Categories: Blog




Have you ever agonised over the smallest of mistakes or flaws you’ve made? Have you been dismayed by even the most constructive feedback? Do you downplay your own expertise and achievements, even when the evidence is that you are genuinely capable and successful? Maybe you have attributed your success to luck or outside factors and fear you will inevitably be found out as a phony! We can all have such feelings at some time but if this is a pattern of thinking then it may be down to imposter syndrome. People who experience this are unable to internalise their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in education, work and life are routinely dismissed. Instead, success is attributed to a range to external factors; contacts, luck, timing, perseverance, having “fooled” others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than they “knew” themselves to be. They are sure they do not deserve and see themselves as frauds. To add to the situation, every additional achievement only confirms the imposter bias rather than confirming abilities and intrinsic abilities. There is an ever present fear of being found out, being unmasked. Paradoxically, success also becomes an issue as it brings the added pressure of responsibility and visibility. This leads to an inability to enjoy success.

This common phenomenon was initially seen as prevalent in high achieving women. However, while it would appear to be more common in high achievers, it can actually be experienced by anyone at any time, no matter how successful they are or how they achieve and excel. In fact, it may well be time to stop burdening women with this pathologised label when feelings of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety may be an understandable response to a work environment where they are undervalued. The result can be a focus on seeking individual solutions for issues for a section of the workforce when the issues are disproportionately caused by systems of discrimination and abuse of power. Something to consider?

However, regardless of the implication of wider causes, imposter syndrome is a real and unsettling thing to experience. So, keeping this in mind, here are some practical actions to help manage imposter syndrome.

Overcoming the imposter syndrome

Question the label before going any further

The label of imposter syndrome is a heavy load to bear. “Imposter” brings a tinge of criminal fraudulence to the feeling of simply being unsure or anxious about situation such as joining a new team, learning a new skill or working in an environment or culture that encourages undervaluing some sections of society.

Don’t suffer in silence

Know that you are not alone. Talk with other people or peers that you see as successful. Discuss how you’re doing and ask about their successes, failures, and concerns. Social comparison can help you see that others are in the same boat – we all question our abilities at one time or another. The tough part is to not let those questions detract from our sense of competence and ability.

Name your feelings

Recognise imposter feelings when they emerge. Awareness is the first step to change, so ensure you track these thoughts: what they are and when they emerge. If you catch yourself thinking that you are useless, reframe it: “the fact that I feel useless right now does not mean that I really am.” Maybe reading this article will have started the process of giving your thoughts a name and being able to free yourself of them.

Look at the facts

Taking realistic and accurate assessments of your performance is key to moving past the impostor syndrome. This is challenging but worthwhile. With each success, take time to jot down the specific actions that led to success as well as what experience and qualities underlie your success at completing each action.

Are you fraudulent or a new phenomenon?

Sometimes you are going to be out of step with the common, shared and accepted ways. The first woman in the field, the first black leader of an organisation, Charles Darwin presenting the new theory of evolution; they could all have felt the same way. Recognise this as separate to feeling being fraudulent and rejoice in joining the great innovators of the world. It can feel uncomfortable to be an outsider, but enjoy the amazing position of being a trail blazer. Drop the bland of comfort for the exhilaration of original and outstanding.

Learn the ‘good enough is good enough’ principle

This industry saying encapsulates the practical understanding that perfection can be a waste of time leading to a waste of resources. It often requires a lot more time and effort than the end result is worth. The result can be primary resources not being allocated intelligently and personal needs being put before the needed outcome. Don’t use a Rolls Royce when a bicycle will do, it’s better to produce good results when it matters most and don’t waste your valuable abilities on the routine.

Rejoice in being human and making mistakes

We are human and, therefore, we all make mistakes and so you are confirming your membership of humanity when you make a mistake. You are entitled to make mistakes sometimes and to forgive yourself, others will have done so. The big advantage is that mistakes are great teachers. If there are no mistakes, there is no growth and moving forward. Take the opportunity to analyse, review and learn. Then MOVE ON.

Recognise your right to be wrong

Would you take away someone else’s right to be wrong? I guess you wouldn’t, so don’t do it to yourself; other people don’t. If you think they do, then check the facts and lens through which you are seeing this. If they are doing this, then ask what is their motive? Who owns the problem? This is their mistaken view and their issue to deal with?

Write a new script

The inner critic voices are hard to silence and this is no surprise as we invest a lot of time and energy in building and maintaining it. However, as you have made them, you have to power to change them. When they start the ‘I should be able to’, I must be prefect’, ‘I am not as good as’ whispers, acknowledge them and then put a new script in place. For example, instead of telling yourself they are going to find you out or that you don’t deserve success, remind yourself that it’s normal not to know everything and that you will find out more as you progress. This is easy to say but takes effort to do. However, just because it is challenging is no reason not to do it. Persevere; keep doing it even when it feels hard. With time, the new thoughts will become the automatic ones and the inner critic’s voice will become secondary, or even fade away.

Seek support

Everyone needs help: recognise that you can seek assistance and that you don’t have to do everything alone. This will give you a good reality check and help you talk things through.

See the picture

Spend time before any task, performance, meeting, etc., and picture yourself doing it successfully, calmly and professionally. Visualisation works. Give it a go and see. Use it to replace the impending disaster movie playing in your head. As with the script, practice makes second nature. Keep at it and it will become the natural response.

Know good faking and when it’s needed

There are times when we all need to think on the spot, improvise, and wing it. Learn to identify this and see it as a useful strategic tool. Successful people know how and when to ‘wing it’ and see it as an asset. Well done you if you can do the same.

Be kind to yourself by being kind to others’

How would you feel if your compliments to another person were dismissed as uninformed or untrue? When you do well or are complimented be gracious enough to simply say thank you and acknowledge someone else’s opinion. Also give yourself a well-deserved pat on ten back. Try doing that at least once a day. It can be for the littlest thing such as a good stretch and yawn or a major achievement such as getting that degree or major contract.

Feel the fear…

You don’t feel ready to do this yet? Don’t wait until you do; challenge yourself and start to introduce these behaviours now. It may take time and effort and there may be setbacks and down days but keep going. If it was easy, we’d all be doing it already. Treat it as an experiment; give it a go and see what happens. Analyse, review, adjust if needed and repeat. By changing your behaviour first, you will start to work on your thoughts.

Pass it on
Remember other people may well be struggling with their imposter syndrome. Show them how to break away with modelling the behaviours and showing your support. This will encourage and reinforce your own self-belief and add to the general level of human happiness. Now that is a major achievement!