Confronting the Fraud: How to Cope with Impostor Syndrome
Have you ever achieved something great but felt like it was due to a lucky break? Do you constantly worry that someone will discover you are not as capable as they believed? Or were you ever afraid that you won’t be able to successfully execute a task you were assigned? I know I have... The intensity of this feeling is often accompanied by anxiety and can even lead to depression in severe circumstances. It's called the impostor phenomenon, and it affects most of us at some point in our lives. Studies show that 70% of people experience it, so if you're struggling with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy keep in mind that you're not alone.
I believe that sharing our experiences openly is the first step towards breaking the stigma and creating a supportive community. By opening up about our struggles with impostor syndrome, we can create a safe place where we can offer each other support, validation, and practical tips for overcoming our self-doubt and building our confidence. Together, we can learn to recognize our strengths and achievements, and find new ways to combat the impostor syndrome.
To gain a better understanding of this phenomenon, it's important to examine its definition and the most prevalent symptoms. According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, impostor syndrome is characterized by persistent self-doubt about one's abilities or accomplishments, coupled with a fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of ongoing success. The symptoms are characterized by a persistent feeling of being a fraud who has deceived others into believing that they are more capable than they truly are. Individuals may attribute their success to external factors such as luck, charm, or the misjudgment of others, rather than recognizing their own abilities. This can lead to a harmful cycle in which the individual either engages in intense over-preparation or procrastinates before starting a task. Once the task is completed, the individual may experience feelings of relief and accomplishment, but the cycle starts anew when another task or situation arises, triggering feelings of anxiety and self-doubt all over again.
At some point in our lives, we all experience self-doubt. It's a normal part of being human. However, the impostor syndrome takes self-doubt to a whole new level. Looking back, I can see that the impostor phenomenon had already taken hold of me during my university years. At the time, I thought that my feelings of inadequacy were just nerves or a lack of experience. But I now realize that they were not typical. I was constantly plagued by the sense that I wasn't good enough, that I couldn't possibly pass exams, and that I was somehow less capable than my peers. Unlike normal self-doubt, the impostor syndrome left me paralyzed with fear and insecurity. I remember crying over my studies and thesis, feeling like I was in over my head. It's clear to me now that these experiences were symptomatic of a deeper issue that needed to be addressed.
Living with impostor syndrome can be a constant battle, and it takes a lot of work to overcome it. But I'm here to tell you that it's possible. It starts with acknowledging the issue and seeking help when necessary. The fear of being exposed as a fraud can leave you feeling inferior, anxious, and lacking in confidence. As someone who has struggled with this syndrome, I know firsthand how stressful it can be to live like this. After graduating, I started working as a freelancer and constantly dealt with self-doubt when taking on new projects, even ones I had aced as a student. The fear of not being able to manage the project alone or that the challenge was bigger than my abilities left me feeling paralyzed and insecure. I would doubt my own abilities and accept lower pay for my work, not realizing my true value. These pervasive feelings of anxiety and self-doubt held me back from reaching my full potential. Experiencing impostor syndrome can be an emotional rollercoaster, marked by intense feelings of stress, self-doubt, and inadequacy. If you've been there, you know exactly how challenging it can be.
If you find yourself nodding along with my experiences, it may be a sign that you've encountered impostor syndrome in your own life. To help you determine if this is the case, I've compiled a list of questions that you can ask yourself.
- In your job or when you apply for a position, do you find it hard to take credit for your accomplishments and frequently attribute them to luck or other external factors?
- Despite having the required knowledge and expertise, do you feel insufficiently qualified for your current position?
- Do you find yourself constantly yearning for others' approval , whether it is your boss, coworkers, or friends and family?
- Do you fret being exposed as a fraud or worry people will realize you aren't as competent as they think you are?
- Do you shy away from new possibilities or challenges because you worry you won't be able to live up to expectations?
- Do you compare yourself to others and see them as more successful or skilled than you?
- Do you struggle to accept compliments, often deflecting or dismissing them?
If you replied affirmatively to several of these questions you may have experienced impostor syndrome. It’s crucial to remember that these feelings are normal and that you can develop strategies to cope with them.
Finally, It's time to address the elephant in the room: How do we overcome impostor syndrome and cope with the anxiety and uncertainty that it entails? Here's what I discovered through research and firsthand experience:
- Seek help: In my experience, therapy has been an essential tool in my journey toward healing. It provided me with a safe space to share my struggles. Receiving guidance from an expert led to a significant shift in my awareness of the issue. My therapist helped me develop various coping mechanisms and strategies that boosted my confidence within the therapy room and empowered me to apply them in my daily life. While therapy may not be accessible for everyone, particularly those with financial limitations, there are still options to tackle this issue. To gain more knowledge and perspectives on the topic, consider reading books, articles or blogs about it, as well as listening to relevant podcasts and TED Talks. Also, try to connect with individuals on social media who have gone through similar experiences and share helpful insights and tips on how to overcome imposter syndrome. By expanding your resources and learning from others, you can better equip yourself to deal with the negative thoughts and feelings associated with this phenomenon.
- Identify and challenge negative self-talk: In my research, I found that all experts agree on this particular strategy. They advise identifying self-negative talk, which is that nagging inner voice that brings you down and fills your mind with pessimistic feelings about yourself. This voice can be incredibly imaginative when it comes to conjuring up the worst-case scenarios. I remember my negative self-talk being particularly active when I first entered the job market. It constantly discouraged me from applying for positions, even when the job description didn't require the experience I lacked and it can still resurface during stressful days. It takes time and practice to recognize that this voice is not who we are but rather the product of our fears, insecurities, and past experiences that continue to drain our energy. Once you identify the inner critic, the second step is to discredit it. Talking to it and acknowledging what it says, while thinking of positive replies is the key to creating a positive voice that can deal with the negative one. After discrediting it we need to focus on developing a positive inner voice that encourages us to believe in ourselves and reminds us of all the important things we have achieved.
- Celebrate your accomplishments: It's important to acknowledge your accomplishments and celebrate your successes, no matter how small they may seem. Recognize your hard work and the progress you have made, and allow yourself to feel proud of what you have achieved. I personally take time to pat myself in the back once in a while. If this doesn’t come natural to you, consider creating a regular ritual to celebrate yourself for at least three months. Choose a specific week day to reflect and write down five things you accomplished that week that make you proud. This can include small achievements like being punctual or helping a colleague. Treat yourself to something you enjoy like a bubble bath, chocolates, order sushi, or pour yourself a glass of wine during this time. Some weeks may be harder than others to find things to celebrate, but remember that every achievement, no matter how small, deserves recognition.
- Surround yourself with people who believe in you: Research shows that our social environment has a significant impact on our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. If you surround yourself with people who constantly criticize and undermine your abilities, it can reinforce the negative self-talk and make it harder to break the cycle. However, if you surround yourself with supportive and encouraging individuals who celebrate your achievements and offer constructive feedback, it can help build your confidence and resilience. In my life in general, I am discerning about the company I keep. I choose not to spend time with people who bring me down. I believe that surrounding myself with positive and encouraging individuals is crucial for my personal growth and well-being.
- Take action despite fear: Recognize that feeling scared or uncertain is normal, but don't let it hold you back from taking steps towards your goals. Acknowledge that growth happens outside of your comfort zone. Embracing discomfort means being willing to try new things and face challenges even when you're feeling uncertain or scared. It means pushing yourself to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. This process of facing discomfort can be challenging at first, but as you push through it, you will build resilience and confidence. Instead of letting fear hold you back, embrace it as an opportunity for growth and see how far you can go. In moments of fear of failure, I remind myself of my past experiences and how they have contributed to my growth. It's important to acknowledge that I am capable and have a supportive team and clients who want me to succeed. To combat my inner critic, I prioritize staying organized and focused. Tackling the most relevant tasks first helps me feel in control and confident. Additionally, I work hard to improve my communication and management skills to become a better leader. When faced with new challenges, I draw on my knowledge and skills, reminding myself of the value I bring to the situation. This preparation helps me approach challenges with confidence and ease.
As a final consideration, it is worth noting that Impostor Syndrome is not solely an internal struggle. Societal factors can exacerbate our feelings of inadequacy and the fear of being exposed as fraud. From a young age, we are conditioned to believe that success is defined by achievement and external validation, which can contribute to unrealistic standards and self-doubt. Societal biases and stereotypes also influence our self-perception and abilities. Therefore, it is crucial to create supportive work environments that promote realistic expectations and value human qualities. In such environments, mistakes are viewed as opportunities for growth and learning, aiding individuals in overcoming Impostor Syndrome.