It’s only natural to lack confidence from time to time and most people will experience this at some point in their life. Whether it is starting a new job or picking up a new hobby, until you’ve been at it awhile, you may feel like you’re not very good at it.
But with practice and learning, those feelings of uncertainty should start to fade. If they don’t — if you feel like you’re always “faking it” and that someday the people around you are going to discover that you’re a “fraud,” you may just be suffering from imposter syndrome.
Unfortunately, very talented people with a lot to offer can end up paying a steep price for this very real mental health concern. Here’s what you need to know about imposter syndrome and how you can overcome your own lack of confidence.
What is imposter syndrome?
To be clear, imposter syndrome isn’t a diagnosable mental health condition, but it is a widely accepted phenomena that has been estimated to affect as much as 70-percent of the adult population at some point in their lives. It’s particularly prevalent in high-achievers — those who have ample evidence to support their expertise in achieving personal or professional success. And therein lies the irony — top performers, those who have worked very hard to attain the status or roles that they’ve attained, are often the ones thinking to themselves, “What right do I have to be here?”
Maybe they “know what they don’t know,” or maybe they’ve been surrounded by other successful, high-achievers their whole lives, so they’re inclined to think that everyone else is smarter, more talented, or better suited for high-level roles. Or maybe they’re so driven by perfectionism that they interpret their errors as more glaring and more problematic than anyone else would view them.
Regardless, individuals dealing with imposter syndrome are likely to view their successes as “luck” rather than hard-won achievements, and they may be plagued by feelings of being “found out;” that other people will clue in and realise they’re not actually qualified (even though they are) for the role or status they’ve been given.
And just to be clear, imposter syndrome doesn’t just affect high-achievers. It can affect anyone, at any walk of life. Even those who have always felt confident and sure of themselves, when presented with the “right” situation may discover themselves feeling like a fraud. For instance, after a big promotion when the competition for the role was fierce — an always-confident person may suddenly feel like they landed the job by luck rather than qualifications and job prowess.
Why is it a problem?
There are two, somewhat opposite challenges that often arise as a result of imposter syndrome. First, the feelings of anxiety over not being good enough, or being afraid of being viewed as a fraud can be overwhelming, or even paralysing. They may prevent highly qualified and talented individuals from pursuing opportunities they would thrive in.
The other side to that coin is that the anxiety and self-imposed pressure to always “live up to” standards that may be unrealistic can lead to perfectionism, burnout, and even depression. No one wants to feel like a fraud all the time, and the ongoing stress and anxiety can be damaging.
What to do about imposter syndrome
First, understand that occasional feelings of “just getting lucky” when it comes to landing a good job or starting a new project are normal. If 70-percent of the population occasionally feels that way, you know you’re in good company. Second, if you’re not sure what you’re feeling is imposter syndrome, you can always take this test to find out. The higher your score, the more likely you’re experiencing strong symptoms of imposter syndrome.
- Talk it through with friends or mentors
If you are, in fact, experiencing the phenomena, the first thing you’ll want to do is talk about it. Sit down with trusted friends or mentors and share what you’re feeling. Chances are, they’ve experienced the same feelings at one point or another. Recognising this and bringing it to light can help in a few ways. First, it will normalise the experience. If your best friend, who you know is smart, talented, and successful, says, “Yes! I’ve been going through the same thing lately,” you’ll be able to see that how a person feels isn’t always reflective of reality. Second, your friends and mentors can help remind you of the reasons you’re more than qualified for the role you’ve taken on. They can confirm for you that you aren’t an imposter at all, but rather, a rock star within your expertise.
- Write down your qualifications and your talents.
Chances are you have a long track record of impressive successes. Maybe you graduated at the top of your class in university, or you were awarded as an intern with a great company. Maybe you’ve received more promotions or raises (at higher rates) than is the going norm for your industry. Maybe you’ve been able to successfully land clients (and keep them) as you build a side-hustle in addition to your day job. Maybe you’ve received lots of emails from happy customers telling you what a difference your help made. Whatever it is, write it all down and it as a reminder when you’re having a rough moment. Simply pull out the list and review it — no matter what it is you’re feeling, experience and expertise verify that you are, in fact, the right person for the role you’ve taken on.
- Recognise that failures (big and small) are stepping stones to bigger successes
When someone experiencing imposter syndrome (especially those who are perfectionists) thinks they’ve “failed” at part of their role, it can feel like confirmation that you’re living a lie. But it’s important to remember that everyone fails, everyone falls short, and that sometimes the biggest failures can be the perfect opportunity for greater success. Remember, Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player in history, didn’t make his 7th grade basketball team. Clearly, with more practice, he used that experience to propel himself to international stardom.
When you’re feeling like a failure (whether anyone else is telling you that or not), take a second, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that missteps aren’t failures. Failures only happen when you stop trying.
- Learn to give yourself space and grace
Here’s the thing: Do you expect everyone else to be perfect all the time? Do they always have to know the right answers? Does everyone else need to be working extra hours and stressing themselves out to gain approval from everyone around them? No, of course not. It’s easy to look around at those you work and live with and say, “Wow, they’re working hard and learning as they go. That’s a great addition to a team. They deserve every break they can get.” If you’re not giving yourself the same space and grace to learn as you go and take a break, then you need to reevaluate. If you don’t expect perfection from anyone else (and you shouldn’t, perfection is impossible), then you shouldn’t hold yourself to a perfectionistic standard. It’s unreasonable and is likely to lead to burnout.