If you’ve ever felt like a fake in school or at work, you’re far from alone. Research suggests that feelings of being a fraud or a phony are a lot more common than people let on. In fact, studies show as much as 82% of people have had those thoughts at some point or another.
Collectively, these anxiety-inducing feelings have a name: Impostor Syndrome (IS). Thankfully, it’s possible to deal with them.
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
First coined in the 1970s by psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, Impostor Syndrome (IS) is a phenomenon that involves the inability to internalize one’s successes.
In other words, you might feel like your accomplishments are simply due to luck or some sort of unintended deception, instead of your own skill or hard work. Because of that, you may feel that you don’t deserve any of the praise or recognition people give you.
People with IS live in constant fear of being “found out” as impostors. You might worry that your colleagues, peers, and loved ones might one day unmask you as a fraud and lose respect for you. To avoid this, you work even harder and pressure yourself more and more so that they won’t ever recognize what you see as your shortcomings.
Through this, you might deserve the good words and opportunities that are given to you. Doing so, it may seem, is the only way to ease your guilt over deceiving others, and any achievements won through that additional hard work are simply seen as the maintenance of your “lie.”
This, inevitably, turns into a vicious cycle, and it’s easy to see why those with IS fear failure and often suffer from anxiety, guilt, and depression.
Though early research on the matter mostly studied high-achieving women, other studies have since found that IS can affect people of all genders and professions.
How to Deal With Impostor Syndrome
If all the above rings true for you, know that it’s possible to overcome these feelings by taking a hard look at the way you think of yourself. At the core of IS isn’t a misplaced sense of humility — instead, it’s a fear that people will not like us for who we really are if we let down our guard. We fear that people like us for something that isn’t real.
It’s good to pause and ask what core beliefs you hold about yourself, and if you feel worthy of love. Try and think about where that need to be perfect comes from. Of course, this is easier said than done, but you can start your journey towards more self-compassion in place of self-doubt with the following tips.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
Like many things, recognizing the issue and its effects on you is a good first step.
Try and observe the feelings as they come, instead of engaging with them automatically. For example, when someone congratulates you on a job well done and you start feeling like you don’t deserve it, pause and try not to follow the road this feeling points you to.
Instead, ask yourself if that doubt helps you or hinders you, and where it may be coming from. If you’re able to detach that doubt from the experience of being complimented for your work, you’ll be more able to bring those issues out into the light of day.
Reach Out to Others
It’s important to be able to talk to someone you trust, as feelings of impostorism shouldn’t be left to fester. Being able to talk about it can help it feel a little less overwhelming, and a trusted friend can even give you a different perspective than what your IS is giving you. Plus, you never know, they might just be experiencing the same thing.
If you can, finding a mentor to talk to can also ease your distress by helping you realize your objective strengths and weaknesses, and how feelings of self-doubt can be normal in your field or occupation.
You can also turn to people with less experience than you, like younger students or newer coworkers. This can help you get a better sense of how much you’ve learned and, objectively, how much expertise you have to offer others.
At the very least, talking to someone who cares for you, even if they don’t suffer from IS themselves, can be very comforting. This social connection can help stave off depression and help you on the road to better days.
Confront Your Doubts
To address feelings of being an impostor, try separating feelings from facts. Arm yourself with evidence. Make a list of your strengths. Track your successes. Take note of what you need to improve on. Take screenshots of good test scores, professional praise, or kind words if you need to!
This way, when you feel yourself heading down the road of self-doubt and feelings of IS, you can question whether those thoughts are rational given the evidence you’ve collected.
Let Go of the Need to Be Perfect
A realistic assessment of what you’re good at and what you need to improve on can help you accept that you don’t need to be perfect to be successful or to be liked by others. Not being perfect doesn’t make you a fraud.
If you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean that your achievements aren’t worthy of being celebrated. It also doesn’t mean you’re a phony. Remember that you’re allowed to make mistakes, and the best thing you can do is to treat it as an opportunity to do better.
Consider Seeing a Professional
For many people who feel like impostors, seeing a mental health professional can be helpful. Psychologists and therapists can empower you with more tools to break the cycle of IS, in a way that is specific to your experiences.
They can also help you identify whether factors in your environment, like workplace racism or discrimination, are contributing to your feelings of being an impostor.
The Bottom Line
For many people living with IS, it may seem impossible to not feel anxious all the time but take heart. You may still feel self-doubt sometimes, and that’s okay. By practicing kindness and compassion towards yourself, it is possible to keep IS from taking over your life.
If you or someone you love is struggling with IS or other mental health issues, don’t be afraid to call these numbers.