Imposter syndrome is a secret held by many—even the highest of achievers. Award-winning actress Tina Fey once said, “The beauty of imposter syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania to a complete feeling of, ‘I’m a fraud! Oh, God, they’re on to me.’” The late acclaimed author and poet Maya Angelou described the syndrome like this: “I’ve written 11 books but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
While not a diagnosable psychiatric condition, imposter syndrome is a very real feeling, first described in 1978 by American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes as “a sense of phoniness in people who believe they are not that intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”
“People believe they are a fraud, that they are not as competent as they appear or as other people believe they are,” says Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., psychologist, author and daughter of cognitive therapy founder Aaron Beck, Ph.D. “People with imposter syndrome tend to believe they have achieved due to luck or fooling others. They fear others will discover their incompetence or inadequacy.”
A cause of fear, dread and anxiety
High achievers are especially prone to feeling like imposters when taking on a new risk or pushing their abilities to a new level. “It becomes a problem when people consistently underestimate their abilities and feel unduly anxious,” Judith says. “It’s also a problem when they try to hide their ‘incompetence’ by failing to ask questions, seek help and assert their opinions.”
Imposter syndrome is linked to perfectionism rather than low self-esteem, but it also can happen in social relationships. “People who suffer from it might attribute their success to luck, discount their own success and live with a sense of dread that others will uncover their real self,” says behavior coach Michael Mantell, Ph.D. Despite obvious success, individuals may feel a strong sense of self-doubt.
Imposter syndrome causes people to avoid taking risks and settle for less than what they want because they fear being found out as a phony. The feelings of anxiousness and dread that accompany imposter syndrome cloud happiness as well.
Where did it come from?
Most people have some insecurities about their competence in various aspects of their work, says Judith. “People with imposter syndrome have achieved what they believe is undeserving success. Thinking thoughts like, ‘I’m not deserving’ is a key distinguishing element between the imposter syndrome and simple generalized insecurity.”
Children who grow up in a high-pressure school or home environment that rewards accomplishment and criticizes anything less than perfection have a higher chance of experiencing imposter syndrome. Another contributing factor is having parents who heap praise on a youngster who doesn’t believe he or she deserves it, according to Judith.
Getting rid of the imposter
By facing imposter syndrome for what it is, you can begin to accept your accomplishments as real, adopt more rational ways of thinking and quiet your fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Use these tips to shift away from perfectionism and move toward a more realistic view of yourself. By quieting your internal critic, you can take risks and enjoy the happiness that comes from living your life more fully.
1. Use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques
Ask yourself, “Is what I am thinking actually true?” Move toward more realistic thinking. “Look for evidence that you’re really incompetent and for evidence that you are competent,” recommends Judith. Ask for feedback from other people. “[People with imposter syndrome] can change their definition of competence from always performing at the highest level, to doing a reasonable job most of the time,” she says.
2. Talk about it
Take your feeling out of the shadows and talk about imposter syndrome with a friend or professional. Seek out people who will support you.
3. Measure your accomplishments with your own ruler
Look back on your accomplishments, obstacles you have overcome, results you have materialized and give yourself some credit. Believe those solid realities and not your own bad press.
4. Identify who you are lying to
“The ironic part of the imposter syndrome isn’t about the lie we think we are perpetrating on others, it’s about the real, unrealistic belief—the lie—we aim at ourselves,” says Michael. Recognize that you are not a fraud.
5. Let go of perfectionism
Stop telling yourself that you must never fail. Says Michael: “Just because I tripped and made an error doesn’t mean I’m an imposter or a fraud; it means I’m human.”
6. Use the three C’s
According to Michael, with most emotional distortions, you have to catch your erroneous automatic negative belief, challenge it and change it. Be mindful and aware enough to be able to hear yourself saying unkind and critical things to yourself and then catch, challenge and change those thoughts.
7. Build in unconditional self-acceptance into your daily life
Practice rational responses to your negative self-talk. Write out actual rational responses to each negative thought you build around yourself. For example, instead of “I’m not deserving,” breathe deeply and think, “It isn’t about deserving, it’s about actual accomplishment and I’ve certainly worked hard and achieved X, Y or Z.”
8. Think about the value you provide others
Shift the thoughts away from you and on to how you can help others. This mental shift can take you out of your mind and into the positive emotions you give to others around you.
9. Take risks and don’t compare yourself to others
Don’t compare and despair, Michael advises. When you want to do something big but feel afraid you will fail because you are not the right person/not deserving/not good enough, take that risk and say to yourself, “I don’t know what I am doing, but let’s give it a try and see what happens.” This practice can be wonderfully healing.
When you take steps to face your self-doubt and quiet the feeling of imposter syndrome, you can stop letting your fears get in the way of becoming who you want to be.
Listen to our podcast: 5 Steps to a More Confident You With Carin Rockind
Sandra Bilbray is a contributing Editor to Live Happy and the founder and CEO of TheMediaConcierge.net.