“I’m a fraud.”
“What if my accomplishments were just due to ‘good luck?’”
“I don’t deserve the recognition I’ve been given for my accomplishments.”
Welcome to the inner dialogue of one experiencing impostor syndrome – also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience.
This psychological pattern, first identified by Paula Rose Clance and Suzanne Immes in 1978, describes how our inner world can harbor self-doubt amidst our accomplishments. These doubts in turn create an internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud to others, most commonly in our careers and personal life. It can come through externally as lack of motivation on projects, calling yourself a “perfectionist” or feeling stuck in your day-to-day activities.
If you find yourself identifying with the above or have a high score on this test Clance created, you may be suffering from impostor syndrome.
Why do we get impostor syndrome?
While there’s no exact answer to how a person develops impostor syndrome, there are a few theories. Some believe it’s based on a person’s anxiety levels or personality traits, or the way they handle stress. Others believe the cause is rooted in environmental experiences. However, a combination of all of these could be the most plausible, with many layers over a particular experience or feeling.
For example, you may have felt as a child that low grades would cause you to be shunned or chastised by your family members, teachers or other students. This in turn plants a belief in your subconscious that achievement is equal to acceptance.
Another layer of this could be that as a child you equated low grades with low capabilities. Therefore, anything achieved in life was just pure luck or something that can be explained away. This belief downplays your accomplishments, which creates fear and anxiety when starting a new project or submitting that book proposal.
Thankfully, there are a few ways to make peace with these thought patterns and overcome the self-doubt you may feel as a result.
How to make peace with impostor syndrome
1. Tell your story
There’s power in your personal story and your achievements along the way. Bringing these achievements to the forefront of your mind by documenting them in some way gives your mind “proof” it was you doing the achieving.
If you’re stuck on how to tell your story, think of an accomplishment that stands out in your mind and ask yourself:
- What were the circumstances around this achievement?
- What did I have to do or sacrifice to accomplish this? Time? Money?
- How did my personal choices, talents or other contributions drive this accomplishment?
Personalizing your accomplishments will give you a greater sense of empowerment in your choices and decisions that led to your achievement. Keep a file or voice memo of your story close by for when you’re feeling doubt.
2. Talk it out
Sharing your doubts and fears with a trusted friend, mentor or mental health provider can be a liberating experience. When you share your inner dialogue with another person, it’s no longer internalized. When it’s out in the open, you can talk through why you may feel this way and gather a different perspective.
3. Catch (and reframe) your thoughts
When you find yourself in an automatic negative thought pattern in regards to your abilities or achievements, practice catching yourself in real time. By catching and reframing the thought, you’re basically retraining your subconscious mind. Practicing this each time you’re in a negative loop can break the cycle and gives you the chance to be gentle on yourself and your abilities.
For example, the brain has the thought: “I’ll never present a good enough project to my boss.” Acknowledge the thought in action with a phrase such as: “Okay, I see this is a thought that is keeping me small.” Then, reframe the original thought into something else: “I will present the best project with my abilities. I know the material, and I’m able to submit a great project.”
4. Know you’re not alone
It’s important to recognize you aren’t the only one who feels at the mercy of impostor syndrome from time to time (or even a lot of the time!) There are many documented celebrities, entrepreneurs and change-makers who have been subject to the thoughts you find yourself trapped by. It can be uplifting and comforting to talk, read or listen to someone else who has had these thoughts and see all they’ve accomplished, regardless of what their mind tells them.
5. Just begin
One of the most impactful steps toward making peace with your impostor syndrome is to take action. Impostor syndrome is an abstraction living in your mind. When you consciously pursue anything impostor syndrome is holding you back from, the negative thought loop loses its power through your action. It’s liberating to create and get involved with a desired outcome rather than hold onto any negative thoughts or emotions. All it takes is one small inspired action.
Impostor syndrome is a powerful (negative) thought pattern and something that many people deal with on a daily basis. Using the tips above to reset your frame of mind and emotional state will give your power back to you and allow you to move forward.