Outsmarting the Imposter Syndrome

Feelings of self-doubt can plague all of us — and in some cases these harbored doubts threaten to derail our work lives. The chatter of these disconcerting “pangs” can become quite vocal as we approach (or settle) into a new challenge. While I do not recommend debating if this is worthy of your attention (it is), actively considering how to neutralize the negative by-products is both worthy and necessary.

There is a name for this dynamic: The Imposter Syndrome or The Imposter Phenomenon. First documented by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 70’s (Read the source research here, which explains how family experiences can serve as one instigating culprit), it illustrates how high achievement doesn’t automatically translate into a deep sense of confidence. We can harbor experiences that make us feel vulnerable and unworthy. In fact, some us fear being discovered as less than competent (even a “fake”) as we progress career-wise.

Questions such as these — “Do I deserve to be here?” — and “Do I really have what it takes to succeed?” can dominate the internal monologue. Research examining this dynamic in a lab setting, recorded greater anxiety levels for those identified as “imposters” before a challenge and greater loss of self-esteem after a failure — yet did not affect actual performance. Those examining IP further as it affects us career-wise, found that IP decreased career planning, career striving and the motivation to lead — all of which can spell trouble.

I’ve heard the urban legend of a freshly minted groups of MBA students at a prestigious university. On the first day of lectures, a professor inquired if they entertained the thought that their acceptance may have been an error. (Surprisingly, the majority of students raised their hand in response.) They had unceremoniously diminished their hard work and accomplishments, to something as capricious as an office error.

The truth is this, I’ve been there — and in all likelihood you’ve been there, as well. We must make every effort to squelch our negative inner voice, as it attempts to trump our hard work. In fact, we should unpack the “whys” and “hows” of the syndrome. Self-managing these pangs is an important task.

Some things to consider:

  • Where do your doubts originate? This a worthy, yet very tough question to answer. In many cases, past experiences are so ingrained in our daily lives that we have forgotten to challenge them. Has an early career failure or unhealthy family dynamic plagued you in some way? Take the time to examine the “layers of the onion”.
  • Watch the stress of transitions. Feelings of anxiety can accompany new surroundings or uncertainty. Recognize this is completely normal and will likely pass as you become more settled in your new endeavor.
  • Watch the “perfect” trap. Feelings of doubt can be fueled by the penchant to achieve perfection. Try to determine if perfectionist tendencies cloud your judgement concerning your knowledge set, skills and experience.
  • Consider the facts. Take a deep breath and examine the facts. (In fact, sit down and review your accomplishments.) There is likely much more evidence that you are competent and can meet the challenges in front of you, than not. Remember, that an organization chooses to engage you, betting you will succeed, rather than fail. If you are not chosen for a valued role or task, realize that this does not mean you are entirely competent — just not the individual with the “best fit”.
  • Learn to process setbacks in a healthier manner. Failure is an ever-present possibility — and the greater the challenge ahead, the more likely your protective mechanisms will kick into high gear. Yes, there is a chance that you might fail. However if all does not go well, be careful to “unpack” the low points without sacrificing yourself.
  • Monitor self-talk. What usually dominates your thoughts with a challenge? Excitement? Doubt? Negativity? Monitor (and auto-correct) the dialogue marching through your head.
  • Share your concerns. If you have nagging doubts about an specific element of your work life, put the cards on the table with someone with who can offer an impartial opinion. Go there and discuss perceived weaknesses. This may offer you a needed perspective.
  • Still doubtful? Focus. If you still have a suspicion that you may actually be lacking somehow (even though others may not share that assessment) explore methods to satisfy your inner critic. Carve out strategies to help you feel comfortable and build confidence. (Circulate your ideas for review/comment, etc.) This may do your workplace “heart” a world of good.

A version of this was first posted on

How Impostor Syndrome Hampers Your Success

Why do we resist accepting our accomplishments? Ive meet too many successful people who suffer from impostor syndrome. These are individuals who (despite the evidence) remain convinced they are frauds, believing they do not deserve their success. Whitney Cummings is one such individual.  

Whitney Cummings is a prominent comedian. She’s had her own prime time network show, appears on the wildly popular Comedy Central Roasts, is co-creator of the CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls, and sells out every stand up gig she books. Yet in a recent interview, she stated:

“I have Career Dysmorphia. I think I’m a complete failure. I see myself as an open mic-er who is a phoney and I don’t see myself as a success at all. I argue with a lot of people about that.”

Whitney is not alone. In a Huffington Post article by imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young, she mentions a number of successful people who, as Mike Myers put it, still expect the “no-talent police” to come and arrest them. Such high profile performers as Tina Fey, Don Cheadle, Kate Winslet, Jody Foster, and producer Chuck Lorre have all spoken openly about their inner fraud feelings.

Like most self-described imposters, Whitney does not deny the significance of her accomplishments. She simply de-values her role in achieving them by chalking it up to chance and feeling as if she’s tricking others into thinking she’s better than she is. To explain this mentality, a study by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes found that where many people “own success as attributable to a quality inherent in themselves, imposters project the cause of success outward to an external cause (luck) or to a temporary internal quality (effort) that they do not equate with inherent ability.”

If you consider yourself to be an imposter, there’s good news – you can do something about it. Here are a few ideas:

  • Stop acting as if you’re afraid of success. You have attacked your goals and achieved something to be proud of. People who are afraid to succeed don’t do this. So if anything, you are already a success and are afraid to accept it.
  • Accept that you have a role in your success. As mentioned, some feel like a fraud because they are unable to internalize success. You can either act as if you’ve been “given” an opportunity or you can look back at all the effort you’ve exerted to get where you are today.
  • Take others off their pedestal. Some imposters have an unrealistic image of what it means to be a success. They idolize their heroes instead of seeing them as the humans they really are. Peal back the façade and you’ll quickly realize that nobody knows what they are doing. Confidence may serve to hide insecurities, but we are all working with a hopeful ignorance of the future.
  • Get a support system. Find people you respect who are willing to listen to your self-doubts and can help you come to grips with your success.
  • Admit you’re a fake. This is actually a therapy technique where you role-play the opposite of “I’m not competent.” The idea is to act out being competent so you can unveil a part of your self-image that lurks beneath the self-doubt. You can then work through your fears and guilt and move toward a more realistic view of your abilities.
  • Admit you’re really a fake. If all else fails, accept that you’re a fraud and use this insecurity to push yourself to work even harder. Maybe being an actual imposter is the fuel you need to fuel future efforts.

It’s a shame Whitney Cummings, Mike Myers, and the rest of us can’t appreciate what we’ve achieved. Fortunately, there’s no “no-talent police” to arrest you for finally being found out. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in a state of career dysmorphia.

You work too hard to find yourself delusionally rejecting your accomplishments. The sooner you can accept this, the sooner you can put your efforts into earning more wins.

Photo Credit: Ngọc Hà via Compfight cc