There’s probably no time when we are more hounded with imposter syndrome than when we try to be better at something. Whether it’s trying to instill a new habit, learn a new skill or fill a new role; striving for more may overwhelm us with self-doubt. The term “Imposter Syndrome” was popularized by psychologist Pauline Rose Clance, PhD. It describes the persistent belief that you’re not skilled enough, smart enough, or good enough and that you’re essentially a fraud who will be found out and exposed.
Despite the overwhelming feeling that you are alone in this experience, Imposter syndrome is surprisingly common! According to Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, as many as 70 percent of people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. Interestingly most sufferers tend to be incredibly successful people like top-tier athletes, entrepreneurs or grade A students – who in spite of all their success, doubt their own accomplishments and believe they don’t deserve any of it.
Albert Einstein said of his achievements at the end of his life
"The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler”
Imposter syndrome may arise situationally, when we are faced with new challenges. For some sufferers though, it may be a more chronic problem. It develops in our formative years when our performance is measured against exacting standards, when mistakes are viewed as intolerable or when we receive little or no recognition for our achievements. We may begin to believe that nothing we do is good enough and that we have little or no power to impact the outcome of situations. We develop an external locus of control: the worldview that the outcomes of situations are based on external factors such as the economy, other people and other external circumstances. While it is obvious that these external factors do have a bearing on what we can achieve, they are only half the story. A healthy perspective credits both external and internal factors - such a skill and ability.
According to Richard Wiseman, the author of The Luck Factor, it’s called imposter syndrome because you’re convinced that you’ve got the job through some kind of fraud, you don’t deserve it, and sooner or later your luck will run out and you’ll be found out. People with imposter syndrome are inclined to credit external factors when they succeed and internal factors when they fail.
While impostor syndrome may seem harmless on its surface, it can lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout If you struggle with impostor syndrome or if you just want to know how to spot potential signs among your peers or employees, read on for five steps you can take right now to overcome both symptoms and stigma.
1. Develop an internal locus of control: When your locus of control is internal, you tend to see events in your life as a result of what you do rather than as a result of fate or other external circumstances. As a result, when something good happens, you believe it’s because you’ve worked hard for it, not because fate has smiled upon you. We deserve credit for our achievements even though we may have benefited from special opportunities or the supports of friends and family. We are also responsible for our failures though they depend on external circumstances as well.
2. Cultivate self-efficacy: Self-efficacy refers to how much confidence you have that you can accomplish specific goals that are important to you. The more efficacy (or confidence) you have in yourself, the more likely you are to set goals that stretch beyond your comfort zone, take risks and hold yourself accountable while learning new skills. You can build this capacity by using an objective criterion to measure your performance as opposed to relying on your subjective judgement which may change according to mood.
3. Have high standards but realistic expectations: If you place unrealistic expectations on yourself (such as thinking you’re smarter than everyone else), you may feel like a fraud when people praise your intelligence or abilities—even if those praises are warranted! But if you expect success from yourself, even though it may be difficult at times, at least some portion of failure will be within reason. Failures are unpleasant experiences, but they are also opportunities to reflect on our actions and decisions and get better. Embrace mistakes instead of fearing them: One easy way to lose all progress toward your goal is by letting fear immobilize you into inaction!
4. Do one thing well at a time: If you want to build credibility with others, try focusing on doing one thing well before trying to tackle another skill. This way, no matter how skilled you are with one task or project, there’s no chance that others will think they can outshine you just because they know more about something else.
5. Approach new tasks as challenges instead of threats: Having a negative mindset will only lead to sabotaging yourself before you ever get started. Instead, approach every new opportunity with curiosity and excitement; we all face obstacles when learning something new, so don’t make it any harder than it needs to be.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, impostor syndrome is not about your lack of skill or knowledge. It’s an emotional reaction that happens when you put yourself into situations where you aren’t comfortable. So next time you experience it, remind yourself that it isn’t a reflection on your abilities; it just means you are pushing past your comfort zone and that’s a good thing!