How to cope with imposter syndrome and silence your inner critic
Feeling like an imposter can lead us to worry excessively, but we can switch off that inner voice, says overthinkers’ coach Gabrielle Treanor.
Have you ever had the feeling that you’re going to be found out? That you don’t ‘deserve’ this, that you’re not good enough, or you don’t belong?
It’s thought that around 70 per cent of us suffer from these feelings, known as Imposter Syndrome, at one time or another.
Included in this are many successful women and men: Meryl Streep and Maya Angelou have both been open about experiencing imposter syndrome, and even Albert Einstein suffered during his lifetime.
‘Imposter Complex’ was first identified more than 40 years ago by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.
They recognised that we tend to think we’re the only ones having this experience precisely because that sense of being an imposter means that we keep the feeling to ourselves, so we go on thinking that we’re alone because no-one else is sharing their own thoughts and feelings either.
I’m going to raise my hand straight away and tell you that the irony of being asked to write this article on imposter syndrome is that it brought up strong imposter syndrome feelings!
I spent 15 years in my first career writing and editing magazines and now, as an overthinkers’ coach, I’ve continued to be published in a variety of magazines, as well as writing online courses that have helped hundreds of women. And yet, the thought of ‘who am I to write this?’ still loomed large in my mind.
Imposter syndrome can be experienced by anyone, male or female, whatever their age, occupation, success or status.
What impact does imposter syndrome have? It can get in the way of living life as we really want to, of reaching our full potential.
Feeling like a fraud can lead us to worry excessively, be filled with self-doubt and overthink our every move. We can strive for absolute perfection and it can lead to overwork and burn out because of feeling the need to prove ourselves.
Conversely, imposter syndrome can see us missing out on opportunities because we don’t feel we’re worthy, capable, or qualified.
Rose White, a nutrition and lifestyle coach, shares how imposter syndrome has affected her life in the past: “I’ve let opportunities pass because I was fearful I wouldn’t meet the expectations of others. I developed a fear of failing and a strong perfectionist streak.
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"I’ve said no to doors held wide open for me because I didn’t want to disappoint myself or others.”
How do you know if you have imposter syndrome?
Rose’s experience echoes findings from the research Valerie Young carried out for her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Business, £22.50).
Valerie has identified five personality types who experience imposter syndrome. They include perfectionists, because they set incredibly high expectations for themselves and anything less than perfection equals failure; and those who feel they need to be an expert, to know and be able to do everything.
If they’re not sure of the answer in class they won’t put up their hand – and if they don’t meet all the criteria in a job advert, they won’t apply.
Imposter syndrome isn’t something we can always easily identify. “Typically, I don’t realise it’s happening at first,” says writer Lucy Lucraft.
“It shows up as procrastination and frustration. Then the anxiety and tears come as does the realisation that I’ve succumbed to imposter syndrome again.”
What are the causes of imposter syndrome?
Even those who we see as extraordinarily successful aren’t immune to feeling like a fraudster. Jodie Foster and Tom Hanks, both double Oscar-winning actors, have spoken of their fear of being revealed as imposters and having their awards and careers taken away from them.
Lupita Nyong’o, who won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in the highly acclaimed 12 Years a Slave, says: “I go through [imposter syndrome] with every role. I think winning an Oscar may, in fact, have made it worse.”
Why do we feel like imposters even when we win accolades and awards? The short answer is because we’re human. The long answer is more complicated and a little fuzzy. All humans have a level of worry built in to keep us safe and this can step up a gear as our brains try to protect us from the threat of failure.
Culture may play a part too: for example, British people may worry more about owning their success in case it makes them appear arrogant. As children, we may learn that fitting in, rather than standing out, helps us to get on – so we downplay our abilities.
A lack of representation can also contribute to a tendency to feel like an imposter. Feeling like you’re in the minority can make you feel like you don’t fit in.
“A sense of belonging fosters confidence. The more people who look or sound like you, the more con dent you feel,” says Valerie Young.
“Conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, can and does – for many people – impact their self confidence.”
So what can we do about it? Sas Petherick, self-doubt researcher, coach and wellbeing podcaster (saspetherick.com) suggests sharing how you really feel. “When people share with others, the sense of isolation and shame falls away and self-awareness, connection and empathy grow.”
And, since nearly three-quarters of us experience imposter syndrome, it’s likely that the friend or colleague you open up to will know the feeling too. Denying your imposter feelings won’t help, either, says Lucy Lucraft.
“I’ve learned that avoidance is the worst thing I can do, despite feeling drawn to it. So I do push myself to try the thing I’m scared of.”
How to beat imposter syndrome
The first step in overcoming imposter syndrome is to identify what it is that’s making you feel like a fraud. “Pay attention to what you are telling yourself. Ask, does this help or hinder me? Is this thought true?” suggests psychologist, Dr Audrey Ervin (ervincounseling.com).
Observe the thought rather than engage with it. Look at the evidence for where you’ve done this task before, or the training you’ve undergone.
Audrey suggests that you collect evidence of the positive moments in your life – compliments, praise, beneficial experiences: “Make a conscious effort to track your wins. If you find yourself doubting your ability to complete a project or new goal, pull out the list to remind yourself of your past successes.”
Health coach Rose White agrees: “Focusing on positive feedback has helped a lot. When I question myself, I go back through my emails and recall those people who told me I have helped them.
"I’ve also begun to share positive feedback on my Instagram stories, something I wouldn’t have done before, but in doing so I remind myself that I am worthy of them.”
Most importantly, we need to stop comparing ourselves to others. If we believe we’ll come up short in comparison to someone else, we’ll keep looking for the proof until we find it.
The difference between someone who experiences imposter syndrome and someone who doesn’t is how they respond to challenges, explains Valerie Young.
“People who don’t feel like imposters are no more intelligent, or competent, or capable than the rest of us. It’s very good news, because it means we just have to learn to think like non-imposters.
5 ways to banish self-doubt
Try these strategies to boost your feelings of self-worth:
Try positive self-talk
Talk to yourself as you would a good friend, with kindness and compassion – and give yourself a break!
Acknowledge how you feel
Avoiding or denying it will only make you feel worse.
Don't be afraid to share
Share your feelings with a trusted friend or colleague, remember that you’re not the only one experiencing imposter syndrome.
Focus on the positives
Collect evidence of your positive experiences and read through them any time you feel a wobble.
Don't compare yourself to others
Don’t compare yourself to others, let it go and focus your attention on what you know to be true about your own abilities, knowledge and experience.
Sas Petherick discusses imposter syndrome in episode four of her podcast, Courage and Spice. Included in the resources is a worksheet with a strategy for tackling feelings of self- doubt. Go to saspetherick.com/podcast.
6 signs of imposter syndrome
Self-doubt expert and coach Sas Petherick identifies the signs to look out for…
- Believing that other people have an overinflated view of you.
- Believing you will inevitably let everybody down, as well as yourself.
- Attributing any success you have to luck.
- Believing that your ability to do something negates the value of it.
- Constantly feeling fearful that you will be found out.
- Catastrophic thinking about the consequences of any mistake.
To find out if self-doubt has been holding you back, Pauline Rose Clance – who first identified imposter syndrome – has devised a test that you can take. Find it on her website paulineroseclance.com.