Have you ever felt like you’re a fraud – at work, parenting, or in life in general – and that it’s just a matter of time before it’s discovered that you’re incompetent?
Me too. There’s a name for this not-so-pleasant feeling: imposter syndrome.
I remember hearing about the term imposter syndrome for the first time in an undergraduate psychology class. In that lecture, we were taught that imposter syndrome is when an individual doubts their accomplishments, feeling that they’re a fraud and that it’s only a matter of time before they’re discovered. At the time, I remember thinking how I could relate, but how it made sense because I was still only in undergrad with many things still to learn. Although we were told this feeling could persist throughout one’s life, I figured I would reach a point where I had it “figured out” and would no longer experience this.
Fast forward to around nine years later, sitting in my office of a business I built with my business partner from the bottom-up, in a career I love, and wondering – did I fool everyone to get to this point? Is it just a matter of time before I’m discovered, and everyone realizes I’m not good enough?
Although the feeling ebbs and flows, imposter syndrome is a reality that almost all of us will experience at times throughout our lives. Does it mean we’re incompetent and should give up our career paths, our dreams, and goals?
Imposter syndrome is not a pathological medical or psychological condition, despite what the “syndrome” in the name may suggest. Imposter syndrome is so much more common than one may think!
The prevalence of imposter syndrome is downplayed because we don’t tend to talk to others about feeling this way. It can feel embarrassing or uncomfortable to talk about it, as many of us feel like we’re the only ones who experience it. This can be further compounded by fear that others will judge us if they know how we really feel.
Social media can make matters even worse, when we scroll through our feed and see how the people we’re following “have it together” while we don’t. The truth is, most people only post the positive parts of their lives on social media, meaning that we end up comparing our inner negative feelings to how others present on the outside, without really knowing how that other person is feeling on the inside.
This sets us up for always feeling inadequate, since we can never truly know what’s going on in the inner world of the person behind the “perfect” social media posts.
So what can we do about it?
The number one thing we can do to combat imposter syndrome is to talk about it. The more we talk about it, the more we realize that we aren’t alone and that many others share the same fears, doubts, and self-judgments that we have. Talking about it also gives us the opportunity to get feedback from others about ourselves. If you’re feeling like a fraud and talk to a friend who reminds you of your accomplishments and all it took to get to where you are, you are more likely to re-think the fraud story you’ve been telling yourself. This ends up taking power away from the fraud story, and empowering you to know that you are competent.
Another strategy for coping with imposter syndrome can be to monitor your thoughts and do a self-validation activity with them.
For example, if you’re having the thought that you aren’t qualified to be doing your job, write down the thought exactly how it plays out in your head. It might look like “I’m fooling everyone to think I’m qualified for this. Someone is going to find out and I’m going to be fired and I don’t know what I’ll do then”. After writing this thought, think about and write down only the facts from this situation.
For example, you may write facts such as:
-I have the required education and experience for this job
-The interviewers chose me out of other candidates for this role
-I received a positive review at my last performance evaluation
-My boss emailed me a compliment last week about my performance
Next, it may be helpful to try and write the thought from the perspective of a close friend or loved one. For example, “It’s okay to feel like you aren’t good enough sometimes, but it doesn’t mean that the thoughts are true”, or “I know you’re a great employee – you work so hard”. In these statements we are validating the thought while also reminding ourselves that we don’t have to buy into it.
If you feel that you don’t have anyone to talk to about it, or that you’ve tried these strategies and you still feel the same way, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist about it. A qualified therapist can help you navigate thoughts of self-doubt and empower you to feel like you are in control, versus feeling like the thoughts control you.
Underneath imposter syndrome is a values system, meaning that there is something truly important to us about the areas we fear failure in.
They say, “We hurt where we care”, and this rings so true in the case of imposter syndrome.
We’re afraid of not being good enough because we truly value and care about being a good employee, parent, friend, or just person in general. What a wonderful thing it is to be so passionate about something, that we care this much about succeeding.