He’s going to hate it.
They are going to realize I’m a fraud, and that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.
My work just isn’t good enough.
Have you ever been tormented by toxic thoughts like these?
I have—more times than I’d care to admit. Such thoughts infiltrate my mind, in particular when I’m about to send off an article to an editor or publish something new.
It turns out, feelings like these aren’t uncommon. Studies show 70 percent of people experience persistent feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and intellectual fraudulence. It’s called the impostor syndrome. And it runs rampant among high achievers.
Some might simply chalk it up to being humble. But living life constantly wallowing in self-doubt and second-guessing your abilities can significantly hold you back from reaching the level of success you dream of. That’s because self-doubt holds you hostage and prevents you from doing important work. It causes you to procrastinate and play small, rather than going after big opportunities that can make a big impact.
No one is going to be 100 percent confident 100 percent of the time. But there are little things you can do to ensure feelings of inadequacy don’t cripple you when they decide to show up. Here are five simple strategies I’ve personally used to overcome those pesky imposter feelings. Use one or a combination of multiple ones to stop self-doubt from stopping you.
1. Be accountable.
Ever notice how a deadline forces you to get work done? When your timelines are nebulous or far away, it makes it easy to sit and waffle about whether your work is good enough. But when you focus your energy on completing the task at hand, there’s no spare time to think about anything else.
Give yourself due dates. I make weekly publishing deadlines to ensure I don’t give my mind enough idle time to chicken out of producing. And if you fear you won’t honor “false deadlines” with yourself, raise the stakes by adding in some external accountability forces. Set up a regular meeting with peers where you have to report on your progress, or announce publicly that you will deliver a project or achieve something by a certain date.
2. Get in motion.
In physics, Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object at rest will stay at rest until some unbalanced force acts upon it. Similarly, an object in motion will remain in motion unless an unbalanced force acts upon it.
To overcome paralyzing self-doubt, get in motion. Take one small (even tiny, if necessary) step forward to start building momentum.
For example, if you want to write a book, quiet self-doubt by writing just 50 words. It will take you less than two minutes to complete the task. And then once you’ve written 50 words, you will start to feel your resistance to write die down and you can keep going.
3. Visualize yourself failing.
In her research, psychologist Julie Norem found that imagining the worst case scenario enabled people to perform well:
“When self-doubts creep in, defensive pessimists don’t allow themselves to be crippled by fear. They deliberately imagine a disaster scenario to intensify their anxiety and convert it into motivation. Once they’ve considered the worst, they’re driven to avoid it, considering every relevant detail to make sure they don’t crash and burn.”
So the next time you fear being discovered a “fraud,” imagine all the specific reasons others would give for your work not being up to par. Then set out to make sure your work is so stellar that none of those critiques could be ever credibly be said about what you produce.
4. Shut down the lies.
Often when we start engaging in negative self-talk, we end up believing the lies we tell ourselves. Eighteen-time best-selling author Seth Godin has a simple solution to help you stop the lies:
“The remedy is accurate and positive self-talk. Endless amounts of it. Not delusional affirmations or silly metaphysical pronouncements about the universe. No, merely the reassertion of obvious truths, a mantra that drives away the nonsense the lizard brain is selling as truth.”
And if you ever struggle to find positive things to say about your work, let other people help you. Keep a file of nice things people say about you. Every time you begin to doubt yourself and your abilities, review the file to remind yourself how you have already helped others. The testimonies from external sources will be an instant pick-me-up to get you in motion.
In his final speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a different perspective on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Just in case you’re not familiar, the story goes like this: A man lay half dead on the side of a road, desperately in need of help. Several people passed by without stopping. The Good Samaritan came along, had mercy on the man and took care of him.
Dr. King pondered whether those who didn’t assist the man in need were stuck in their heads, thinking to themselves, What will happen to me if I stop and help?
He went on to talk about how the Good Samaritan reversed the question, thinking instead, What will happen to this man if I don’t stop and help him? By reframing his thinking, he was propelled into action.
Whenever you find yourself getting caught up in feelings of inadequacy, pause for a moment and think about the people who need you to do your work. They are waiting for you to make life better for them with what you have to offer. What will happen to them if you leave them waiting? When you focus your energy outward, on the people you can help, there’s no space in your mind to nurse feelings of uncertainty.
It’s time to kick self-doubt to the curb. You’ve got too much to accomplish to let feelings of inadequacy keep you on the sidelines. The next time you start to feel like an imposter, try one of the solutions above to get you unstuck. Once you do, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.