Feel Like an Impostor? Join the Club
You’ve become adept at explaining away or minimizing evidence of your success and hence never really owning your accomplishments. Because you believe you’ve fooled others into thinking you are brighter and more capable than you “know” you are, you live in fear of being unmasked as an impostor.
The impostor syndrome packs too much of an emotional punch to try to reason it away. Overcoming it requires self-reflection as well. Keep a notebook handy to capture “ahas” as they occur and you’ll be able to more easily trace your entire journey from impostorism to the more confident you.
Consider the Source
There are seven perfectly good reasons you might feel like a fraud: family expectations and messages; being a student; working in an organizational culture that feeds self-doubt; working alone; working in a creative field; being or just feeling like a stranger in a strange land; and having to represent your entire social group. Once you recognize that many people in similar scenarios experience these same self-doubts, you can put your own impostor feelings in less personal and more situational terms.
Step back and examine how family messages and expectations may contribute to your impostor feelings.
- Note which situation(s) discussed here you identify with. For each one complete this sentence: How I feel is perfectly normal given the fact that____________________________________.
- Make a note of any aha moments you had when reading about your situation.
- If you still believe you are the only one who feels like a fraud, seek out opportunities—in person or online—to connect with others in your situation and raise the topic of the impostor syndrome.
It’s Not All in Your Head
Remember the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Despite all the gains women have made, the essential truth remains: If you are male or pale, you are presumed competent until proven otherwise. Much of the bias against female competence—bias held by both men and women—is subtle and largely unintentional. But that does not mean it’s trivial or inconsequential.
Succeeding in any endeavor or field takes hard work, determination, and patience. Making it as a woman requires this and more. On top of being aware of the ways you hold yourself back, be mindful of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways external realities can whittle away at your self-confidence.
Your impostor experience may feel deeply personal, but there is a larger social context. Knowing this can help you connect the dots between what’s happening out there and your own false sense of inadequacy.
Stay alert to the ways in which society as a whole views female competence negatively.
- Take questions about female competence seriously but not personally.
- Look for ways you may collude in devaluing or stereotyping yourself and other women.
Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Although impostors everywhere share the fundamental fear of being unmasked, not everyone handles it the same way.
Up until now you probably weren’t aware of how you’ve managed to keep your impostorism under wraps all these years. That’s why it’s important to untangle the unconscious coping and protecting strategies you use to handle your impostor syndrome. In doing so you gain valuable insight into how your self-limiting pattern serves you—and at what cost. This is your “before” picture. Knowing this information will help you
create the picture of the strong, self-confident person you were meant to be.
Identify the coping and protecting mechanism you use to manage your impostor anxiety and keep from being found out.
- Untangle your impostor pattern by determining its function, naming your crusher, and assessing the hidden costs.
- Choose one action step to take this week.
What Do Luck, Timing, Connections, and Personality Really Have to Do with Success?
People who identify with the impostor syndrome externalize their success by attributing it to factors outside of themselves. In reality, evidence that you are bright and capable is all around you. In order to feel fully deserving of your success you must learn to claim your accomplishments on a gut, visceral level. This begins with understanding that external factors such as luck, timing, connections, and personality play a valid role in everyone’s success—including yours.
Create a list of all your achievements large and small.
- Next to each achievement note the role luck, timing, connections, or your own personality may have played in your ultimate success.
- Then write down the specific actions you took to take full advantage of these contributors.
- Make an agreement with yourself that the next time someone compliments your work you will say, “Thank you.” Then zip it
The Competence Rule Book for Mere Mortals
As the Perfectionist you are welcome to hold on to your pursuit of high standards, but shed the shame you feel when you fall short.
- As the Natural Genius you can keep your desire for mastery, as long as you recognize the time and effort that’s required to get there.
- As the Expert you can still value the importance of knowledge, but ditch the unrealistic expectation that you should know it all.
- As the Rugged Individualist you can take pride in the knowledge that you can go it alone if you have to, just stop thinking you must.
- As the Superwoman/Man/Student you can honor your desire to be the very best you can on multiple fronts, but abandon the idea that you have to do it all.
Everyone has a personal definition of competence. The extreme and unrealistic notions of what it takes to be competent only perpetuate the lie that you are an impostor. If you continue to measure yourself using this same warped yardstick, it will not just be harder to beat the impostor syndrome, it will be impossible.
Lower your internal bar by adopting the healthy rules
The quicker you can “right-size” your unsustainably high performance standards, and the more effort you make to integrate this new way of thinking into your life, the more competent and confident you will feel. Guaranteed.
Responding to Failure, Mistakes, and Criticism
It’s well known that from a young age females are more likely than males to internalize failure and personalize criticism. Women blame themselves more when things go wrong, take criticism personally, and have a hard time mentally letting go of both. By comparison, men’s more tempered response can make them appear more confident and, presumably, more competent. In reality what we’re seeing are the effects of socialization. Regardless of how we got here, a key to ditching the impostor syndrome is to learn a new, self-affirming response to failure, mistakes, and criticism—one that recognizes these things as both inevitable and offering priceless lessons on the road to success.
Failures offer valuable lessons—and opportunities for growth.
- Failure is just a curve in the road.
- It’s how you handle failure that counts.
Is It “Fear” of Success or Something Else?
success, indifference can easily be confused with fear and self-doubt. In fact, there are any number of non-confidence-related factors that can make you reluctant to move ahead, including a mismatch between your definition of success and what is expected, the additional demands that come with success, and your relationship with money. Once you’re aware of these things you can sort out for yourself, are you anxious because you don’t think you can do it, or do you just not want it?
Explore other reasons why you may be anxious or ambivalent about moving ahead, such as being in the wrong career, managing increased complexity, suffering the pitfalls of specializing, or having diminished time to do the work you enjoy.
Your natural skills and talents are bound to be less leveraged if you’re in a job that does not involve much, or enough, of what you most love to do. If you think a career change is in order, spend less time worrying about what you think you should do and ask yourself instead, “What do I really love to do?” If you’re still not sure, consult a traditional career coach; if you are interested in self-employment, find a coach who specializes in helping people see ways they can profit from their passions.
Why “Fake It Till You Make It” Is Harder for Women—and Why You Must
As you continue to whittle away at your impostor feelings, you’ll probably have to wing it a little—or a lot, especially in the beginning. The key is to not wait until you feel confident. Change your behavior first and allow your confidence to build. That’s where it helps to “fake it till you make it.”
There is no right or wrong way to feel about BS or faking it. At the same time, it’s important to be aware that your feelings are probably shaped to a large degree by gender. More important, know that your thinking on the subject can impact your ability to feel as confident as you deserve to.
Whether you call it bullshitting, bluffing, winging it, holding your own, flying by the seat of your pants, or just plain chutzpah is not important. What matters is that you start to act as capable as you really are, even—no, make that especially—when you don’t always feel it. Don’t let the more objectionable aspects of male hyperconfidence lead you to miss out on what remains one of the most powerful impostor-busting strategies there is—acting confident despite your very human self-doubts.
Rethinking Risk Taking and Cultivating Chutzpah
Confidence comes from taking risks, owning the wins, and learning from the losses. Some people with impostor syndrome embrace uncertainty and have a strong desire to prove themselves. Overall, though, women take fewer risks than men. The reasons are complex but are likely a combination of nurture, nature, and how each perceives the benefits of a given risk.
Women routinely take financial and emotional risks that go unacknowledged by society and themselves. Whether you thrive on the thrill of the risk or you take a more measured approach, you can always build up your risk-taking muscles even more. You don’t have to be a “BS artist” to fake it till you make it.
Remember that not taking risks may be the riskiest move of all.
- Recognize those risks you do take that you take for granted.
- Take one step a day to build your risk-taking muscles.
Benjamin Disraeli said, “Fear makes us feel our humanity.” If you’re hoping for infinite confidence, be careful what you wish for. Some of the most accomplished and creative people are also the most in touch with both the humanity and the utility of fear and self-doubt. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why Albert Einstein would say, “I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent; curiosity, obsession, and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.” Did you catch when he said, “combined with self-criticism”?
Remember, it’s been found that 70 percent of people have experienced feelings of fraudulence. That begs the question, what’s up with the other 30 percent? Given how widespread and normal the impostor phenomenon is, why is no one studying the people who’ve never felt this way? The point is, if feelings of self-doubt and phoniness and self-criticism and fear were all bad, it seems unlikely that they would be so familiar to so many emotionally well-adapted people.
There was a time in Renée Zellweger’s career when, she says, she would wake up at night and think, “Oh, damn! Here we go again! What were they thinking? They gave me this role; don’t they know I’m faking it?” Zellweger told an Australian reporter that she felt “that luck plays a great part in this journey that I’ve been experiencing.” What’s different now is that she understands better the business aspects of the industry and what it takes to prepare for a role as best she can. “So in that way,” Zellweger said, she does “feel a little bit better. But never quite. And I’m fine with that, because when you’re comfortable, maybe you’re also complacent. I think there’s a danger in that. And it might be kind of boring too.”
Understanding and unlearning the kind of self-limiting philosophies and patterns that drive impostor feelings is not a onetime event. Personal awareness and change take time. There will be moments of profound clarity and abject confusion. There will be victories as well as setbacks.