If a friend got the highest score on her medical board exams, but attributed that accomplishment to the fact that she was taking it in a small state, you might look at her blankly and tell her she’s crazy.
She’s not. Instead, she’s likely suffering from “Impostor Syndrome,” a term used to describe people that have a hard time owning their accomplishments and instead attribute their successes to things like luck, timing or personality.
“Imposter syndrome wasn’t coined as a term until the 1970s, but it’s safe to assume women have always felt it: that nagging feeling that, even after you’ve just done something great, maybe you actually don’t deserve the praise,” writes Jessica Bennett in her book, “Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace.”
Indeed, “people who experience impostor feelings worry that others will find out that they are not as bright or capable as everyone ‘thinks’ they are,” says 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.”
And while most of us suffer from a lack of confidence from time to time – including female CEOs and Academy Award-winning actresses — those with Impostor Syndrome have an irrational fear of being discovered as a fraud in an area of expertise for which they have gained success and recognition, says Margie Warrell, an international speaker, master coach and bestselling author of “Stop Playing Safe: Rethink Risk. Unlock the Power of Courage. Achieve Outstanding Success.” This can affect one’s job search or mid-life career change by shrouding a proven track record under a veil of self-doubt, causing needless anxiety and stress.
“They worry that sooner or later people who have respected their work will realize that they don’t know as much or aren’t as good as they had believed,” she says.
How To Tell If You Suffer From It
If you suspect that your lack of confidence is more than an occasional thing, Young suggests asking yourself the following questions:
-Do you chalk your success up to luck, timing, or computer error?
-Do you believe “If I can do it, anybody can”?
-Do you agonize over even the smallest flaws in your work?
-Are you crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your “ineptness?”
-When you do succeed, do you secretly feel like you fooled them again?
-Do you worry that it’s just a matter of time before you’re “found out?”
More broadly, some that suffer from Impostor Syndrome cope by procrastinating, never finishing a project, a business plan, or degree. On the flip side, others turn to workaholism to “manage the anxiety of waiting for the other shoe to drop and to avoid detection,” says Young.
How To Deal With It
Quite simply, if you want to stop feeling like an impostor, you have to stop thinking like an impostor.
“People who don’t feel like an impostor are no more intelligent or capable than you or I,” says Warrell. “The only difference between them and us is they think different thoughts. That’s it.”
Step One: Begin by realizing that unfair comparisons may be at the root of your self-doubt. Avoid judging your weaknesses against someone else’s strengths, or the amount you have achieved, or your level of mastery, with someone else in your field.
“We tend to compare our insides with other’s outsides,” says Warrell, “assuming that they are handling everything with ease and confidence when we know we’re paddling furiously under the surface just to keep our head up. All of these feed our sense of not being ‘enough’ in some way. So a good place to start is to shine a light on our comparisons to see if they are in fact fair and reasonable.”
Step Two: Grab a pen, and a pad of paper and find a quiet space. Then list everything that you have done that has brought you to your current level of success. This includes your professional wins, industry awards, degrees, long hours worked and sacrifices made.
“This is particularly helpful for women who tend to attribute their success more to a lucky break or helping hand versus men who tend to attribute their success to their own hard work and ability,” says Warrell.
Step Three: Reframe your thoughts. Instead of panicking when a job interview is scheduled, change your mindset to a more positive one.
“Your impostor voice responds to a huge new assignment with, ‘Oh my God I have no idea what I’m doing,’” says Young. “The reframe is, ‘Wow, I’m really going to learn a lot.’ Everyone has good days and bad, wins and losses.”
Step Four: Avoid succumbing to insecurity.
“This is important because when you feel like an impostor, naturally what you want is to feel differently,” says Young. “But it doesn’t work that way. Rather you have to change your thoughts by reframing your behaviors — asking for that promotion, hanging out your shingle, auditioning for the part — and when you do, your feelings will slowly catch up to this new non-impostor way of being.”
If you feel Impostor Syndrome is something you suffer from, visit our Career Coaches page for a list of seasoned executives who can help guide you through your search.