When someone pays you a genuine compliment, do you feel guilty or ashamed?
When you think about your accomplishments, do you worry that you won’t be able to live up to them in the future?
Do you ever feel like you’ve somehow fooled people into thinking that you’re better than you are, and that any moment you could be revealed as a fraud?
These are all symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon that plagues even the world’s most successful people, and keeps many of us from trying to achieve our true potential.
Why do you feel you don’t deserve the success you’ve achieved?
You fail to update your self-image on a regular basis. Sometimes a crisis motivates you to change how you see yourself: big events like divorce, serious illness, and the death of a loved one can lead you to grapple with the question of who you are and to re-evaluate your life.
But you’re changing in subtle ways all the time as a result of the many small challenges you face every day. Unless you engage in a discipline that focuses your attention on self-exploration, like journaling or meditation or therapy, you’re unlikely to notice and update your self-image.
You can build a Fortune 500 company from the ground up, but if you haven’t updated your self-image since your first job working in the mailroom, you’re going to feel like a fraud.
You tend to blame yourself when you fail, but you discount your hard work when you succeed. Instead of taking your successes as evidence that you’ve grown or learned new skills, you’re more likely to attribute success to external factors like luck and to downplay the difficulty of the tasks you undertook. Whether this is due to modesty or poor self-esteem, it keeps you from accurately assessing our own capabilities.
Discounting your efforts exacerbates Imposter Syndrome because it feeds your fear that your success was a fluke, and that you didn’t actually earn it.
You don’t get regular feedback on the things that matter. Most of the time, life gives us feedback sporadically. The boss hands out performance reviews and bonuses once a year, but most of the actions that determine how well you’re doing on the job are your working habits and the small actions to you take each day.
How does this contribute to Imposter Syndrome? Without accurate data about what really makes you successful, how can you know which of your efforts led to your success and which did not? And how can you have faith that you’ll be able to repeat that success if you aren’t sure exactly which things worked?
You buy into the myth of talent. We’ve all heard the saying that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but deep down, we have a hard time believing it. Why is the myth of talent so appealing?
Because it’s comforting. The myth of talent says that success is due to some inherent quality a person possesses. So if we’re successful, we must be talented: in other words, our success is due to who we are rather than what we do. And who we are isn’t going to change, therefore we should be successful in the future, right?
It’s also a way to deal with fear of failure. If success is due to talent, and we’re not successful at something, we must not have been given that particular talent. And you can’t blame a person for being who they are, can you?
But studies show that talent doesn’t directly correlate with success, and when people succeed, it’s usually because they worked hard to unlock and develop whatever talents they had. (For a fascinating look at how high achievers become great in their chosen fields, check out Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin.)
The myth of talent contributes to Imposter Syndrome by further distorting your assessment of your skills and encouraging you to attribute your success to some indefinable quality over which you have no control.
Why not just give in and accept your imposter status? Won’t it keep you from getting a swelled head? Possibly, but it’ll also limit your ability to succeed in the future. If you’re already insecure about your abilities, will you dare to ask questions or ask others for help when you need it? Admitting weakness could lead to someone else realizing that you’re really a fraud, and you could lose it all.
So you keep nodding and pretending everything’s under control, and the pressure keeps building.
What’s the cure for Imposter Syndrome?
One of the reasons it’s so tricky to shake this negative mentality is that evidence of our success automatically gets interpreted as evidence of our imposterhood. Have you traded in your beater car for a Lexus and your double-wide trailer for a mansion? Chances are you just feel worse. The wider the gap between your outdated self-image and your level of success, the more you feel like a fraud.
Positive thinking doesn’t help either–telling yourself that you’re awesome feels like a lie if you already believe that you’re a fraud.
The cure for Imposter Syndrome starts with updating your self-image so that you see yourself accurately as you are right now.
To do that, you need data.
1. Start by making a list of all your accomplishments, large and small.
What’s an accomplishment? You get to decide that. It can be as big as getting your doctorate in astrophysics or as small as the first time you made an effort to overcome your shyness and make a new friend. If you’re not sure, ask yourself: “If my best friend had done this, would I consider this an accomplishment?”
You’ll want to leave a couple of blank lines between each accomplishment if you’re doing this on paper rather than in a word processor. And I know it’s tempting to do this exercise in your head, but seeing these things in black and white makes them more real, so please, write (or type) your list.
2. Look for any patterns or progressions in your achievements that led to your current level of success.
Do you see how you’ve been building skills? How your earlier activities (which may have seemed unrelated until now) actually led to your current success?
For example, did your elementary school spelling bees help reduce your fear of public speaking, or teach you to handle the pressure of competition, or give you the the extensive vocabulary you needed to write a great novel?
Did volunteering for special projects at your last job teach you the teamwork skills that you needed to get promoted to your current management position?
Did the long hours you spent practicing the cello in college force you to develop the focus and perseverance that you needed to build your consulting business?
We often develop new skills within the context of a specific activity, and fail to recognize that these skills can be applied to other areas of life. As a result, we see ourselves as underqualified for a particular challenge when in fact, we have a wealth of skills that we’ve already developed while doing a different type of task.
3. Next, make a list of your failures.
(I know, this sounds counterintuitive, but go with it, it’s going to make sense soon.)
4. Make a list of your major life experiences.
Things that you might not think of as either an accomplishment or a failure, but that were big undertakings. Like being a foreign exchange student for a year, or moving to a new city for a job, or that summer you took karate lessons just to see what it would be like.
5. In the blank space beneath each accomplishment, each failure, and each life experience, write what actions you took that led you to that achievement, failure, or life experience.
Did you prepare for weeks for the student council president debate? Did you get up the nerve to apply for a new job even though you weren’t sure you were qualified? Did you take a leap of faith and trust that your two years of high school French would be enough to get by on in Paris? Did you trust a total stranger to treat you fairly, or stick out your neck for a friend, or commit to learning a new skill even though you weren’t even sure where to start?
Notice that I’m not asking you identify WHY you succeeded or failed at any of these things, only to identify the actions you took that got you there. What did it take for you to tackle this project or situation?
6. Look at all the actions you’ve taken in your life. What do they say about you? What kind of person would be willing to do those things?
Here’s an example from my list:
Quit my job and moved to Chicago with my boyfriend, leaving friends and family behind, without having a new job lined up. I had enough money in my checking account to cover the move, and enough money in my savings account to cover groceries for a month.
It was a pretty big risk. I was taking a leap of faith that I’d be able to find work (I didn’t for more than a month, and the first two jobs I did find sucked). I was also trusting that this relatively-new relationship would survive the transition (it almost didn’t).
My friends advised against this plan, and my family just shook their heads incredulously.
But what does it say about me that I did it anyway? I’m the kind of person who’s willing to start over if that’s the only way to get where I want to go. I have faith in my own resourcefulness and my ability to adapt to new situations. And if I have to choose between money and love, I’ll choose love.
Whether that experience ended up on the achievement list or the failure list is actually beside the point. The important thing is that it demonstrates my values (love over money) and my traits (adaptable, brave enough to take a big risk for the right reward).
And now that I see this, I recognize that this has been a pattern. I’ve taken a lot of big risks, I’ve started over more than once, and I’ve failed at a lot of things. A lot of the time when I was deciding to take these risks, I felt scared and foolish, as I was often going with my gut instead of making the logical choice. But I somehow found the courage to step into the unknown anyway.
Do I think of myself as being a brave person? Up until I started writing this post, I didn’t. The opposite, in fact. I’m naturally shy, and have always seen myself as rather timid. But that’s the point of this exercise–to update myself self-image. Somehow in the last few decades, my nervous, change-averse self developed the nerve to take some pretty big risks, but because I built up to it gradually, I never noticed the transition.
7. Celebrate the person you’ve become.
Did discover that you’re loyal? Organized? Determined? Supportive? Creative? Resourceful? Visionary? Clear-headed in the face of impending disaster? The rock that other people cling to when times get tough?
These strengths are the resources that have seen you through the best and the worst. You may not have been conscious of all of them in the past–but now that you are, you can deliberately draw on them whenever you’re facing a new challenge.