“I’m just waiting on them to realize I’m not the expert they think,” Sarah told me after landing a bigger role after her company restructured earlier this year. It was a great opportunity, but it triggered an avalanche of self-doubt. “What if they realize they promoted the wrong person?,” she asked, “There’s so much I still don’t know about doing this role.”
This is classic imposter syndrome, a term coined to describe ongoing feelings of inadequacy despite evidence of success. While imposter syndrome is a relatively prevalent phenomena in normal times, the sense of dislocation many have experienced over the last year coupled with being thrust out of their comfort zone and having to manage new challenges in high stakes situations has made it even more so.
So if you’ve got a nagging fear of being “exposed” as not being as smart or talented or deserving or experienced or (fill-in-the-blank) as people think, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in excellent company.
The list of accomplished people who have at some point wrestled with a fear being uncovered as an impostor is as impressive as it is long.
Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou once said: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
Actor Jodie Foster expressed a similar fear: “I thought it was a fluke,” she said after receiving her one of her two Oscars. “I was afraid I’d have to give it back.”
Apart from serial narcissists and super low achievers, no one is immune to the doubts that feed imposter syndrome. But whether you sometimes feel like a fraud matters less than the power you give to those feelings to determine your actions. If fear of being exposed as inadequate is keeping you from taking on bigger challenges or stepping into the limelight, here’s seven ways to stop feeling like a fraud and internalize your worth.
1. Focus on the value you bring; on giving your best, not being the best
Imposter syndrome is the domain of the high achiever. People who set the bar low are rarely its victim. So if you this article is speaking to you, pat yourself on the back as someone who strives to excel. That said, it’s important not to conflate giving your best with being the best. There is a distinct difference between trying to better yourself and being better than everyone else.
The truth is that you don’t have to have Einstein’s IQ or be the world best at what you do in order to drive impact or contribute meaningful value. Nor do you have to have attained world class mastery to be worthy of where you are or the accolades you receive. And you sure don’t have to be perfect at something before you deserve to be praised for it.
2. Internalize your success (you didn’t get just get lucky!)
If you have a tendency to attribute your success to external sources – to getting lucky or a helping hand – start taking more ownership of the internal attributes you drew on. If you’re a woman, this is even more relevant as women tend to over attribute success to external sources and over attribute failure to an internal inadequacy. Just as we must all take responsibility for our failures in life, you must also take responsibility for our successes.
If you sometimes feel undeserving of your success, write a list of all your accomplishments over the last 5 years. I would hazard a guess that even what you’ve overcome in the last year alone will help you to recognize that you didn’t ‘just get lucky.’
3. Regularly stop and celebrate your small wins
Chances are you often focus more on what you haven’t done than on all that you have. Am I right? This wouldn’t be a problem if you also stopped regularly to celebrate your small wins along the way to your big goals.
Many who suffer from imposter syndrome have habit of always focusing on what they have not yet done and rarely stop to celebrate, and fully internalize, the small gains, growth and milestones along the way. Given the best way to stop a bad habit is by replacing it with a good one, consider scheduling time – at the end of your day or week – reflect on all that you have done or overcome (it will likely surprise you how much you don’t acknowledge yourself for). Self-appreciation is a habit that many of us need to nurture.
4. Enough with the comparisons, and run your own best race
Ever been pulled into negative comparisons, wishing you possessed a strength you admire in someone else? C’mon, who hasn’t?!
- “If only I could speak with the poise and charisma as John.”
- “If only I was a quick with numbers as Jane.”
- “If only I was as creative-athletic-disciplined-organized-(fill-in-the-blank) as Jo.”
Comparisons are always subjective, often biased and rarely helpful. They nearly always leave us feeling ‘less than’ in some way. That’s because we tend to compare our insides with others’ outsides; our weaknesses with others’ strengths; where we are now with where someone is who has been in the trade far longer.
The reality is that everyone has their own path to forge, strengths to sharpen and gifts to share. Likewise we all have our own set of challenges, insecurities and struggles. Chances are that John, Jane or Jo sometimes look at you and think: “If only I was as good with (insert-your-strengths-here)” as you. As Albert Einstein wrote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
5. Reframe miss-steps as building proficiency and growing into your potential
One of the best indicator’s that you are growing into your potential is regularly placing yourself in new situations (with fresh problems) that call on you to learn and develop. This, by default, means that you will not always know what you’re doing or have all the answers. At least not right away. So if you experience self-doubt in these moments, that’s entirely normal (indeed a lack of any doubt as seen in serial narcissists can be outright dangerous!)
And if you sometimes make a ‘miss-step’ (which is the etymology of the word mistake), don’t interpret it as a sign of your permanent deficiency but as a sign of growing proficiency and all part of what is required for developing your potential. Take the lesson and move forward all the wiser. Just because you don’t always get it perfectly right doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be where you are.
6. Accept compliments graciously, not by minimizing yourself
I loathe to think how many times over the years I’ve responded to praise by talking myself down or minimizing an accomplishment. Growing up in rural Australia I learned early to master an art that Aussies excel at – self-depreciation. Learning to graciously accept a compliment and let praise soak in is a work in progress.
As Marianne Williamson shared on my Live Brave podcast, “There is nothing holy in diminishing yourself.” So next time someone pays you a compliment, let their praise soak in. You earnt it, now own it.
7. Dare to risk the exposure you fear (it’s the only way to expose the real imposter)
Fear of being “found out” can stifle our success by driving us to steer away from situations that risk what we most fear – being exposed as inadequate or unworthy in some way. Yet succumbing to fear will keep you from taking the very actions that would ultimately help you discover how little reason you ever had to be afraid; to truly know just how capable, deserving and more than worthy you truly are.
It takes courage to step into the limelight, to own your unique brand of brilliance and to pursue goals that put you at risk of falling short, losing face or being ‘found out.’ But what do you put at risk if you don’t? Life has taught me that avoiding threats to our reputation is ultimately more risky than outright exposure.
As I wrote in You‘ve Got This! only when we dare to defy our doubts can we discover that the only real imposter we ever really had to fear was the negative voice in our head urging us to play safe and small. Yes, that’s right… its your fear that is the fraud here, not you.
The world doesn’t need your perfection. It needs your difference.