Impostor syndrome is a sneaking feeling that you’re a fake, according to Melody Wilding, LMSW, a therapist who works with young professionals and business owners.
You dismiss your achievements and successes as the result of timing, luck or anything else that’s beyond your control, she said.
You worry that others will find out you’re a fraud, an impostor, who’s not smart, capable, good, interesting or talented enough. You’re convinced that you’re unworthy of an accomplishment, accolade or position. You fear that any minute all your “faking” will be found out.
Impostor syndrome can show up in all areas of our lives. It shows up at work, when people downplay a promotion or an award, believing they don’t deserve it, or when they assume they’re not a real entrepreneur (“we just have a side business”), Wilding said.
It shows up in school when students question how they ever got accepted into that university, graduate program or medical school. They view everyone else as a better candidate, and worry they don’t belong.
It shows up at home, when people question themselves as parents — striving to be the ideal mom or dad — or as partners, “If I were a good spouse, I’d do this and that.”
“You think there are certain boxes you have to tick,” Wilding said.
Impostor syndrome also shows up when individuals sabotage their efforts. Some people perform the bare minimum because if they do more, they worry that others will ask for more, she said. “It’s a layer of protecting themselves. They never have to go out on a limb where they possibly can be exposed.”
For instance, Wilding said, a person might think, “If I do a little more and I fail, everyone will know that I bombed, and I can’t risk that.” Impostor syndrome “comes from a place of feeling inadequate and then trying to compensate in real life for those perceived feelings of inadequacy,” she said.
Here, Wilding shared her tips for getting over impostor syndrome:
Practice in low-stakes environments. “Test out your skills and get feedback in low-stakes environments,” Wilding said. For instance before giving a big presentation, speak to a smaller crowd, and solicit feedback. Let a colleague or supervisor know that you’re trying to improve your speaking skills, and you’d appreciate their constructive comments, she said.
Only ask people you trust who can be levelheaded — not someone with whom you have an emotionally charged relationship, she cautions.
Practice shipping. Wilding cited Seth Godin’s concept of shipping. As she explained, “don’t perseverate over your writing, product or company or whatever sort of work you do; just ship it.” In other words, don’t sit on your work forever.
“Build up this muscle of shipping and getting things out there.” This may feel like a risk. However, “holding yourself back and letting yourself be a victim to the impostor syndrome is the greatest risk of all.”
Learn to take praise. People who struggle with impostor syndrome commonly use lessening language when someone congratulates them on their success, Wilding said. (And this only feeds impostor syndrome.)
You might say phrases such as “Oh, that was nothing!” This demeans your accomplishments and diminishes yourself, she said. Instead, simply say, “Thank you!” Or “I’m really happy that you said that.”
Keep a list of accomplishments. Keep a running tally of your accomplishments, Wilding said. This serves as a tangible document you can take to your boss when you’re asking for a raise or promotion or need concrete proof of your hard work and successes, she said. This helps to take the “emotionality out of it.”
Delve deeper. Peel back the layers of your impostor syndrome. Explore your feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Consider how you’re keeping yourself safe, Wilding said.
She suggested asking yourself: “What am I protecting myself from? What is this behavior helping me to avoid (e.g., humiliation, scrutiny)? How is this behavior benefiting me? What am I losing by not engaging in whatever I’m missing?”
Focus on problem solving. “Change the way you think about failure,” Wilding said.
When you make a mistake, focus on what you can learn from your slipup. Avoid turning it into a catastrophe (i.e., “I’m such a failure! I’m horrible at this job”). If you bombed your last presentation, think about how you can do better. For instance, if you overprepared last time, leave more space to improvise and take more questions this time, she said.
Impostor syndrome can invade all areas of a person’s life, simmering under the surface, Wilding said. The good news is you can work through it. The above are just some of the strategies that can help.
Wilding suggested these three books: Choose Yourself! by James Altucher; The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane; and StrengthFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath.