Have you ever had a situation in your life where you feel like you’re a child playing grown-up? That feeling is called imposter syndrome. It’s the feeling that you aren’t quite qualified to do something, have something or be somewhere.
I can recall several situations in my life where I’ve had this overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t qualified to be doing something. I can remember the first time I gave a big presentation at my first “big girl job”. I was in my early twenties, delivering an 8-hour workshop to the leaders of my company on branding and marketing tactics. I distinctly remember standing at the front of the conference room, in the only suit I owned (which I purchased in 2011 to interview for jobs after college), looking at a bunch of men who were old enough to be my father (and some my grandfather) and thinking, “Who the hell am I to be giving these guys coaching on how to market this company?”
I remember bringing my son home from the hospital when he was 2 days old. My husband and I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out how to loosen the straps on the car seat before we could even leave the parking lot. Then we got home with this tiny little human. I looked at my husband and said, “Who let us take care of an actual, real life human?!” My son is 3 now and sometimes I still wake up waiting for the grown-up in the house to come in and take over.
When I started my own business, the first time someone asked me what I did for a living, I blushed and completely downplayed my achievements. “I own a small marketing business. It’s mostly just me. Doing social media stuff for small companies. It’s not that big of a deal, really. I don't have any formal training or anything, it’s just something I’m trying to learn.” What a terrible way to sell myself and my business! I sounded like I didn’t even believe in myself.
That’s because at first, I really didn’t. That’s what imposter syndrome does to you. It makes you believe that you aren’t good enough or that you’re a fraud. It’s the naughty little devil on your shoulder who tells you that you can’t possibly be doing the thing that you’re doing, and that there’s NO WAY you’re doing it well. It tells you that you’re a fake.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
The term imposter syndrome was first discussed in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, who defined the phenomenon as occurring among “high-achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success.” Sound familiar? Yeah, I know.
Imes and Clance first theorized that imposter syndrome was unique only to women. And although anecdotal data suggests that women suffer more frequently from imposter syndrome, it’s something that many men deal with as well. Imposter syndrome isn’t yet considered an official diagnosis in the DSM, but most psychologists recognize it as a very real feeling that is often associated with anxiety and depression.
So why do some people feel this way? There’s really no one answer or unique cause for why we experience imposter syndrome. It can likely be attributed to both nature AND nurture—personality traits as well as life circumstances. Someone who is predisposed to anxiety and is also high-achieving may feel imposter syndrome because their anxiety is telling them that they aren’t achieving enough. An adult who was always compared to an older sibling as a child might feel like they aren’t good enough in any aspects of their life, or that someone else could always do something better than them.
What does imposter syndrome look and sound like?
Imposter syndrome can come in many different forms of negative self thoughts. If you find yourself thinking any of the following, you might be suffering from imposter syndrome:
So how can you overcome these feelings?
If you’re a person who often finds yourself struggling with these negative self thoughts, it’s not all completely hopeless. There are some small things you can do to combat these thoughts and retrain your brain to think positively.
1. Acknowledge the thoughts for what they are.
It’s important to be aware of your thoughts and acknowledge them. When you recognize the negative self talk you can begin to understand them for what they are and take the necessary steps to deal with them.
2. Talk to people you trust.
Find a mentor, trusted friend or college and confide in them. Chances are they’ll understand where you’re coming from, because they’ve probably had similar feelings at some point or another. Sometimes just getting your feelings out of your brain and into the universe can help you let go a little bit. Someone with an outside perspective can also help you see things you wouldn’t see on your own, like the hard work that led up to your latest achievement.
3. Look at the data.
Data is your friend. Data helps us paint an unbiased picture of situations we are sometimes too close to. Take my example above about downplaying my business. I could look at data such as the number of clients served, annual revenue, growth over time or awards received as evidence that my business is, in fact, a big deal. Or that I am actually good at what I do. Data doesn’t lie, so anytime you’re feeling less than certain, look to the facts for confirmation.
4. Retrain your brain.
The most important factor in overcoming imposter syndrome is the ability to retrain your thoughts. No two thoughts can occupy the same space, so if you can turn those negative thoughts into positive ones, you’ll eventually train your brain to do this automatically. Let’s look at some examples.
Changing your mindset isn’t something that happens overnight. Keep at it, and each little win will begin to add up to a change in mindset. Check out our instant meditations and our Flourishing Test to help move your mind in the right direction.