Your Success is Real: 10 Ways to Conquer Impostor Syndrome

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Here’s a phrase that sends chills: “ You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?”

Executives worldwide agree that their number one fear is being found incompetent (Harvard Business Review 2015). It’s probably a safe bet that the same fear applies to entrepreneurs and creative professionals as well. Psychologists call this fear of being “found out” impostor syndrome, a term coined in the 1970’s by researchers Pauline Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. to describe the behavior that Clance observed in some of her graduate students.

So if you’re feeling like an impostor at work, take heart. Chances are that others feel the exact same way. Studies show that 70% of the population feels inferior at least once in their lives.

Impostor syndrome is defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. It’s a general feeling of unworthiness that manifests itself in:

  • Being scared to try new things

  • Being afraid to be ambitious

  • Not pursuing your dreams or goals

  • Not pursuing growth opportunities, like a promotion

Feeling like you don't deserve success and recognition, or diminishing your success affects creative people and entrepreneurs disproportionately to the general public, possibly because they are often more sensitive than other professionals. They also tend to be more egotistical, which paradoxically can be a precursor to the syndrome (see #2 below).

The very nature of having a business requires you to stand out, it requires you to stick your head above the pack and say “look at me, look at what I can do”. While this is a necessary appeal for attention and approval it can also make us feel unsafe and judged. This feeling of uncertainty is the root cause of impostor syndrome (refreshedminds.com).

It's important to overcome the feelings of unworthiness. Left unchecked, these thoughts and feelings can become more deeply ingrained in your psyche. It’s best to address these thoughts and feelings as soon as they come up.

Here are ten ways to combat impostor syndrome:

#1 Feelings Aren't Facts.

Impostor syndrome is a feeling. It doesn't manifest itself in reality. It's simply your emotional reaction to something you perceive on the outside world. Emotions don’t always tell us the truth; so don’t treat them as reliable indicators of reality.

#2 Accept the hard work. 

It may seem illogical, but impostor syndrome is actually based on an unrealized feeling of superiority. Scientists theorize that children who are told they are superior (more intelligent, artistically gifted, etc.) and praised for their effortless success expect life to be full of easy wins. As adults, they mistrust praise and are convinced of their “failure” because they had to work hard for the result. To them, hard work means they are losing their edge and it’s not praiseworthy. Know that hard work is all a part of the equation for success. 

#3 Don’t keep it a secret.

Secrets fester, and your quiet feelings of inferiority can be self-perpetuating if they are not addressed. Talk about it with your friends, your spouse, or your co-workers. Take twenty seconds of courage to put it out there and be vulnerable. You'd be surprised by the support that you get, the number of people who will identify with you and the reality check that ensues. Let your secret out.

#4 Define your own success.

Don't compare yourself to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Compare yourself to yourself. Other definitions of success don't matter. You can define your own life and your own level of successThat sentence is without a doubt the most important career guidance I have ever shared, the hardest to achieve and the most rewarding when you do.

#5 It's not about you.

Impostor syndrome traps you in a self-centered mindset. You become consumed with thoughts about yourself; I’m worthless, I’m scared, I’m a loser. You can overcome this hyper-focus on the self by helping other people. Look for ways to serve other people and help them succeed. Check in with your co-workers and clients to see what help you can offer. By making it about others you feel better about yourself.

#6 Be vulnerable.

It's counterintuitive, but being vulnerable makes you stronger. Exposing yourself makes you more YOU and dissolves the impostor feelings. Statements like “I don’t know,” or “I’m sorry,” can lead to open, candid conversation. Try sharing your tender side and see what happens.

#7 Collect testimonials.

This is a way of “stacking the positives” with facts about your performance, rather than relying on your own opinion of how the world sees you. A great way to start is by asking your LinkedIn connections to write you a recommendation. Most likely people will be happy to publish a sentence or two of praise about you. You can post these on your website or put them on your social media, or just keep them in a “love file” on your computer. Collecting kudos about yourself is a great way to boost your self-esteem and to overcome impostor syndrome.

#8 Put Blinders On.

Don't compare yourself to other millionaires, other entrepreneurs, or other designers. Put blinders on and run your own race. Don’t keep a scorecard. If you must keep track of something, keep track of how much you have learned during a project or job, not how you are performing.Think about how far you've come, what you've accomplished, and how much more you know. That will give you fuel to go further.

# 9 No one else knows what they're doing either.

Impostor syndrome makes you feel like everybody else has life figured out. They have all the answers, and they do it all better than you do. The truth? They don't. We're all human, and by humanizing people and realizing that we're all progressing and struggling together, it takes the pressure off you. As Tina Fey says, “Seriously, I've just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”

# 10 You're Never Finished.

You are a work in progress. You're not done until you're dead. Period. So when those impostor feelings creep in, fight them off by reminding yourself that you are not “done for” or defeated. Keep moving forward, knowing that you will always be learning and growing. You're in a constant state of becoming. Always.

Putting an end to impostor syndrome is an act of self-love. Being able to fully convince yourself that you are praiseworthy and talented will help your career and your creativity thrive. If you can simply stall the thoughts for a bit by using some of all of these techniques, you’ll get much further than you can imagine.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us." – Marianne Williamson