Have you ever been admitted to college or landed a new job but then worried you might not actually have the skills necessary to succeed—or even just survive? At one time or another, most of us have looked around at classmates or colleagues and thought, I don’t belong. Sure, we’ve received praise for our achievements, but we secretly think everyone else in the room is still smarter than us. We convince ourselves that we’re merely faking it by comparison. Even worse, we live in dread that we are just moments away from being exposed as frauds.
The tolls of the impostor phenomenon
Among psychologists, this feeling of insecurity and self-doubt is known as the impostor phenomenon. (In pop culture, you might hear it called impostor syndrome although it’s not a clinical diagnosis.) It’s a fairly common human experience, but it can take a serious toll on our mental health.
For example, the impostor phenomenon can leave us feeling isolated or alone because we assume everyone else knows more than we do. We might have trouble acknowledging our accomplishments because we chalk them up to luck or some other factor besides our own ability and effort—and not celebrating those achievements can dampen our motivation. And if we combine impostor feelings with negative experiences in school or on the job, our self-esteem can nose-dive. Even worse, anxiety and depression are common companions of impostor syndrome, and we might assume failure is inevitable, which can lead to poorer performance at school or on the job.
But take heart! It’s not all gloom and doom. We can overcome self-doubt and reclaim our self-esteem. Here’s how we can conquer our flawed feelings of fakery and stride forward with confidence.
Acknowledge and celebrate your wins
Let’s get real . . . about our strengths and accomplishments. One way to tamp down self-doubt is to remind ourselves of what we’re good at and the progress we’ve made so far in our education and career journeys. Writing down our skills and wins—and then revisiting that list from time to time—can ward off feelings of insecurity.
Keep a folder or file where you record praise you’ve received from professors, classmates, supervisors, colleagues, and loved ones. Keep it handy so you can remind yourself of your strengths when self-doubt creeps in.
Talk to someone you trust
Another important strategy is talking about our impostor feelings with someone we trust. That could mean a friend or loved one, a mentor, a coach, a campus counselor, or a therapist. Connecting with someone who values us can help us get a more accurate picture of our strengths and contributions.
Venting our doubts can also help us feel less isolated and alone. This is especially important for women, underrepresented minorities, and high achievers, who are more prone to the impostor phenomenon.
Good is good enough
It might seem strange that high achievers and perfectionists often struggle with impostor syndrome. But those of us who are used to always getting As and kudos at work tend to take criticism personally rather than constructively, immediately assuming that we are somehow not cut out for the task at hand. We also often perceive setbacks as failures when we should actually see these experiences as opportunities for learning.
This requires a major attitude shift, but let’s try to stop focusing on overachieving and perfectionism—those roads tend to dead-end at burnout. Instead, let’s do the best we can given our circumstances, accepting that not everything can be done flawlessly. Then, we need to acknowledge our hard work, reward our progress, and learn from our experiences. It can help, too, to remind ourselves that our value as human beings does not stem from our performance but rather from our relationships with people, our contributions to our community, and our compassion for ourselves and others.
Adopt a growth mindset
Reframing our thoughts is incredibly challenging. But it’s also crucial for avoiding the paralysis of the impostor phenomenon and being able to move forward.
It’s OK to feel less than confident when starting a new project, a new class, or a new job–that feeling is normal. Still, try to remember that learning and growth happen in our challenge zones, not in our comfort zones.
Our internal critic taunts us: I can’t do this. I’m just fooling everyone, and they will soon realize that I don’t know what I’m doing. Instead, we should try to see everything through the lens of our own development and progress, aka the growth mindset. So then that negative thought becomes, I can do this. I may not know exactly how yet, but I will learn. That magic word, yet, reminds us that we are all works in progress and that the goal is not perfection but rather constant improvement over time and with effort.
Dare not to compare
It’s hard not to constantly compare ourselves with other people. We see their achievements, the shout-outs they receive in class or at work, or their humble (or not-so-humble) brags on social media, and we think, I must be doing something wrong or I don’t have what it takes.
In these moments, we have to remember to focus on ourselves—our strengths, our skills, and our abilities. We are all human beings, after all, and we each bring something different to the proverbial table. Of course, if you still want to improve in a certain area where others seem to excel, you might try approaching that person, a mentor, your professor, or your supervisor to figure out how you might level up your skills. But in the end, we all define success differently, so we should focus on our own goals instead of falling into the comparison trap.
The converse golden rule
Many of us were taught to treat others as we would like to be treated. The converse holds true when it comes to feeling like a fraud: we should treat ourselves as we would treat others who we love and respect.
So when we start to doubt whether we deserve to be in school or in our jobs or whether we can accomplish the tasks ahead of us, we need to cheer ourselves on, just as we would support our loved ones. We could also benefit from practicing some self-care and self-compassion. And along the way, let’s keep reminding ourselves that humans are not perfect and that we are part of that common humanity, so we need to give ourselves some grace.
The impostor phenomenon is a tricky beast, and self-doubt inevitably ebbs and flows as we weather new roles and experiences in our lives and careers. But we can take some solace knowing that if we truly were impostors—that is, swaggering hoaxers looking to deceive other people—we wouldn’t feel like impostors; instead, we’d be brimming with confidence and self-assurance. It will take some work on our part, but by recognizing our feelings, acknowledging our strengths, and focusing on our own growth, we can transform our self-doubt into healthy, positive motivation that moves us forward.
Want help conquering those impostor feelings?
Our ReUp Success Coaches can help you identify your strengths and overcome self-doubt so you can achieve your definition of success. Your support team is available by phone, text, or email. Ready to connect and build your self-confidence?