Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome

You’ve been studying for the bar exam for weeks now and you are proud of yourself for working so hard and learning so much material. Things are starting to come together and you are just about to be cautiously optimistic when you get taken down by the Impostor Syndrome.

You on the outside: You get top grades. You have a great job lined up. People describe you as amazing.
You on the inside: I’m a fraud, my past successes have been flukes and any minute everyone is going to find out I don’t deserve to be here.

If you’ve ever felt this way, you are not alone and this feeling has a name: The Imposter Syndrome. In a 1978 study psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Immes identified the impostor syndrome as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” These people “are highly motivated to achieve [but] live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

You feel like each step forward pushes beyond the bounds of your ability. The self-doubt is overwhelming, almost paralyzing.

What do you think you’re doing?

Who gave you permission to be here?

What made you think you could do this?

We imposters hold ourselves to impossibly high standards that we’d never expect someone else to be able to achieve. Our thinking tends to be, “If I don’t know everything then I don’t know anything.”

The Impostor Syndrome causes us to overthink and second-guess ourselves. We spend too much time worrying about how everyone else is judging us (FYI: they’re not). Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy writes, “Impostorism steals our power and suffocates our presence. If even you don’t believe you should be here, how will you convince anybody else?”

I hope you noticed how I’ve used “we.” That’s because almost everyone experiences the Impostor Syndrome. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in my office struggling to get work done because I’m caught up in feelings of inadequacy. I’m afraid I’ve fooled everyone into thinking I’m more competent than I actually am. I did not earn this success and there is no way I can sustain it. And then I whine about it to one of my sisters and get a much needed reality check: my success is not a fluke and I know what I’m doing.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why, in spite of past achievement, do we view ourselves as imposters?

A big part of it is failing to internalize our success. The good news is that there are things we can do about it.

  • Normalize it. Imposter syndrome is a situational phenomenon so call it out when it hits. Take away the power of the feeling by talking about it. Not only will you feel a sense of relief by putting it out there but you’ll see that other people feel the same way.
  • Own your achievements. Accept praise and positive feedback. Allow yourself to feel good about what you’ve done and acknowledge that you earned it.
  • Stop being your own worst critic. It’s impossible to know everything so give yourself a break. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Don’t diminish your contributions. Present your ideas without qualifying them with negative disclaimers like, “this is probably dumb but…” or “you’ve probably already heard this but…”

This is easier said than done and although our feelings of inadequacy won’t disappear instantly or even completely, we don’t have to let the Impostor Syndrome control our lives.

-KSK

Want to learn more?

Check out Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, Your body language shapes who you are, or read her book, Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.