Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and Self-Doubt

Do you fear that you will eventually be discovered as a fraud and you might get found out at any minute?

Then you are experiencing something often referred to as imposter syndrome which stems from a sense of inadequacy, despite objectively being competent.

Whereas you may never fully overcome these feelings, and never really have to, there are opportunities to better balance your thinking and self-perception.

Imposter syndrome can manifest in various ways and affect people from all walks of life, including high achievers, professionals, students, and entrepreneurs. While imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable mental health condition, it can cause significant distress and impact your self-esteem, confidence, and overall well-being. People with imposter syndrome may experience anxiety, stress, and depression, which can lead to burnout and other physical and emotional health issues.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where individuals doubt their abilities and accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of their competence. Thoughts can include the feeling of having deceived others into believing they are more capable than they really are and fear that they will eventually be discovered as less so. There are several risks associated with imposter syndrome.

CoachStation: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and Self-Doubt

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One of my favourite leadership experts, Madeleine Blanchard covers imposter syndrome in an excellent post. Her response details many great points, including the following excerpt. I estimate that 7 out of 10 extraordinarily successful people I have coached have suffered the same way, so you are definitely not alone. The official research statistics are all over the place—but there has been plenty of research. I have noticed this condition can be particularly acute among people who don’t tick every box on the “expected achievements” list for the position they occupy—so your lack of an advanced degree is probably exacerbating your paranoia.

The way I have always worked on imposter syndrome with clients is to ask them to do a reality check. The first step is to ask yourself:

  • Have I received an official notice from my boss that I am not meeting performance expectations?
  • Have I ever lied about my qualifications and been afraid of being found out? (This one is a doozy—I once worked with a client who had lied about graduating from college and was, in fact, found out. It was embarrassing, but she kept her job.)
  • Have I received performance feedback that leads me to think I am failing at my job in some way?
  • Can I point to evidence that leads me to think others suspect I am not worthy of the job I have?

I suspect the answer to all of the above questions is no. If so, then, as I always say, stay focused on reality and let it go. I recently came across a piece in a book that I think is worth sharing: My Friend Fear by Meera Lee Patel. Patel defines IS: “The imposter syndrome is the fear that our achievements aren’t deserved, that underneath our progress and success we’re actually fraudulent and unworthy. When we receive a raise or promotion at work, we believe we simply got lucky—it couldn’t be that our efforts and determination finally paid off.”

But Patel said something else I have never heard or read before: “While this particular fear will do everything in its power to dismiss your successes, it also highlights your most intimate wish: to be a caring parent, a successful writer, or a trusted friend. The imposter syndrome affects those of us who wish to be of value—not because we are ego-driven, but because we want to believe we have something to offer.

Our doubt comes from our desire.

When you feel the imposter syndrome coming on, invite it to sit beside you. Close your eyes and feel the waves of self-doubt vibrate through your bones. Slowly, let them soften and subside. Watch carefully as the guilt you feel outlines the things you care about most in this world, and feel gratitude for your ability to discern what makes you feel alive. This is not easy work, but it is essential. Like all other fears, the imposter syndrome has two faces: one that can help and one that can harm. Which you choose to see is up to you.” (2)

Being present and in the moment can be a powerful tool for reducing imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is often fueled by negative self-talk and the fear of being exposed as a fraud, as mentioned. When you are fully present and engaged in the present moment, you will more easily recognise these negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

By focusing on your current actions and surroundings, you can also let go of worries about the past or future, which can contribute to feelings of inadequacy. Additionally, being present can help you to fully appreciate accomplishments and recognise the value you bring to the table.

By practicing mindfulness and staying present, you can reduce the impact of imposter syndrome and feel more confident in yourself and your abilities.

People experiencing feelings of imposter syndrome may also avoid new challenges and opportunities for fear of failure, which can hinder their personal and professional growth. Fortunately, there are several ways to manage imposter syndrome:

  • Recognise and acknowledge imposter feelings: The first step in managing imposter syndrome is to recognise and acknowledge these feelings. By identifying imposter thoughts and recognizing them as a common and normal experience, you will start to challenge and reframe negative self-talk.
  • Focus on strengths: People with imposter syndrome often focus on their weaknesses and shortcomings. Instead, it can be helpful to focus on your strengths, skills, and accomplishments. Keeping a record of successes and positive feedback can help to combat self-doubt and build confidence.
  • Embrace mistakes and failures: No one is perfect, and making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process. Rather than dwelling on failures, individuals can use them as an opportunity to learn and grow. Embracing mistakes can help to reduce anxiety and build resilience.
  • Seek support: Talking to friends, family, or a therapist can help to manage imposter syndrome. Supportive people can provide encouragement, perspective, and validation, which can help you to build self-confidence and overcome imposter feelings.
  • Practice self-care: Practising self-care is crucial for managing imposter syndrome. Engaging in activities that promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being, such as exercise, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques, can help to reduce stress and build resilience.

Related to this topic is the concept of self limiting beliefs.

What if many of the times when you thought you weren’t good enough, strong enough, brave enough, attractive enough, outgoing enough, or ready enough…you actually were? And the only thing holding you back from succeeding was your beliefs about not being enough? Psychologists call these kinds of recurring thoughts which unnecessarily limit our behavior self-limiting beliefs. Clearer Thinking have developed a free resource that may assist. By using the Surpass Self-Limiting Beliefs tool you will:

• Learn how to define and identify some of your own self-limiting beliefs
• Evaluate how your self-limiting beliefs may be negatively impacting your life

Feelings of imposterism aren’t restricted to highly skilled individuals, either.

Everyone is susceptible to a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance. This is where we each doubt ourselves privately, but believe we’re alone in thinking that way because no one else voices their doubts. Since it’s tough to really know how hard our peers work, how difficult they find certain tasks, or how much they doubt themselves, there’s no easy way to dismiss feelings that we’re less capable than the people around us. Intense feelings of imposterism can prevent people from sharing their great ideas or applying for jobs and programs where they’d excel. (1)

When discussing this with my clients and coachees, I like to encourage a different perspective. These thoughts are aligned in part to the points made earlier from Madeleine.

The focus and our self-talk should be on the ‘reality’ of the situation and less on the perceived risks, which are commonly overblown in our minds. The ability to see things for the opportunities they are and the possibilities, changes the brain and our thinking. It helps to look at this another way.

When relevant I ask my coachees, “when was the last time you made a grievous error; something that deeply challenged your job, relationships, tenure or similar?”

The answer is almost always, “I can’t remember a time” or “not for many years, if ever”. If this is the case, why does your mind immediately seek to ‘exaggerate’ these occurrences, as if they happen every week…or day? That is not real. The perceived risk outweighs the real risk, yet we like to see it for what is isn’t. This is clearly unhelpful.

So, if this mindset is prevalent and something you are experiencing, you need to retrain your mind and thinking. If you are going to be fair and balanced, it is important to recognise successes as well as risks, at least in equal ratios. As we have discovered, your successes significantly outweigh ‘failures’. Considering this fact and acknowledging the ‘actual risk’, rather than your fear-based ‘perception of risk’ can be a key difference in changing this thinking. It can also positively alter your behaviours and actions.

Over time, this mindset shift can build on self-esteem and reduce feelings of being an imposter. Put another way; imagine if you were more fair to yourself and considered the risk of ‘success or getting it right’. The irony is that almost always you do get it right, however you reflect on those moments through the lens of doubt, fear and uncertainty, rather than benefit, opportunity and success.

Ultimately, it is your willingness and ability to be fair to yourself and see situations for what they are i.e. reality, that improves your mindset and outcomes.

At least so far, the most sure-fire way to combat imposter syndrome is to talk about it. Many people suffering from imposter syndrome are afraid that if they ask about their performance, their fears will be confirmed. And even when they receive positive feedback, it often fails to ease feelings of fraudulence.

But on the other hand, hearing that an advisor or mentor has experienced feelings of imposterism can help relieve those feelings. The same goes for peers. Even simply finding out there’s a term for these feelings can be an incredible relief. Once you’re aware of the phenomenon, you can combat your own imposter syndrome by collecting and revisiting positive feedback. (1)

While it can cause significant distress, there are several ways to manage imposter syndrome, such as recognising and acknowledging imposter feelings, focusing on strengths, embracing mistakes and failures, seeking support, and practicing self-care. By developing strategies to manage imposter syndrome, you can overcome self-doubt, build confidence, and reach your full potential.

Related Reading from CoachStation:

Self-esteem and Confidence

Understanding Your Why, Purpose and Values