Updated: Dec 3, 2021
“I feel like I don’t measure up to the others.”
“They’re going to find out I’m a fraud.”
“Everyone else knows what they’re doing, and I’m so lost.”
“I have no idea how I got this far.”
“I just got lucky.”
If you’re in a field where success is measured by your accomplishments, you may have said these things to yourself. If you’re in a field that had a strenuous process to be accepted, whether it be graduate school, a corporate position, or anything that looks to your leadership, you may have said these things to yourself. It’s the fear that you are not good enough to have the things you do, and yet somehow you have them anyway. In a more eloquent way, it’s persistently thinking that you do not deserve the success you have or that what you have now wasn’t earned by your efforts or skills. Despite the success around you, you feel inadequate. This is imposter syndrome.
We all have been there before.
Some of the greatest doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, and other people you view as successful in your life or in society have all been there and might still be there.
Unlike its name implies, it isn’t a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, in a 2020 NIH study of imposter syndrome, researchers noted that imposter syndrome’s prevalence can be as high as 82% in some participant samples. Not only does it appear to be a common experience for many of us, but it also appears to be related to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, bodily or somatic complaints, and difficulty in social situations. Even more so, it has been linked to poorer job performance and job satisfaction. If you’ve ever experienced imposter syndrome, this might resonate with you.
We’ll be honest: that sounds heavy. Imposter syndrome is common and can impact many of us negatively. There are some things that we can do to change this, though, to prevent the claws of imposter syndrome from sinking into us too deeply.
The Cleveland Clinic provided a few steps to do this, but we add a few more here:
Acknowledge your feelings. Pause, breathe in, exhale, and then examine the emotions coming up for you. Just look at them without being carried away by them. Take a moment to acknowledge it by saying, “I feel ___.”
Separate your feelings from the facts. Your feelings are data about how you’re responding to the things around you, but they don’t always speak the truth of the situation. Take inventory of your skills and remind yourself that you know how to do these things.
Repeat neutral affirmations. When we try to tell ourselves positive affirmations like, “I am capable of anything I put my mind to,” it can feel like we’re lying to ourselves. In the midst of imposter syndrome, that’s not always helpful. Neutral affirmations can help us feel more grounded and realistic, especially when we aren’t ready to take that step into unchallenged confidence. You can start smaller by saying things like, “I’m trying,” or, “I can do this today,” or even, “I am struggling, but I am also doing my best.”
Resist the comparison game. For a lot of us, comparing ourselves to others is how we know we’re doing alright. How often does this actually serve you, though? When dealing with imposter syndrome, not much. It takes effort to know that you are valued for the skills you have. You are worthy of the good you receive. If it’s hard to believe these things, ask yourself this: Who benefits from you comparing yourself to other people? The answer: no one.
Remember its prevalence. Imposter syndrome is so, so common. Just think: if all of the successful people in the world and even the people next to you were actually imposters, we wouldn’t be doing very well as a society. All of us have skills that helped us get where we are today, including you. You are capable of surviving and thriving in struggle.
Break down the silence. To get additional confirmation about imposter syndrome, talk with someone you trust and feel safe with. Chances are, this experience will be so relatable that you’ll be met with, “Me too.” And even if someone else doesn’t fully relate, it doesn’t mean that you’re isolated. The more we talk about imposter syndrome, the more we are able to bring each other up.
Break it down in therapy. Oftentimes, a therapist will be able to walk you through not only how imposter syndrome feels, but also where it came from. When did you last feel imposter syndrome? Have you ever felt imposter syndrome? What messages did you receive growing up about achievement and success? How do you carry these messages with you today? All of these questions can be explored in therapy!
Imposter syndrome wants you to believe the lies that you are not capable, that others know what they’re doing, that you are not as good as the others around you. We don’t know if you need to hear/see this today, but here it is:
You are capable.
You’ll rarely see someone who knows exactly what they’re doing.
You have skills and worth that are valuable in their own right.
Working through imposter syndrome takes time, but it’s definitely possible. The 2020 NIH study also noted findings that imposter syndrome beliefs appear to decrease over time, though we don’t necessarily have to wait until we’re older. We can begin today. You can begin today.
And if you ever want to talk it out with a therapist, we’re here for you when you’re ready.