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Have you ever felt like you weren't deserving of your successes in life? Maybe there is a little nagging voice inside you that says you’re not good enough or qualified enough for the job promotions, the high praises, or the awards that you’ve received. And maybe it doesn’t add up because you have the schooling, experience, and talent as evidence for your competence, but you are often dismissing your achievements on luck, timing, or a result of deceiving others into thinking you are more qualified than you think you are.
If you can’t seem to shake the feeling that you’re a fraud of your own achievements, you may be experiencing the crippling effects of what is commonly called imposter syndrome. While it is not considered an official diagnosis, imposter syndrome is acknowledged among mental health professionals for its prevalence and the stress, anxiety, and/or depression it can cause.
People who suffer from this syndrome live in constant fear that they will be exposed for being unqualified or fake. It can take different forms, but here are some common signs:
The good news is that you can overcome it! You can train yourself to quickly identify it, manage it, and beat it. Here’s how …
The first step is to become aware of your thoughts and feelings. The next time someone gives you a promotion, praise, or award, listen to your internal dialogue and how it makes you feel. Oftentimes, people who suffer with imposter syndrome undermine their achievements and discount praise that’s aimed their way.
It’s important to note that just because you feel like a fraud, doesn’t mean that you are a fraud. Separating feelings from facts allows you to see the truth. Start shining a light on that little nagging voice and recognize it for what it is: Imposter syndrome.
You may be feeling shame about your imposter syndrome, and that can keep you from sharing your feelings. However, knowing there’s a name for your feelings and that you are not alone can be incredibly liberating, so share your feelings of self-doubt and self-worth with your spouse, a friend, a therapist, a mentor, or a life coach. When you confide in someone about your negative self-assessment, it will bring you one step closer to overcoming imposter syndrome.
Sometimes having feelings of inadequacy can be a normal reaction. For example, if you are changing jobs or are the first minority in your workplace, it’s only natural that you’d sometimes feel like you don’t fit in. Don’t attach these feelings to your self-worth or see them as a sign of your incompetence; accept them as normal in response to being an outsider.
Once you’ve become aware of your imposter syndrome, shared it with others, and separated when having those feelings are normal, the next step is to start working with your thinking. When a situation triggers your imposter syndrome, first reward yourself for catching it and then shift your thoughts to a more positive perspective.
For example, if the thought of “I don’t deserve this compliment” pops into mind, start by congratulating yourself for recognizing your imposter syndrome. Then shift your thoughts to something like, “I feel undeserving of this compliment right now. Perhaps that’s my imposter syndrome talking. I would like to learn how to better accept praise.”
Baby steps are key here! You don’t want to go from “I am underqualified for this position” to “I am overqualified for this position.” You will reject that belief in a heartbeat as completely untrue because it is too drastic of a mind shift. Instead, try something more manageable: “I may feel underqualified for this position, but everyone who starts something new feels insecure at the beginning.”
In addition to reframing your mindset, it’s also helpful to learn how to receive compliments, awards, promotions, high praise, and anything else positive aimed at you, gracefully. Once you start becoming aware of how you negatively respond to these things, it’s time to break the cycle of continually seeking and then dismissing validation outside of yourself.
To do this, set an intention to learn how to transform your reaction and express gratitude. Try a simple “Thank you” the next time you are complimented. You’ll notice it feels better for not only you, but for everyone else around you, too.
Many people with imposter syndrome struggle with perfectionism, often obsessing over details and fearing that if they aren’t perfect, they will soon be discovered as a fraud. There are healthy levels of perfectionism—when you use it as a motivational force to excel and commit to high standards. And then there are unhealthy levels—which cause obsession and fear. People who have a healthy sense of perfection don’t let their mistakes weigh them down nor define who they are.
In essence, do a great job when it matters most and let go of things out of your control. When an inevitable mistake happens, forgive yourself and move on.
One telltale sign of imposter syndrome is beating yourself up for being human—a.k.a. for making even the tiniest of mistakes. Coupled with perfectionism, a self-critical response to failure (“I should have known better” or “I should have known the answer”) is unhealthy. It is not realistic as we all make mistakes.
So, the next time things don’t go as planned (because they won’t) or you’re wrong (because you will be), try acknowledging the lesson learned, allowing room for self-compassion, and then moving on. Remember that you have just as much right as anyone else to be wrong, have an off day, or need help.
People who suffer from imposter syndrome often work harder than others, to make up for feeling like a fraud. On the positive side, they are highly ambitious and great achievers; on the negative side, they overwork themselves and are prone to burnout.
Being diligent is a great quality, but not at the expense of your health. Finding balance is key. You do not need to overwork yourself on the job in order to compensate for fictional inadequacies. In fact, redefine what “working harder” means for you—it can be working hard on taking care of yourself.
Figure out what you need to do in order to take care of yourself and create a self-care program that works for you.
By being able to paint a concrete picture of what success looks like to you, it can become less vague and more obtainable. That way when it does happen, you won’t be so quick to reject it. Here are some simple ways to help you visualize success:
Lots of highly successful people experience similar feelings of inadequacy (authors Maya Angelou and Seth Godin; actors Tom Hanks, Natalie Portman, and Felicia Day; and comedians Amy Schumer and Tina Fey, to name a few) and just knowing that others are experiencing it too can make you feel less isolated, releasing the syndrome’s power over you.
In fact, studies found that 70 percent of people have struggled with imposter syndrome at some time in their lives. Your friends, bosses, classmates, and others you respect may have felt similar feelings of inadequacy. In our competitive, achievement-obsessed culture, it is probably more common than you think.
So when you realize that you are not alone and actually connected to a lot of successful people who suffer from the same unhelpful symptoms of imposter syndrome, it will help you feel less lonely.
Remember, you wouldn’t be promoted, complimented, trusted, and praised if you were actually a fraud. Let these tips help you expose imposter syndrome for what it truly is: not reality.