important that you know how your body reacts to it, so you can read these signals next time it happens.

Think about a common situation where you tend to feel like a fraud:

  • How do you feel? You can be anxious, stressed, shaky, even a bit aggressive to compensate your doubts, etc.
  • Where do you feel it? Do you have a nod in your stomach, is your throat closing out, is your breathing difficult?

Acknowledge what makes you feel that way

Becoming aware of the impostor syndrome is the first step towards managing it effectively. You need to understand how you feel when you feel like a fraud, but also why you feel that way. It’s like collecting data for you to be able to analyse it and draw conclusions.

  • Was there someone specific or did it happen in a group?
  • What was it about this person/these people that made you doubt about yourself?
  • Do these people have a common trait that you wish you had or hadn’t?
  • What is your position regarding these people (manager, peer, employee)?
  • Is it always the same position you are in that makes you feel that way?

Once you have a clear picture of what and why, you can follow the tips below to manage it better.

Write down and remember why you got where you are

You are the reason why you got where you are. You worked well, you built trust, you found mentors, you developed yourself, you were proactive, etc. Depending on where you are in your career, and what you identified as your impostor syndrome trigger, your answer will be different. Take some time to write down what are the reasons you are where you are now.

List what makes you unique and strong

While you are at it, take notes of your strengths. What do you bring to the table? What are your values? How do you contribute to your team, your department, your company? Remember the positive feedback you have received. What is it? Write it down as well, so you visualise it.

Practice what you are not great at (yet)

Stretch a bit your comfort zone by working on things you are not fully comfortable with. The impostor syndrome can be a good kick to work on your personal development and make you stronger in things that make you doubt. For instance, if your doubts make you unable to speak in public like you would want to, get out there, find a training, practice relentlessly until you have the skill. If you are confident about why you are where you are now, and you also know how to speak in public, you will be unstoppable.

Everyone feels that way at some point

You are not alone. Everyone, at some point in their life and career, feels like they owe their success to luck. People don’t always share it (cf. next tip!), but they were, are, and will be in the same position at you: blocked by the impostor syndrome.

Talk to people you trust about it

Because everyone feels that way and no one talks about it, you can open up safely to people you trust. They will likely share their own experience with you, but also reassure you. They might give feedback (you certainly should ask for it since you trust them) so you know what their perception is. When we don’t feel confident we tend to be quite negative. Knowing what others really think is a good way to get a reality check and see that it’s probably not as bad as we think.

Don’t compare yourself to others

Comparing yourself to others is very unhealthy. Comparison fuels jealousy and unhappiness. You will always meet people that have something you don’t have. Stop thinking you are not good at something because someone else is amazing at it. You probably have other strengths this very person wishes they had too. Be self-driven. You are unique and strong, embrace it.

It’s okay to be wrong

Perfection is boring. You want to learn and grow, you don’t want to be the same person you were 10 years ago. Be humble and learn what you when you are wrong so you are not repeating your mistakes. Have you heard about growth mindset? We wrote an article about how to develop it.

With a growth mindset, self-awareness, mindfulness, and the motivation to get better at it, you can break from the impostor syndrome and get your confidence back.