Imposter Syndrome: What It Is and How to Overcome It

Why is it that some people have worked in their position for many years with a stellar record, yet they feel like they are not good enough in their work and maybe don’t even belong there? They may feel afraid that others will soon enough find out that they are a fraud. As such, they approach each day with a sort of dread that they need to “appear” as if they know what they are doing. They carry anxiety that they will be “found out.” This all takes A LOT of energy! They are either hiding, masking, over-compensating or doing all of these strategies to uphold an image so that others do not find out who they “really” are. So, who and where is the real person underneath this veil of perception, known as “imposter syndrome?”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defined imposter syndrome as “a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.” Those dealing with imposter syndrome sometimes attribute success to something outside themselves, such as luck.

Imposter syndrome breeds and perpetuates anxiety; it erodes confidence and depletes energy. It hijacks one’s creative potential, it hampers leadership abilities, and it simply does not feel good. It seems to cross cultures, gender, nationality, socio-economic status, educational background, work roles, etc. Anyone at any time can experience imposter syndrome. Unfortunately, the fear of failure and shame often keep one trapped in this syndrome.

Is it a thought or a feeling, or is it both? Where does it come from, and why is it so prevalent, especially among very capable and accomplished people? Most importantly, how can one overcome imposter syndrome?

Acknowledge it

It is important to realize that one is not alone in experiencing imposter syndrome. Before imposter syndrome can be lessened or overcome, one needs to know how to recognize it and be aware that it is present. Without acknowledging it, change cannot occur. So, how does one recognize it? Start by becoming aware of discomfort and discontent, which might be felt in the body. For example, there might be tightness in the chest, shallow breathing, or tension in the shoulders when starting a new project. Notice these kinds of sensations. Maybe it is a lurking discontent or dread that has been there for a very long time.

Sit with the feeling

Once becoming aware of the feelings of tension in the body or restlessness in the mind, sit with it; be curious about it without judging. What are these feelings trying to convey? They are there for a reason and offer a lot of insightful information.

Check-in with thoughts

Notice what thought(s) were in the mind before the unwelcome imposter (syndrome) kicked in, prompting feelings of inadequacy and tension. Some people, for example, maybe aware that they were thinking, “Oh, my team will see that I’m not qualified for the project.” Thinking of this thought, one might then feel diminished or shameful. As a result, they may not put their full effort into the job, or they might not even be able to start the project. The result is that they could be “frozen in their tracks.” This is how paralyzing imposter syndrome can be when one feels its full impact of anxiety!

Back up

Go back to that thought and ask, “How true is that?” What evidence validates this thought that is coming up? Just because one FEELS inadequate does not mean they ARE. Often perfectionists think that whatever they do, it is never enough. They may even think that THEY are not enough.

An antidote to this is to set the intention of doing the best job possible, remember that no one is perfect, and put self-judgement aside.

Change the thought

As soon as you notice that negative thought you identified, try changing it. A new thought might be, “Look how well I did on previous projects; I am fully qualified to do this project.” How does that change the feeling? A refreshing, new sense of confidence, empowerment and even excitement might arise. As a result, one is more likely to move forward with more energy and confidence.

What would you tell a friend?

If a friend shared that they felt like an imposter or fraud in a work situation, what would you tell them? Tell yourself what you would say to a friend experiencing thoughts and feelings around imposter syndrome. Also, do a reality check with a friend who will have a more objective view.

Take small steps

Imposter syndrome might not have appeared overnight, and therefore, may not disappear as quickly. It may have crept in and been reinforced in one’s upbringing, from something a parent or teacher said, or from one’s expectations. The associated thoughts and feelings have probably been there for a long time. It takes practice to shift these thoughts. Over time, one may feel they no longer have to hide and realize that they are indeed qualified for the job or the challenging project. They may find that they worry less and less about their assumptions of others’ perceptions about them. They still care deeply about their work, yet they have more energy for the work with less anxiety.

Taking action is another small step one can take to break the cycle of thoughts and feelings about not being good enough. When the familiar pattern starts creeping in, try doing something unrelated to work or the situation that brought on the feeling. Do something that brings joy and contentment. This interrupts the thought, may send the imposter away and will nurture oneself. This small step can create significant results in overcoming imposter syndrome. An imposter grows bigger and bigger in the mind if one lets it. Before they know it, they think they ARE the imposter. It is a gremlin they are battling with. As such, they need to reframe the imposter and use its energy for something positive. Maybe it served a purpose at one time to keep one safe psychologically, but as time went on, it got in the way of realizing one’s full potential.

Try some new opportunities and challenges. Volunteer for or initiate a new project. Gaining experience helps one integrate new strengths and skills. With this ownership comes a new sense of empowerment, which releases creative energy and confidence. One feels more expanded. There’s no room for the imposter in this situation (and no need for it either).

Make a list of successes monthly, weekly, or daily. What are your strengths and talents that contributed to the success? Look at the list, take it in and feel the feelings associated with success and growth. At the end of the list, write a few words describing the feelings that come up. Own the fact that YOU achieved the success; it was not due to luck or other external factors. When one’s thoughts about oneself change, so do their feelings about themselves and the actions they take. When a person no longer thinks of themselves as an imposter, they will no longer feel like one, and they can move forward with their goals and dreams.

Get support

It is helpful to talk about one’s experience with imposter syndrome. The process described here is not always easy to do alone, but it does not have to be done that way. Working with a coach to alleviate imposter syndrome can keep you on track and focus on your true potential.

What to do TODAY?

Karen Natasha Coaching helps many people uncover and explore the looming imposter syndrome. We help people shift their energy to move ahead with assurance, confidence, and energy to achieve their goals. Contact Karen Natasha Coaching for a consultation to experience how we can help.