How would you feel if you won a gold medal at the Olympics? We’d feel pretty shocked if we did, that’s for sure! But seriously, what if you trained and trained and were the best…would you feel like you deserved that medal for all your hard work and talent? Or would you have a sneaking, anxious feeling like you were fooling everyone and shouldn’t really be where you are? That’s how an Olympian who won gold at the last Olympics recently described her feelings – she said that she felt like she was struggling with “impostor syndrome.” This phenomenon is something that you might be dealing with, too, even if you haven’t had a word for it, so let’s take a look at what it is, and how you can feel less like a fraud and more like the superstar that you are.
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
If you’ve ever thought something like, “I’m a fraud,” or “I’m fooling everyone” when it comes to your achievements, level of competency, or abilities, then you already know what impostor syndrome is. And if you’re nodding along, you’re definitely not alone. Studies show that around 70% of people have experienced at least a bout of impostor syndrome in their life.
While impostor syndrome is most common in people who are considered high achievers, or in people with high level jobs, it can affect anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes,” according to psychologist Audrey Ervin. Anyone struggling with it will know the feeling of fear that they have just been lucky so far, and are going to be unmasked at any time as the fraud that they are.
What impostor syndrome is not is just regular old self-doubt. That feeling can creep in now and again, and make you doubt your abilities and competence, but impostor syndrome tends to be more persistent, and more colored by anxiety. Again according to Ervin, “I would describe it as a series of experiences. It’s characterized by chronic feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and fraudulence despite objective success. It’s hard to internalize success and genuinely hold the belief that you’re competent and capable.”
While impostor syndrome is not recognized as an “official” mental health condition, and has no diagnosis, there are some signs to look out for, including:
- Anxiety – Psychologists point out that it’s rare to see someone struggling with impostor syndrome who doesn’t also struggle with generalized anxiety or social anxiety.
- Persistent self-doubt about past, present, and future experiences – Again, impostor syndrome goes beyond just self-doubt.
- Fear of being “unmasked” – With impostor syndrome, you’ll experience a persistent fear that you’re going to be “found out” as a fraud, even though you deserve your achievements.
- Belief that your achievements are due to luck – You might not even feel happy about or proud of what you’ve done. In fact, you might actually feel relieved, or even distressed, that you’ve managed to get lucky or have experienced some sort of fluke.
- Need for validation – You might feel the need to look to authority figures (like a boss or family member) to decide if you’re really successful.
- Pressuring yourself – If you feel like an impostor, you’ll often pressure yourself to work harder to be worthy of what you feel you don’t deserve, to keep others from recognizing what you think your shortcomings are, and to ease your feelings of guilt.
- Big goals and disappointments – You might set some goals that would be very challenging for anyone to meet, and then feel disappointment when you fall short of your own expectations.
Who Experiences Impostor Syndrome?
As we pointed out above, anyone and everyone can struggle with impostor syndrome in their life. It was originally thought to mostly affect women, but studies have not shown that to be true. Others think that it only affects more accomplished or high-powered people, but that is not the case. What a lot of experts agree on, though, is that there are some patterns that appear in people who experience impostor syndrome, and that they fall into certain types:
- Perfectionists – For this type of person, meeting only 99% of their goals is a sort of failure. They set super high expectations for themselves, and making any mistakes will make them question themselves and their abilities.
- Experts – This type of person wants to know every piece of information and get every type of training, which can hold actually hold them back from speaking up for fear of looking stupid, or applying for jobs for fear of not looking qualified.
- Natural geniuses – Many things come naturally to this type of gifted person, so if they have to work hard at something or struggle with it, they will question everything and begin to think they are a complete impostor.
- Soloists – This type of person feels the need to do everything themselves, and if they have to ask for help, they will feel like they have failed.
- Supermen/women – These superheroes push themselves to achieve more than anyone else around them, and will feel stressed out and like an impostor if they’re not accomplishing something all the time.
Dealing with Impostor Syndrome
The above, as we said, are patterns of personality types that often experience a lot of impostor syndrome in their life, but really anyone can struggle with it. So how can you deal with these feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence? There’s not a treatment as such for impostor syndrome, but with a lot of focus on mindfulness, you can get on the road to overcoming it! You can start with strategies like the following:
Ok, maybe questioning yourself sounds like how you wound up with impostor syndrome, but we’re talking about a different kind of questioning yourself. If you find yourself having negative thoughts about your abilities or accomplishments, take a step back and start critically questioning these thoughts. Ask yourself, is this feeling really objectively accurate? Why am I feeling this way? Are these thoughts helping me or holding me back? You can delve even deeper, and ask things like “What core beliefs do I hold about myself?” “Do I believe I am worthy of love as I am?” or “Do I have to be perfect for others to approve of me?”
Reframing your thinking
Some psychologists suggest that there is a lot of superstition, or even almost compulsion, that fuels the cycle of feeling like an impostor. The suggestion, then, is that you gradually try to change those superstitions by changing your patterns of behavior. For example, let a friend see something you’re working on before you think it’s finished or completely perfect, or cut down on the amount of time you spend on perfecting something. This might help you put things in perspective, and put the importance of your achievements in their right place.
Embracing your Successes
If you’re struggling with impostor syndrome, you’re probably negating any successes in your life, no matter how big or small. To combat this, try to list your successes, no matter how big or small, and allow them to really sink in. Over time, you’ll hopefully begin to see a more realistic picture of your achievements, which will give a boost to your feelings of self-worth.
Sharing Your Feelings
Talk to someone about how you’re feeling. The outside perspective of a friend, mentor, or therapist can help bring you back to reality. You can also work on building up your network of mutual support; this network can offer guidance, validate your strengths, and encourage your efforts to grow (and you can do the same for them!).
Stopping the comparisons
Nobody can do it all, and you don’t need to be perfect or excel at everything. There will be others whose talents are different from yours, and that’s okay. Instead of beating yourself up in comparison with others, take an interest in what those other people have to offer, and in learning about their skills. And, as with most things, use social media wisely and in moderation!
Don’t let impostor syndrome hold you back
You might feel like you don’t belong, but don’t let that stop you from going for what you want. Know your worth, let others recognize your worth, and pursue your goals.
Feeling like a fake can be very, very real for a lot of us. From affecting our feelings of self-worth, to stressing us out with self-inflicted pressure to achieve more and more, to holding us back from pursuing our goals, the cycle of impostor syndrome can take a big toll on our lives. But instead of fighting these feelings, acknowledge them, and try not to let doubt control your actions. Remember to show yourself some kindness and compassion, and if you’re still struggling, speak to a therapist who can help put things in perspective.