How To Win The Battle Against Imposter Syndrome

For many people, imposter syndrome is an experience that's unfortunately all too familiar. A new job, a new school, or a new personal project can spark the unpleasant feeling that we're not good enough to sustain it, or worst of all, that we got there by mistake.

Imposter syndrome, of course, goes beyond low self-esteem. Rather, it taps into a deeper fear of being 'found out' along the way, that someone in charge will come along and confirm the worst: that we never had what it took to be there. As Psychology Today points out, the reason one feels impostor syndrome has little to do with empirical evidence. A person suffering from imposter syndrome can hold all of the qualifying credentials, degrees or otherwise, to earn a place at the table. Yet the nagging feeling of being undeserving persists, leading to defeating behaviors.

All of this self-doubt can significantly impact your ability to enjoy life and feel proud of your accomplishments. In professional settings, we may become less likely to speak up with new ideas for fear of sounding uninformed or making mistakes. It can also lead to fence in our creativity and inhibit our ability to think broadly about ideas. But perhaps worst of all, it can ruin our connections with ours, for fear of finding out that co-workers  or friends know more than us. The good news is as challenging as impostor syndrome can be to deal with, there are steps you can take to not let it overwhelm you. 

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

At the center of imposter syndrome is feeling anxious or negative about new situations. As a result, we place extra pressure on ourselves that causes us to worry we aren't enough, even if that's not the case.  

Although turbulent emotions like anxiety are no joke, per Very Well Mind, visualizing them as a separate being outside of yourself can help keep them in check. Next time you feel anxious, ask yourself: Could a favorite animal or character embody these intense feelings? Think of anxiety as a small, yappy Pomeranian, or visualize pessimism as the classic "Winnie the Pooh" character, Eeyore. We may not be able to avoid feelings completely, but characterizing them as a separate entity tones down the threat a notch.This is important because ultimately, overcoming impostor syndrome is understanding that being uncomfortable is inevitable. Writer Luvvie Ajayi Jones spoke about these feelings in her TED Talk "Get comfortable with being uncomfortable" stating, "Comfort is overrated." She continued, "...Keeping things the way they've been is comfortable. And all comfort has done is maintain the status quo. So we've got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable."

If visualizing a Pomeranian at the command seat of your emotional vessel doesn't help, find another way to see these oh-so-powerful emotions as essentially unimportant as they really are. We can certainly honor the feelings and thank our bodies for alerting us to new experiences, but its power stops there.

Look to your own life as evidence

A major part of imposter syndrome is the belief that our accomplishments aren't real or valid. This creates a fear that we're a fraud waiting to be "found out" by a larger audience, as if some shadowed villain will jump out of their seat and yell, "We knew you didn't belong here!" This flares up most acutely when we start a new chapter of our lives, such as a new job, which makes since because this can put us in situations where we may not know everything.

One way to combat these feelings is to continually update a list of personal and professional achievements. A tangible history of our accomplishments serves as a nice reminder that we've been in unfamiliar situations before and made it through just fine, and that we're more than qualified to be where we are. What other jobs have we worked? What other programs or schooling have we already completed? Write out a list of these successes on paper or on your phone, that way you have something to refer back to whenever you feel like you don't belong. 

Other tangible evidence can be a huge confidence-booster, too. Hang up diplomas, certificates, or photos that capture your accomplishments in a place where they're visible every day. Even if we opt not to bring our diploma to our new job, seeing it displayed in our home office can remind us that our credentials are real and our successes well-deserved. 

Reframe your thinking: mistakes are magic

Often, imposter syndrome can go hand in hand with perfectionism. If we don't believe we have 100% of the expertise on something, we hesitate to even explore it out of fear we'll do something wrong. Combatting this fear can be as simple as changing our mindset around mistakes. Instead of viewing mess-ups as a total failure or humiliating, try seeing them as fertile ground for learning. The Harvard Business Review further notes that mistakes lead to innovation and invention, pushing us out of our comfort zone.

We can also think of our past mistakes as a reminder of what we're capable of accomplishing.

After all, sometimes you can never really know how something works or how you'll be in a situation until you try it. And ultimately, if we mess up, we know a different course to take next time.

This mindset can also keep us compassionate when others make mistakes. We can give them the grace we would so wish to receive the next time we get something wrong. We can feel pretty certain that they're as upset and embarrassed as we were, and can give them the encouragement to see it as a fruitful opportunity.

Remember other people may be going through the same thing

One of the main challenges of impostor syndrome is dealing with an us-versus-them mindset. We assume everyone else is smarter, more talented, more creative, and more confident than we are.

But that's simply not the case even for those who have an impressive pedigree. Take it from former first lady Michelle Obama. While speaking in London in 2018, Obama shared that she struggles with imposter syndrome and admitted that it never fully goes away, but said that a simple change in mindset can make all the difference. She reminded us that we need not always put people on pedestals based on position. "I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of. I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.: They are not that smart," she said, per Newsweek.

The goal of this mindset isn't to put others down, but it's to remember that everyone struggles with feeling inadequate from time to time. As Leslie Jamison points out in The New Yorker, imposter syndrome has traditionally been linked to women, but men struggle with it too. She also notes that it's the systems that fail, not the person who's failing, especially when it comes to people of color, specifically women of color. Those feelings can come because the environment is flawed, not you.

Call in the troops and bask in the praise

Knowing that powerful, successful people like Michelle Obama experience impostor syndrome too reminds us that we're not failures; we're just human beings with feelings. And we only find out about others' feelings by speaking to them and actively listening. The American Psychological Association promotes the idea of sharing our failures and speaking about our fears with others. This allows us to build a strong support system, which can in turn, make us feel more confident in the face of challenges.

If you're experiencing imposter syndrome in an academic environment, take advantage of office hours and get close to professors who make themselves available for mentorship. Develop relationships with new colleagues who seem open to sharing their experience. If you're still feeling uncertain, lean on your long-term support. Give a friend or family member a call who has your back; share your anxieties and hear them when they give praise. Often, others can see our accomplishments and talents more clearly than we see our own. It might even be worth-while to jot down what they said after the conversation, to keep it in the forefront of our minds what they specifically had to say about us so that future feelings of isolation and unworthiness aren't so powerful.