Many bright, capable, intelligent, hardworking, and successful people share a “dirty little secret:”
Deep down, they feel like they are not enough, that they don't fit in. Maybe these beautiful people even feel like complete frauds and know that someone will find them out at any minute.
This type of Visibility Block is Impostor Syndrome and impacts over 70% of the population. It can stop you and your business in its tracks.
Here's What We're Covering
- What is Impostor Syndrome
- Impostor Syndrome is More Common Than You Might Think
- Signs and Symptoms of Impostor Syndrome
- You're Not Alone: People You May Recognize with Impostor Syndrome
- How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
- Next Steps and a Challenge
Impostor Syndrome reflects a belief that you are inadequate and, or incompetent despite evidence that you are skilled and successful.
A 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes explain that those who struggle with Impostor Syndrome are highly motivated to achieve. And they also “maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact, they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.
“The impostor syndrome describes the countless millions of people who do not experience an inner sense of competence or success,” writes Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women*. “Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss them as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm—even computer error. Because people who have the impostor syndrome feel that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected, in their mind it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.”
In The Impostor Phenomenon, Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander provide a never-ending flowchart that illustrates the impostor cycle (created initially by Clance) that so many of us have difficulty escaping. By understanding where you are, you can begin to observe your behavior and choose a different path.
Research published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science in 2011 suggests that approximately 70 percent of people will experience at least one impostor syndrome episode in their lives. It is prevalent among people considered to be high-achievers.
While the original research was looking at Impostor Syndrome in women, further studies have found that it is common in men and women in many fields and niches.
The following groups have an even more prevalent occurrence of it:
- people who work alone,
- people who are members of marginalized groups,
- people in rapidly changing fields (e.g., technology and medicine); and
- people in areas that are creative (e.g., speaking, music, writing, etc.).
Impostor Syndrome is becoming more prevalent too! Social media users have created a voyeuristic environment where we can easily get caught up in “comparisonitis.”
For some, the short-term symptoms include taking on a new responsibility or a new job. For others, it can hold them up for their entire life.
Impostor Syndrome commonly shows up as either overperforming or underperforming.
Also, self-sabotage happens often for people with Impostor Syndrome. A 2014 study on Impostor Syndrome shows that those people with it tend to undervalue their skills or fail to recognize how other opportunities might place more substantial importance on their abilities.
As a result, they stay in their positions because they do not believe they can do better.
Here are some examples. Rank each item on a scale of 1-6, where 1=”never” and 6=”consistently.”
Frame of Mind
- You have a fear of being “found out.”
- You have attributed your accomplishments to charm, chance, connections, or other external factors.
- When you are in a room of smart, accomplished people, you believe you are the least qualified.
- It is difficult for you to take a compliment, or you believe they are “just being nice.”
- You think things like: “I'm not as intelligent / qualified as other people think I am.”
- You have thought or said, “It must have been a mistake that I was selected.”
- When you miss your high mark goal on something, you accuse yourself of “not being cut out for the task” and ruminate on it for days.
- Incompetent, unintelligent, or lazy are words you have used to describe yourself.
- You have a disembodied feeling about your successes — that somehow your accomplishments are not yours.
- “I did it that first time, but I have no idea how I'll pull it off again,” is something you have said.
- Even though you've been in your role for quite a while, you can relate to feeling that you still don’t know “enough.”
- Your confidence takes a tumble, or you feel shame when faced with a setback because you are not performing the way you would like.
- You price your services too low or don't ask for a raise because you don't believe that you deserve to be paid appropriately for what you do.
- You over-deliver every time you provide a product or service.
- Others describe you as a workaholic or micro-manager.
- People-pleasing is a common habit of yours – even if sometimes it is with reluctance or resentment.
- Others describe you as an “Early Bird” or “Night Owl” because you work outside standard working hours.
- You feel like you haven’t truly earned your title despite numerous degrees or achievements.
- You over-plan, or you need everything detailed out before you make a move.
- You have a track record of getting “straight A’s” or the equivalent on everything you do.
- You believe you should be able to learn something on the first try.
- You dislike the idea of having a coach/mentor because you can (and should) handle things on your own.
- You firmly feel that you need to accomplish things independently (because asking for help would prove you are a fraud.) You might commonly think, “I don’t need anyone’s help.”
- You get stressed when you’re not working and find downtime difficult or completely wasteful.
- You hold yourself to a very high, possibly unsustainable, standard (certainly more elevated than you have others) and never feel like you quite measure up.
- Perfectionism paralyzes you.
- You don't finish nearly as many projects as you start.
- You have let your hobbies and passions fall by the wayside.
- You will launch that next whatever as soon as you get your next degree/certification/etc.
- You hide. You don't speak up, don't say yes to opportunities, or don't scale your business.
- You shutter when someone refers to you as an expert or wants to put you in the spotlight.
- You avoid challenges because you don't want to try something unless you know you can be great.
- You refrain from applying to job postings or client requests unless you meet every single educational requirement.
- You are a chronic procrastinator.
If you think you might have Impostor Syndrome, you are not alone. I have shared in articles and podcast interviews that I am a recovering workaholic, a recovering people-pleaser, and a recovering perfectionist.
All of those behaviors that I'm “recovering” from were a result of Impostor Syndrome. And let me tell you, I had it bad! So bad that I almost worked myself to death quite literally.
As I created the list of symptoms, I had to smile at myself because I have come a long way. At one time, I could have checked off 28 of the 33 signs on the list! Life is much more joyous now.
Here are some more people that have expressed challenges with Impostor Syndrome. See if anything they say feels familiar or gives you comfort.
Dr. Maya Angelou
“Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.” —New York Times, October 2015
Despite her self-doubt, Dr. Maya Angelou was a fiercely accomplished person. In addition to her prolific writing, she served on two presidential committees, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award, and won five Grammys for her spoken recordings.
“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” —Conversation with friend cited in multiple sources
Albert Einstein published more than 300 scientific papers and more than 150 non-scientific works. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. He was a theoretical physicist who developed one of the two pillars of modern physics, called the Theory of Relativity. Einstein's work is also known for its influence on the philosophy of science. He is best known to the general public for his mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc2, which has been called “the world's most famous equation.” His originality and intellectual accomplishments have made the word “Einstein” synonymous with “genius.”
“Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up … ” —Lean In*, March 2013
Sandberg is the founder of LeanIn.org, chief operating officer (COO) of Facebook, and billionaire. Before being the Facebook COO, she was vice president of global online sales and operations at Google. Before that, she served as chief of staff for United States Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers. In 2012 Time 100 named her as one of the most influential people in the world.
“What’s it called when you have a disease and it keeps recurring? I go through [acute impostor syndrome] with every role. I think winning an Oscar may in fact have made it worse. Now I’ve achieved this, what am I going to do next? What do I strive for? Then I remember that I didn’t get into acting for the accolades, I got into it for the joy of telling stories.” —Time Out, September 2016
Lupita Nyong' o has acted in numerous venues, including the blockbusters “12 Years a Slave” and “Black Panther.” She earned a Master's from Yale School of drama, a Tony Award nomination, and won several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She has also written a children's book named Sulwe*, which became a number-one New York Times Best-Seller.
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ . . . just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.“—The Independent, March 2010
Tina Fey has a long list of successful comic ventures and awards to her credit. In 2008, the Associated Press gave Fey the AP Entertainer of the Year award for her Sarah Palin impression on Saturday Night Live. In 2010, Fey won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, becoming the youngest-ever recipient of the award. She is a Golden Globe (3) winner, Primetime Emmy Award winner (9), Screen Actors Guild Award winner (5), and Writers Guild of America Award winner (7).
“So I have to admit that today, even 12 years after graduation [from Harvard], I’m still insecure about my own worthiness. I have to remind myself today, You are here for a reason. Today, I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999 … I felt like there had been some mistake — that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove I wasn’t just a dumb actress. ” —Harvard Commencement speech, 2015
Natalie Portman is a Harvard graduate, a multiple Golden Globe winner, and an Academy Award winner. She has spoken candidly about her challenges with imposter syndrome and how she negotiated the feelings of fraud.
Feelings lead to behaviors, and there are costs to the actions you choose. Since Impostor Syndrome is caused in several different ways and presents both as overwork and underwork, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming Impostor Syndrome. Think through the symptoms you have identified above and then pick a few actions listed below.
Decide You Want to Change Your Mindset
All transformation begins with the decision to change. Understand how your current behavior is holding you back from the life you want and decide to take steps to support yourself.
Talk with Someone
Talking with a trusted professional or friend/family member is a significant first step. An advisor can help you distinguish between your perception and your reality. Opening up can also help you identify the source of your distress. Note: choose wisely. Pick someone to talk with that can help you see a different perspective.
Accept that Nobody is Perfect
Our brilliance often lies in our imperfection. Accepting all of yourself, including your flaws, is a critical part of having healthy self-esteem and self-worth. By acknowledging that sometimes things cannot be perfect, you'll increase your happiness and resilience.
Keep a Record of Your Accomplishments
Have a spot where you write down and can revisit your accomplishments and successes. Read your old letters of recommendation. If you have received awards, read the inscription. People who have Impostor Syndrome are often surprised when they see a written list of their accomplishments. You don't only look good on paper. You have accomplished every achievement listed.
Observe Your Negative Thoughts
Often a person with impostor syndrome will have conversations in their head that they would never have with another person. Start by recognizing when you are talking down to yourself and then work towards changing that internal dialog. As you observe the negative thoughts, consider asking, “Does that thought help or hurt me?”
Create High-Quality Connections in Your Life
When you have social support in your life, it can help you keep your Impostor Syndrome in check. Researchers have found that having “high-quality” relationships are the most beneficial. When you have a few high-quality friends that you can discuss your work with, it can help reduce the sense of isolation that often comes with Impostor Syndrome.
Treat it as an Experiment!
When you experience new opportunities, try: “It's Not Change; it is an Experiment” By thinking of your project as an experiment, you can get past your analysis paralysis and get your projects live. Then, as you learn things, you can make modifications.
Permit Yourself to Learn as You Go
It is ok to have an off day. It is ok to make a mistake. When you permit yourself to learn as you go, you enable yourself to have more significant wins than having everything figured out upfront.
Learn from Others
Think of a few people you know that you admire or respect. Watch how they achieve success and handle complements/recognition. Ask them what strategies they use to get back on their feet when they have a setback. You can strengthen your self-efficacy by watching others stand firm in theirs.
Practice Saying “Thank You”
If you find yourself shrugging off or downplaying a compliment or honor, practice merely saying “thank you” without adding anything else to your statement.
Teach Someone What You Know or Become a Mentor
It is easy to forget how far you have come over time. When you teach or mentor, you can remember what it was like not to know something and recognize that learning is on a continuum. You may have more to learn, but you have also come a long way!
Stop Comparing Yourself to That Person
When you compare yourself to others, it is easy to get caught in the trap of “I'm not good enough.” Emerson said, “Envy is ignorance…” and he suggested that every time you do, you are losing a little bit of yourself. You are not here to live someone else's life. Evaluate how much you are comparing and consider turning “off” those sources. Some familiar sources of comparison are Facebook, Instagram, and biographies of “successful” people. Replace that comparison time with learning to respect your own experiences.
Stop Waiting – Take Action Today
Every time you seek perfection or let fear create procrastination, you hold someone else up from having the breakthrough they want. When you hold back, you are robbing the world of all that you have to offer.
You Can't Serve Others if Your Ideas Are Always in Incubation Mode!
Rather than saying, “I have no idea what I am doing,” consider, “Well, I've never done that before, but I can figure it out” or “I have never done that before, but X knows all about it, so I'll ask them.”
Use the Science of Neuroplasticity to Your Advantage
Neuroplasticity is our brain's ability to adjust to its environment, and you can use it to your advantage to start re-writing your story. Sit down with paper and pen and write out 500 reasons that you are amazing. Yes, you have 500, even if you feel the need to repeat yourself. The act of writing out your successes and positive qualities will begin to create new neural pathways and support your change in thinking.
If you have experienced Impostor Syndrome, maybe today is the day to start accepting and embracing all of your capabilities. You can do it right here!
Tell someone. Acknowledge something that you have not done because of your Impostor Syndrome. If you are not quite ready to “out” yourself, you can choose to stay anonymous in your comments.
Maybe you have not written that book.
Maybe you have not started being a guest expert on other people's podcasts.
Maybe you have not launched that new program or event.
Maybe you have not purchased that bold outfit you know you want.
Maybe you have not talked to that man/woman you are attracted to.
Or share the number of items above you checked off from the “symptom” list. Or share how your impostor syndrome has impacted your life and what you commit to change. The list of possibilities is endless. Share yours.
**If YOU ARE READY TO TAKE DEEPER ACTION**
Please do something about it! The comment you make will be a significant first step. It will be even more impactful if you decide to work on it intentionally.
If you'd like help figuring what blocks you have in your way and how to blast through them to your success, I can certainly help you with that. Click here to get started.
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