Imposter Syndrome – What it is and how to overcome it

Imposter Syndrome. It’s a phrase that a lot of us have probably heard before. It may also be new to others.

To make sure we are all aligned, imposter syndrome is defined as:

“A psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

According to a New Yorker article, this concept was first conceived by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Clarence was born in 1938 and had situations that caused her to second guess herself and left her feeling like she didn’t belong, like being the first in her family to go to college. Her counselor told her that “You’ll be doing well if you get C’s..”. She ended up getting a Ph.D in psychology but the sense of self-doubt followed her. She observed this same experience in other people as well.

This is most likely a familiar feeling for many of us. Feeling like we don’t belong or may feel like a “fraud” that will be exposed in a situation we are in.

I know for certain that this is something that I have experienced in my life. When I first joined my current team as a leadership trainer, I joined a team of people who had college degrees. I did not have one. I was a high-school flunky who was expelled for being gay (that’s a whole other post). I immediately was filled with self-doubt and felt like a “fraud’. I felt like I didn’t belong and that they would figure that out soon. I was mentally preparing to be sent back to my old team. It didn’t help that it took me a while to ramp up in that kind of training. I struggled a lot.

Imposter Syndrome is also something that has prevented me from following my personal passions. I have always wanted to be a blogger. I have had a blog for like 12 years but I never really wrote in it. When I did write a post, I never shared it. I kept saying to myself “Who are you to write a blog? People will find out that you don’t know what you are talking about. You don’t have anything to offer”. I was not confident in myself one bit, so that dream just remained a wish that crossed my mind often.

Imposter Syndrome is the killer of goals and success. It prevents competent people from building confidence in themselves. That in turn may not allow people to reach their full potential.

It is important for all of us to understand what imposter syndrome is, what it is not, and to raise awareness to overcome it. How we think think about something generally determines how we feel about it and how we behave.

Let’s start with awareness first: Imposter syndrome is not an actual syndrome. When Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes coined the phrase for this observed behavior, they called it “imposter phenomenon”. It is a situation that happens among people (especially women). The American Psychological Association also refers to it as that. Psychologist Adam Grant shares that same sentiment, as do I. A syndrome lasts for a long time or lifetime and is riddled with symptoms. That’s not what this is but it was turned into that several decades ago and it went mainstream.

Instead of imposter “syndrome”, we can consider it “imposter thoughts”. Sometimes we simply have thoughts that cause us to feel like we are a fraud or we doubt our achievements.

I believe this disconnect of competence and confidence comes from a few things. First, nature and nurture. Part of it is DNA and part of it is how we were raised and exposed to punishment and rewards. Second, our social identities influence this greatly, especially for marginalized groups where society has made us feel like we don’t belong.

Tied to those is how we see ourselves (self-perception) versus who we want to be or feel like we should be (self-ideal). The gap between those two (self-discrepancy) contributes to how we feel about ourselves (self-esteem). When the gap is large, confidence tends to be low.

There are a couple of ways to build confidence that will help let those pesky thoughts go.

  • Reframe imposter syndrome: They’re just thoughts, not a syndrome. There are gifts in everything. Consider these thoughts as a compass to identify what knowledge/skills you need to learn and learn them.
  • Ask for feedback: A Start/Stop/Continue is a great tool to use. You can send a Google Form to your peers/friends to identify what you should start doing, stop doing, and continue doing. You will find that you are way harder on yourself than other people ever would be to you.
  • Celebrate the wins and achievements: We focus so hard on the negative things we do that we forget to reinforce the positive things we do. Positive reinforcement builds confidence.
  • Be mindful of storytelling: We often tell ourselves stories that are pretty harsh that we can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Include others and get different perspectives.
  • Do not compare yourself to others: This is human nature and what destroys confidence. You are you. No one else is you. Lean into your strengths, skills, knowledge, etc because together they offer something that no one else can.

The American Psychological Association link I provided earlier also offers some more best practices to address imposter phenomenon.

My word for 2022 was awareness and I learned a lot about myself with that as my intention. I learned about my own imposter thoughts and how much I had let them rule my life. I am now finally putting them to rest and moving forward with writing in a blog and sharing it with people (even though it still makes me anxious). My confidence is so much higher than it has ever been.

Today I got to talk to college students about “imposter syndrome” so that they can navigate this phenomenon as it happens to them. I only wish I had that when I was their age!

I know that we can all shine our light in the world. This is how I am meant to shine mine. No longer will I be afraid to follow my passion. See you all in the blogosphere!


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