Impostor syndrome and I go way back. A few years ago, when I received a job offer to become the marketing director for an education company, I thought they had confused me with someone else. I had applied and interviewed, but did they really believe I was qualified?
Sure, I had done marketing before. I had an MBA. I’d managed people. But I wasn’t ready for this, I thought. There had to be a mix-up.
When I realized there was no mistake—they wanted to hire me—my emotions turned from confusion to terror. I took the job, but I was worried it was only a matter of time until they figured out that I had no business being in this role.
That didn’t happen. After the first quarter, I was shocked when the CEO attributed the sales growth to my work. Naturally I thanked her but said I couldn’t take credit. The sales team had been working tirelessly, and I was just getting my feet wet.
But it wasn’t beginner’s luck. I excelled in that role for more than five years before leaving to become a leadership and career coach.
Today, when I reflect on my feelings going into that job, I can see what was happening: I was qualified for the position, and while luck might have played a role, so did hard work and experience. My thought pattern going into the role belonged to the impostor.
What is impostor syndrome?
The impostor is that ugly, nasty voice in our heads that holds us back in our personal and professional spheres. It says things like:
- “Why would they hire you?”
- “You don’t have the experience.”
- “You’ve just gotten lucky.”
The impostor phenomenon first came to light in the 1970s when psychologists Pauline Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., coined it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Clance and Imes studied more than 150 highly successful women and found that, despite their impressive experience and accolades, many lived in fear of being discovered as an impostor. According to their 1978 paper, one woman, “the chairperson of her department, said, ‘Obviously I’m in this position because my abilities have been overestimated.’”
While the original research focused on impostor syndrome as a women’s issue, a 1993 research review co-authored by Clance determined that the phenomenon was not unique to women. In my own experience as a leadership and career coach, I’ve seen it can actually be more problematic for men. As Amy Cuddy wrote in Presence, “Men who deviate from the strong-assertive stereotype—in other words, men who are able to express self-doubt—risk experiencing what psychologists call ‘stereotype backlash’: punishment, which often takes the form of harassment or even ostracism, for failing to conform to societal expectations…. Although men experience impostorism to the same extent women do, they may be even more burdened by it because they can’t admit it. They carry it around quietly, secretly, painfully.”
The effects of impostor syndrome
Regardless of gender, impostor syndrome may have negative effects on your performance and mental well-being. Symptoms include fear of being realized as an impostor, guilt, overwork and self-sabotage. It causes you to downplay and harshly judge your performance and not take credit for your accomplishments, chalking them up to luck rather than skill.
Before I became a coach, I once managed a young woman who suffered from a debilitating case of impostor syndrome. She was creative and brilliant, but she couldn’t see it. She would say things like, “Well, it was just an idea, probably stupid, we don’t have to do it.” When I gave credit to her ideas and said that I’d like to hear more, she doubted my praise and thought I was just being nice. Over time, I too began believing her impostor, doubting her abilities. Her insecurities and failure to act rendered her incapable of performing to her potential.
How to overcome imposter syndrome
The good news: There are strategies to combat the pesky impostor. There’s lots of science behind impostor syndrome and its effects, but my guess is that you’d rather take a look at some practical solutions.
1. Get to know your impostor and take back control.
Remember the old saying, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”? The truth is, you may never fully get rid of the impostor. So why not embrace it?
Start by recognizing your impostor, getting to know its voice and even giving it a name. I call mine Ursula, after the sea witch in The Little Mermaid, who stole Ariel’s voice and sabotaged her at every turn with an untrue narrative. The better you know your impostor, the more you can communicate and operate around it. Think of it as a game of whack-a-mole: The more you know when and how those moles pop up, the more you can knock them back. Decide how you want to play with your impostor and set the rules.
It took some coaching, but I now lean in to my impostor syndrome. I know that not trying or taking risks will lead to stagnation, and I won’t stand for that. I invite Ursula to try to get between me and my next big thing. When she takes me up on the invitation, I thank her for her concern and leap in anyways, trusting my own abilities.
2. Find comfort in others.
Know that you’re not alone. Sheryl Sandberg, Katty Kay and Maya Angelou have all admitted to experiencing impostor syndrome. In a 2022 NerdWallet survey of “business owners and decision-makers in the UK,” 78% of participants reported experiencing impostor syndrome, 47% of whom were currently experiencing its effects. Additionally, 52% of participants reported that it was impacting their ability to lead. And according to a 2020 report by KPMG, “as much as 75% of female executives report having personally experienced impostor syndrome at certain points in their career.”
And it’s not just business executives and celebrities. Try talking to your friends and colleagues. You may find out that they’re facing similar struggles, and it may bring you comfort to know you’re not alone.
3. Use the facts to prove your impostor syndrome wrong.
The impostor hates your accomplishments, so one of the best ways to put it in its place is to bring the facts of your success to light.
Try creating a humblebrag file. List the challenges that you’ve faced in the last five years. For each, write down how you overcame it and what you learned. Include results and accomplishments. For each brag, note the skills, capabilities and qualities that contributed to your success. (Bonus tip: This will come in handy the next time you’re updating your résumé!)
Capturing these wins may reveal the flaws in your thinking, helping you uncover contributions that you might have otherwise dismissed or attributed to others. Your humblebrag file is a living document that you can update and come back to whenever your impostor comes to visit and you need a hit of confidence to put it in its place. The facts of your greatness are undeniable, even by the most serious of impostors.
4. Let go of perfect and just do it.
Action is the best antidote to your impostor. Putting action ahead of thinking can change ingrained thought patterns and behaviors. When we take action against our impostor syndrome, we can overcome our self-perpetuated boundaries.
To take action, you’ll have to let go of perfection. The challenges you face won’t always be easy, and you will stumble. Know that mistakes don’t make you less capable; they mean that you’re a human taking risks, not an impostor. Failure is not only OK, it may be a necessary element of success.
In some cases—like mine—you might need to work with a professional to overcome your impostor. A coach or therapist can help you work with your impostor and focus on where you shine.
Although impostor syndrome can be debilitating, you can overcome it. By learning to let go of perfection, internalizing accomplishments and adopting a “just do it” attitude, you will cultivate more useful patterns of thinking and put that impostor in its place.
This post originally appeared on Shine. Lisa Rogoff is a former writer at Shine. This article was updated August 2023. Photo by Mix and Match Studio/Shutterstock