1. Do talk about impostor feelings – but don’t get stuck there
Over the last three-plus decades I’ve led impostor syndrome workshops for hundreds of thousands of people.
Occasionally someone tells me they’ve spent years in therapy trying to understand why they feel like a fraud.
Many more turn to their partner or family or friends or co-workers or fellow students to lament about their supposed ineptness. Not once, but all the time.
The latter scenario typically ends with well-meaning reassures.
“You’re worrying about nothing.”
“You’re amazing, you’ll do great like you always do.”
Naturally, being “impostors,” they don’t believe them. “What do they know?” they think, “they’ve never felt this way.”
Surely then, talking to people who really do feel the same will help, right?
A doctoral student working as a summer intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Center shared that impostor syndrome is a huge issue not only for herself s but for all the other students in her university department.
“We talk about feeling like frauds every single day.” Perplexed she added, “but it’s not helping.”
“Are you doing anything about it?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “we just talk about it.”
And that, I replied, is the problem.
Even when others have felt the e-x-a-c-t same way, this kind of sharing still has its limits.
In fact, psychologists found that adolescents who co-ruminate about negative thoughts and feelings with their friends actually had higher levels of depression and anxiety. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25460674
Sometimes my friends and I talk about how fat we feel.
Oddly, at the end of the discussion, we never feel any thinner.
Similarly, endlessly talking about your impostorism will do little to boost your confidence – at least in any lasting way.
To be clear, giving voice to these irrational feelings of inadequacy is important. That’s why talking about impostor feelings is an essential first step.
Just don’t get stuck here.
Simply said, you can’t share your way out of impostor syndrome.
2. The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor
It’s been over three decades since I wrote my dissertation exploring the internal barriers to women’s occupational achievement.
The topic was inspired by a paper that came out three years earlier called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes.
I didn’t set out to research impostor syndrome, but rather to understand the mindset of female students and professionals who doubted their competence despite external evidence of their accomplishments and abilities.
Once men began attending my workshops, it became clear that much of the inner dialogue applied to anyone who experiences impostor feelings.
Indeed, the common core source of impostor feelings is a persistent pattern of holding ourselves to unrealistic, unsustainable standards of competence.
The problem is, we can hit the mark sometimes, but not all the time. And because we know we’re capable of moments of brilliance, we expect ourselves to be there 24/7.
We then become masters at comparison seeing others as so much more knowledgeable or capable than us.
It’s easy to do. All the more so when you come from a group that does not have the benefit of a history of belonging in certain fields, or in white-collar jobs, or at the highest levels.
We see important people doing important work and think it’s surely beyond our abilities or comprehension. And because we confuse confidence with competence, we may be so intimidated we never even try.
We all know people who have risen to their level of mediocrity.
But there are also plenty of executives, board members, world leaders, and others with a seat at the table who really are intelligent and capable.
The same is true for people who occupy cubicles or run small businesses or make art.
Women and men who are fully capable and still humble.
People who have good days and bad, successes and setbacks, yet are still able to move more or less confidently through their academic or professional lives unencumbered by impostor syndrome.
It’s not because they’re any more intelligent or competent or talented than you or me.
The only difference between them and us, is in the same situation that’s likely to trigger an impostor feeling in us – a job interview, a promotion, starting a new business – they think different thoughts.
Which is really good news, because it means we just need to learn to think like them.
The other incredibly good news, is we don’t have to choose between being self-important on one hand and impostor syndrome on the other.
Instead, there is a third option: Learn to think the way non-impostors do.
How to Think Like a Non-Impostor
First, to be clear, people who feel like impostors are anything but.
I’m using the term “non-impostor” here merely as short-hand to differentiate between people who have experienced impostor syndrome from those who have not.
Second, non-impostor thinking is not the same as telling yourself, “You can do it,” or “You deserve to be here.”
As useful as these kinds of self-pep talks can be, when it comes to taking on impostor syndrome, it’s simply not enough to sustainably move the mental needle.
That’s because non-impostors think differently about three specific things:
- Failure (which includes mistakes and criticism)
Let me give you some examples.
Instead of being crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as proof of their supposed ineptness, non-impostors see feedback as the gift that it is. So much so that they actively seek it out because they know it’s the only way to get better.
Just like impostors, non-impostors are driven to constantly improve. But not out of the fear of being found out — but rather because they see themselves as a constant work in progress.
Non-impostors understand there are times when they have to struggle to understand something or master a new skill. They don’t worry about it because they know that the more we do anything, the better we’ll get.
Non-impostors know that nothing is going to be perfect the first time – or ever.
Non-impostors know it’s okay to sometimes fall flat on their face. That it’s what you do with setbacks, mistakes, and failures that count.
That’s not to say that non-impostors aren’t crushingly disappointed if they fail to get the job or the promotion or land the client or win the competition.
The difference is they’re not ashamed.
When they walk into a new job or business or promotion non-impostors expect to feel nervous.
Despite being anxious, non-impostors still feel like, “I’ve got this.”
Not out of arrogance.
But because they understand that there are times when we all have to jump in and figure stuff out as we go.
And when they do get stuck, non-impostors know it’s okay to ask for help or not know the answer or even wing it.
Non-impostors fully expect there will be times when they’re going to be scared out of their mind.
In their mind, the fact that they feel less than confident doesn’t “prove” they’re an impostor. Instead, they remind themselves that fear is a normal response to stepping into the unknown. And then they do it.
Look, I get that what you want is to stop feeling like an impostor.
But that’s not how it works.
The fact is, feelings are the last to change.
So repeat after me: The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.
3. Recognize that it’s not all about you
Instead of the proverbial question, “What would you do if money were no object?” try asking, “What sort of difference would I make if fear was not a factor?”
There are people out there right this very minute who want and deserve to benefit from your full range of knowledge, abilities, and skills.
Widen the lens even further and you’ll see that in a world where poverty and illiteracy disproportionately affects women and children, the world needs all-hands-on-deck. Yours included.
You don’t need to run out and solve world hunger, secure world peace, or save an endangered species.
But you can help raise or mentor the next generation of strong girls and sensitive boys.
You can raise your hand in a meeting.
You can raise your hand for a project, a promotion, a raise.
You can throw your hat into the ring or throw caution to the wind.
Whatever you do, you owe it to yourself – and to all of us – to start acting as bright and capable and yes, powerful as you really are.
Because everyone loses when bright people play small.
Valerie Young, Ed.D. is an internationally recognized expert on impostor syndrome and author of the award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown/Random House) now available in six languages. She has delivered her highly solution-oriented talk to over half a million people at organizations like Google, IBM, Merck, Boeing, Procter & Gamble, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, Chrysler, Blizzard Entertainment, Dell, BP, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, McDonald’s, NASA, the Space Science Telescope Institute, the National Cancer Institute, Society of Women Engineers, and The Conference Board as well as at over 100 colleges and universities in the US, Canada, Japan, Europe, and the UK including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Oxford. And her career-related advice has been featured in business and popular media outlets on five continents including BBC radio, Yahoo Finance, Newsweek, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, O magazine, Fast Company, Science, and many more. You can learn more at ImpostorSyndrome.com