Yes, Imposter syndrome is real! Here’s how to deal with it.

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Like your friends or colleagues are going to discover you’re a fraud, and you don’t actually deserve your job, your success or accomplishments? If so, you’re in good company.

These feelings are what psychologists often call impostor syndrome. An estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science. Impostor syndrome affects all kinds of people from all walks of life.

So, what is impostor syndrome? 

You need to determine how much you need to earn and for how long, in order to live a life that you feel happy with. 

• ‘Perfectionists’ who set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.

• ‘Experts’ who feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new courses or training to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the advert, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.

• When the ‘natural genius’ has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.

• ‘Soloists’ who feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.

• ‘Supermen’ or ‘superwomen’ push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life, (at work, as parents, as partners), and may feel stress when they are not accomplishing something.

There’s no single answer to imposter syndrome. Some experts believe it has to do with personality traits like neuroticism, while others focus on family or behavioural causes. Sometimes childhood memories, such as feeling that your school work was never good enough for your parents or that your siblings outshone you in certain areas, can leave a lasting impact. People can sometimes internalise these ideas: that in order to be loved or be lovable, they need to achieve. It can become a self-perpetuating cycle.

So, how can we learn to deal with impostor syndrome?

One of the first steps to overcoming impostor feelings is to acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective. Simply observing that thought as opposed to engaging it can be helpful. Noticing our thoughts and asking ourselves, ‘Is this thought helpful or does it hinder me?’

You can also reframe your thoughts. We perhaps need to be reminded that the only difference between someone who experiences impostor syndrome and someone who does not, is how they respond to challenges.

People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or capable than the rest of us. We just have to learn to think like non-impostors! Learning to value constructive feedback, understanding that you’re actually slowing your team down when you don’t ask for help, or remembering that the more you practice a skill, the better you will get at it can all help. This is called having a ‘growth mindset’.

It can also be helpful to share what you’re feeling with trusted friends or mentors. People who have more experience can reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal and knowing others have been in your position can make it seem less scary. If you want to delve more deeply into these feelings, seeking out a professional counsellor or CBT therapist may help. Many people experience moments of doubt at some point in their lives. The important thing is to notice the thought and not to let that doubt control your actions.  

Sally is the Founder of LifeBuddy. She is an Organisational Development consultant and is a Practitioner with the Association for Business Psychology.