Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

We often make an assumption that people desire to be successful, that they seek information that supports how competent of a person they are, and more importantly, that it feels good to be successful/competent. But we have years of data to dispute this assertion. Specifically, we know that many people actually feel like total imposters even though they are in successful roles. They believe that they are only there due to luck, others’ generosity, and that no-one actually knows how incompetent they really are. Sooner or later they will be found out. We call this Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome

Up to 40% of people experience Imposter Syndrome, and women are most likely to experience this feeling. Feeling like an imposter sucks. You doubt yourself, you don’t feel at all competent, and you feel like it’s only a matter of time until you get found out. All the good things that happen to you are purely a result of external factors and have little to do with your own competence. I know I have personally experienced this, particularly in graduate school.

Not only does Imposter Syndrome make you feel like a fraud, it also affects the way you act. It’s associated with discounting praise, lowering others expectations of you, avoiding displays of confidence, working too hard, and perfectionism. It is also associated with depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation.

There are 3 characteristics that define Imposter Syndrome:

  1. You feel like a fraud
  2. You fear others will find this out too
  3. If you do succeed then it’s due to external factors (luck, others giving you the opportunity, etc.)

As a result, a strong concern about self-presentation develops. Paradoxically, although they worry about being found out, they also try hard to find evidence that they are incompetent.

Imposter Syndrome Exists For A Reason

Imposter Syndrome is not some personal deficiency, but something that makes total sense if we can understand its functional purpose. People just don’t feel or act certain ways for no reason. There’s always a reason.

So what is the reason?

What the research suggests is that Imposter Syndrome works to help in social situations. This actually makes it quite functional when you think about it. Imagine you’re successful, based on what others tell you and based on objective data. If you have Imposter Syndrome then you actually doubt your abilities and whether you can continue performing at this level. You believe that at some point you’re going to mess up, which will out you as the incompetent person you feel you are. So, how can you cope? Let’s go through some ways that people with Imposter Syndrome act.

1. Lowering Others’ Expectations

If you’re worried what others think, then Imposter Syndrome may cause you to try and lower others expectations of you. For example, you may say on a regular basis, “I got lucky.” Or, “It wasn’t me, it was the whole team working together.” If you can say things to lower others’ expectations then you’ll feel like the pressure is off you, and you’ll feel less like an imposter. You’ll also be more likely to exceed the expectations. Although people like someone who performs highly, they don’t like someone who doesn’t meet their expectations.

Lowering others’ expectations is not too dissimilar from a concept in sports I used to study called, “self-handicapping.” This is a strategy whereby people avoid putting in maximum effort and blame various external factors (e.g. hidden injury, fatigue) for their performance, in order to lower expectations.

2. Discounting Praise

By discounting others’ praise of you, you’re being humble, right? However, if you have Imposter Syndrome this may lower future expectations of yourself, and prevent yourself coming across as over-confident. It takes all the pressure off you, and is probably also reinforced by others you work with, as I’m sure they appreciate you not taking all the credit. In this way, Imposter Syndrome is a bit of a protective strategy for others’ expectations and opinions of you.

There is also some research to support that by discounting praise you can actually get more support and encouragement from others. I’m definitely not saying this is deliberate, but if you discount praise, you may be more likely to receive information to the contrary.

3. Avoiding Displays of Competence

Of course you’re not going to boast about your qualities or tell others that you think you can do something really well. You don’t actually believe that about yourself! Displays of competence are therefore quite threatening and anxiety-provoking. If you’re put in one, either you’ll crash and burn or you’ll actually do well, which may create more expectations of you. It’s a lose-lose situation.

4. Working Too Hard

Imposter Syndrome means you don’t believe you have enough innate qualities to succeed, so you work hard to make up for your lack of talent. It’s a way of preventing the failure that you fear, and having as much control over the final outcome as possible.

5. Perfectionism

Checking and rechecking your work will minimize the possibility of there being mistakes. If you can prevent mistakes by really scrutinizing your own work, which, by the way, reinforces that you make a ton of mistakes, then you’ll feel safer. You’ll also be more likely to get praised for your work, which you can then just brush off.

Note: I think all of these factors mirror anxiety, and I see it a lot in my work. Anxiety tends to depend on just two factors: Controllability and predictability. When both the level of control and ability to predict what is going to happen are low, anxiety is going to be highest. As such, anxious people understandably develop strategies to maximize the level of controllability and predictability. The strategies I have described above could be thought of as ways of managing controllability and predictability. The downside of both of these factors is that they often take up more time that you may not have, or want, to give.

How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome has many parallels with anxiety. Imposter Syndrome is just a feeling that motivates you to do things that prevent you being found out as an imposter.

Because Imposter Syndrome is so similar to anxiety, it makes sense to treat it in the same way too. In some ways, this is what most authors and websites advocate. Just google, “treating Imposter Syndrome” and you’ll see a list of websites that suggest various strategies in order to deal with the issue. For example, try this article and this one. And the general theme they show is:

  • Do exposure work. For example, taking the compliment without brushing it off, volunteering to put yourself in a situation where your competency may be judged without over-preparing, or talking with others about how you feel like a fraud (which is probably a really good idea). These are the behavioral strategies.
  • Do cognitive work. For example, writing down ways that you are competent, noting objective data about your success, realizing that being wrong isn’t that bad, seeing yourself within the bigger picture. These are the cognitive strategies.
  • Do more cognitive work. Realizing that no-one else is competent either. For example, finding examples where people screw up all the time (sports, business etc.).

I’m not going to go into a whole list of these things as others have done a much better job than I have at that. Just check out this article and this article. I think these are actually good ideas and based on sound psychological principles. Instead, I’m going to share something that I don’t think anyone has written about.

A New Way of Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

In addition to the above strategies, I think there’s a nuance to add that will really help.

To explain this nuance, let’s start with the obvious that most sites don’t explain. It’s actually possible that you may be a fraud. Who am I to say you’re not? You might really be an imposter. I can think of many soccer players who I cannot believe made it to the professional level (e.g. see here for a laugh), let alone are paid millions each year.

However, it’s also possible that you’re not a fraud.

You’ll never be able to decide one way or the other, for sure. There is no way to guarantee, with 100% certainty, either way. You may always mess up in the future, fool everyone for the rest of your life, or simply be a competent person who deserves to be in that role. So instead of trying to persuade yourself that you are not a fraud (i.e. those cognitive strategies-put those aside for now unless they truly work for you), the goal would be to tolerate the uncertainty while engaging in behaviors that live up to your values. Accept that you feel like a fraud, but don’t compensate for that feeling.

What does this look like in practical terms?

Step 1:

First, identify what your values are and how Imposter Syndrome interferes with these values or ruins your enjoyment. Write down every way that it has held you back. For example, it might be that you just don’t want to feel this way anymore. But it might also be that you don’t take on roles or responsibilities because you don’t feel you’re up to it. Or that you overly credit everyone on your team and don’t always get the credit you deserve – which might limit you getting promoted or getting other opportunities. Or you feel you work harder than you should. This is important because it’s your motivation for trying to deal with this issue.

Step 2:

Do your exposures and face your fears. This means accepting compliments. When something goes well, don’t thank external factors (luck, others) and instead take some credit yourself for a change. Get yourself in an evaluative situation. And then when you’re in one, see if you can admit a vulnerability or make a mistake. That can be as small as a typo, to showing up a minute late, to saying, “I don’t know.” Something that might “out” you. Limit how long you work on something, even though you could probably make it better by working a little longer. Don’t re-read your work as much as you usually would. Talk to others and see if they feel like imposters too.

These are all just examples of facing your fear and learning to tolerate that they make you feel uncomfortable by potentially outing you as a fraud. If you repeat this over and over, the feeling goes down. They are the mini-actions you need to take in order to get you your goal.

Step 3:

Doing these actions will exacerbate the feeling that you are a fraud, and your incredulity that others don’t seem to notice it. Now you have to sit with the uncertainty that you may actually be a fraud. Remind yourself that you’ll never know with absolute certainty.

This will help explain the idea: When you leave the house each morning, are you sure that you locked the door? That someone hasn’t found their way inside and is currently taking your stuff? No. So what are you going to do? If you go back to your house to check every time, you’re probably going to feel short-term relief but it’s also going to seriously interfere with your work and life. Instead, you have to sit with the uncertainty that everything is probably are ok but you don’t know for certain. Try to return to work and do what you value.

– This parallels Imposter Syndrome. When you feel it, say to yourself, “maybe.” “Maybe I’m an imposter and I’ll be found out for a fraud.” Then return to your work, and do what you actually value.

Don’t use any strategies to reassure yourself that you’re not a fraud. This will undermine you working to tolerate the uncertainty. Instead, say “maybe.” “Maybe the bad thing I fear happening is actually going to happen.” And sit with it.

Step 4:

Return to your goal. After you’ve done steps 2 and 3 multiple times, it’s time to identify the next action in your career/sport/activity you can take that says, “screw you” to Imposter Syndrome. This should be something very meaningful to you, and something that Imposter Syndrome tells you that you are not qualified for. Keep repeating steps 2-4 and you’ll move toward a life in line with your values, not one held back by Imposter Syndrome.

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