Imposter syndrome can take many forms. You’re not sure how to start a project, so you put it off. You’re afraid that an email doesn’t convey your competence, so you edit just to delete it later. You compare yourself to others because you need to be the best, so you beat yourself down and dim your inner light. When you ruminate on your mistakes, you also forget every achievement up until this point.

Does this sound familiar? Are you a self-proclaimed workaholic or perfectionist? Have you always been an overachiever? Do you feel at any moment you may be “found out” by your colleagues or team as a fraud?

Imposter syndrome is a nagging doubt in our abilities, talents and achievements despite external proof of our qualifications and success. Imposter syndrome can rob us of our joy, confidence and hold us back in life. The phenomenon can affect anyone, regardless of their success.

Besides to the expectations you have for yourself, those starting a new job or career may have very real pressure to perform. Even executives of well-known companies experience imposter syndrome, like the rest of us.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Phenomenon, refers to high-achieving individuals who are unable to internalize their success. In pop culture, it’s coined “Imposter Syndrome,” yet it is not in fact a syndrome or mental illness. Psychologists recognize that those who feel like imposters experience feelings of inadequacy.  They are also quick to attribute success to luck, rather than their own skill or effort. The phenomenon describes a form of intellectual self doubt coupled with an irrational fear of being found out.

To call it “imposter syndrome” in fact downplays the universality of these experiences. An estimated 70% of people will report experiencing at least one impostorism episode (Clance, 1970). Individuals who identify as LGBTQ+, people of color, and first-generation college grads are disproportionately affected by imposter syndrome.

Below are four signs that you may be experiencing imposter syndrome and what you can do to combat it.

1. You feel frozen to start a task unless you can do it perfectly.

Refusing to take part in a task unless it’s perfect or not completing a task at all are ways to avoid feeling inadequate. Perfectionism and procrastination are paralyzing, they freeze us from taking necessary action.

Perfectionism and procrastination are paralyzing, they freeze us from taking necessary action.

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We’re afraid that we don’t deserve the jobs that we worked hard to earn, so we might think “why even try at all?” It’s more comfortable to credit our success to luck than hard work or our innate abilities.

How to cope: Remember that starting is always the most challenging part. Oftentimes, we’ve already catastrophized the failure or negative outcome in our minds. This prevents us from even wanting to start. To combat this, take the smallest first step possible. Whether that’s writing one sentence or organizing the next step. Tell yourself that this is the drafting phase, your first edit. You can always revisit and make improvements, in other words, the task doesn’t have to be in its final form out the gate. Once we get started the momentum is usually enough to help us keep going forward.

2. Fear of failing is weighing heavily on you.

Everyone has to start somewhere, including your colleagues. Sure, they may be ‘experts’ in their field, or have years more experience than you. But they all had a first day on the job where they were the newbie too. Do you always expect perfect performance from your colleagues? Of course not, after all, we’re human. So why do you demand perfection from yourself?

How to cope: It’s just not realistic to expect yourself to perform every task perfectly in a new job role. There’s going to be a learning curve, so give yourself room to grow and make mistakes. Embrace being new. Afterall, this is a period dedicated to growth where mistakes are learning opportunities. A week, a month, six months, and a year from now, you’ll be able to look back and do the things that you weren’t able to do before.

imposter syndrome
Remember that starting is always the most challenging part.

3. You’re afraid of being exposed as a fraud.

Fear of being exposed as fraudulent can create paralyzing anxiety. This fear stems from low self-confidence and parallels the ongoing need to be the best. What’s the evidence that you’re a fraud? After all you were hired because at least one person in a higher position felt you were qualified for the role. So much so that they offered you instead of someone else the opportunity.

Make a point to pay attention to what you’re doing well.

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How to cope: Make a point to pay attention to what you’re doing well. Keep a folder in your inbox to file away thank you emails and positive feedback. Keep a pocket-sized notebook at your desk to write down positive things you’ve done well. Include even the small or seemingly insignificant things.

Schedule meetings with your mentor or supervisor and ask for constructive feedback. There’s always room for growth, and this is a positive thing. The next time you doubt yourself, you can objectively look back from a higher vantage point and see how far you’ve come.

Keep a folder in your inbox to file away thank you emails and other positive feedback. You might also consider keeping a pocket-sized notebook at your desk to write down positive things you’ve done well.
coping with imposter syndrome

4. When you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, you’re constantly comparing yourself to your colleagues.

Remember – you’re sitting at your well-deserved seat at the metaphorical table.

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You’re sitting at your well-deserved seat at the metaphorical table. You look around at your boss and coworkers and feel that everyone around you is so great at what they do that you pale in comparison. When we feel like we don’t measure up to our peers, this can invite nagging feelings of self-doubt and unjustified self-criticism.

How to cope: Identify unique qualities you contribute instead of hyperfocusing on your deficiencies. This can be tough for some people because we’re so used to tearing ourselves down. If this exercise is difficult for you, imagine that you’re having a conversation with a trusted person in your life. Think about what they would name as your redeeming traits. You can also ask your coworkers how you’ve helped them recently. Whether on a particular task or team project, this will allow you to get real-word feedback.

The most surefire way to combat imposter syndrome

When we doubt ourselves behind the closed doors of our office, we believe that we’re alone in thinking that way, because no one else is voicing their doubts. The most surefire way to combat imposter syndrome is to talk about it. In doing so you bring your fears into the world and in doing so this takes away some of their power.

By being vulnerable, you open yourself up to receiving authentic support.

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By sharing them with a trusted confidant you also create space for a reality check. This opens an opportunity for others to relate to your experience and share how they coped. By being vulnerable, you open yourself up to receiving authentic support.

For many, opening up about a fear of failure with those in our lives may not feel like a good option for different reasons. In this case, connecting with a therapist may be the route to go. Speaking with an unbiased individual in a judgement-free zone in and of itself is immensely therapeutic. A therapist has the experience to help individuals successfully work through the negative feelings related to imposter syndrome. For example, individuals learn necessary tools to challenge negative self-talk and self-defeating behaviors. In a supportive environment, therapists also help individuals free themselves from anxiety, self-doubt and judgement. Individuals experience newfound confidence and are able to finally celebrate their achievements and successes.

Your Turn: What ways have you found to combat imposter syndrome? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments below.

Justin L.F. Yong

Justin L.F. Yong is a Psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy. Justin draws on elements from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Affirmative Therapy and Multicultural Counseling to help clients regain their sense of purpose and identity so that they can live life with new energy.

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