What is impostor syndrome and how can you beat it?

An estimated 70 per cent of people experience the feeling that they’re a fraud. Here’s how to overcome self-doubt

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By Poppy Jamie

28 March 2021

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ave you ever felt as if you don’t meet expectations? That everyone else in the room knows what they’re doing and you don’t? That everything you’ve achieved so far has all been down to sheer luck? Then you aren’t alone.

That feeling is called “impostor syndrome” and one US study found that 70 per cent of those surveyed had felt it at some point.

It was Drs Clance and Imes, in 1978, who first put a name to that creeping feeling of self-doubt, calling it the “impostor phenomenon”. They noted it again and again in high-achieving women, clouding their minds, making them believe their success came from something other than their own skill and hard work. Of course, we now know everyone is capable of experiencing it.

Impostor syndrome can be tricky to identify in yourself. It’s a part of you - a deep belief. But a faulty belief. What makes it so hard to undo is that it’s a learned behaviour. It’s our inner saboteur misinterpreting any discomfort we feel as proof of our lack of competence. And that kind of deep-rooted self-doubt can’t be uprooted immediately.

Here are some signs of impostor syndrome to look out for:

- You don’t feel worthy of your success

- You’re worried someone will find out you’re bad at what you do or that you don’t belong

- You find it hard to take compliments and praise

- You think your achievements are down to luck or other external factors.

Fortunately, there will be people around you – your friends and family – who can tell you the truth about your impostor syndrome. They can see your skill and brilliance, and notice when you don’t give yourself enough credit. Your mind has been conditioned to ignore this part of you, and you have to actively want to see yourself differently.

‘At the heart of the issue is a fear of failure. We have become such a perfectionist society that failure isn’t an option’

I’ve been a big fan of Dr Jessamy – clinical psychologist, Ted speaker, and best-selling author – for some time, and a quote of hers rings very true: “growth isn’t meant to be comfortable”. But that just means you can learn to identify it yourself.

Impostor syndrome can be linked to our evolution. Self-doubt would have benefited us back when our primary goal as humans was simply to stay alive. If we were chasing prey and doubted our ability to chase it down, it could have helped us conserve our energy and find a new target. If we didn’t have that self-doubt or worry, we would probably have died out some time ago. We’re applying an important survival tool to our modern lives, but that tool doesn’t work for us any more.

But we have to want to break that cycle. Beliefs are like prejudices: they’re rooted deep and need to be challenged. One way to face your beliefs about yourself is to remember that thoughts aren’t fact. Feeling like an impostor doesn’t make you one, and revisiting this motto can help you realise that. Recognise how you feel in that moment. Acknowledge these thoughts and confront them. You have to rewire your mind and challenge every negative thought with: “says who?”

You think you don’t belong in your job: says who? You think you’re not as capable as everyone else: says who? The answer is you – you’re the only one saying these things. You begin to see these moments for what they are: opportunities. Every mistake is a chance to grow and learn something new. You’re a work in progress, and everyone is in the same position. Remind yourself of this reality.

That’s not to say you can’t have your wins. There are areas of your life where you’re excelling. So recognise those times too. It doesn’t make you arrogant. You’re allowed to celebrate your wins and you shouldn’t discredit yourself. Over time, this will allow you to see yourself as less of an impostor.

Part of this journey is to hear that voice, not push it away. By listening to your own self-doubt, you can question it. Imagine your friend was relaying these feelings to you - what would you say? Obviously, you would tell them this isn’t the truth of the situation, so take your own advice.

At the heart of the issue is a fear of failure. We have become such a perfectionist society that failure isn’t an option. But our need for failure is akin to the common cold. No one enjoys feeling ill, but if you spend your life avoiding it, when you finally get one, the effects will be far more devastating. You need to build up immunity throughout your life. And the same goes for failure.

If we avoid failure our entire lives, we don’t know how to cope when we inevitably experience it. Failure is the seed that can blossom into impostor syndrome, so when we can accept our failures, we can overcome it.

Impostor syndrome affects more people than you might realise. But that doesn’t mean we should let it wreak havoc. We deserve to celebrate our successes and skills without feeling as if we aren’t good enough.

The Short Stack

Impostor syndrome is tough to beat, but challenge negative thoughts and never forget you are where you are because of your best qualities.

By Poppy Jamie

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