People affirm your abilities, but you don’t believe you’re as amazing as they say. You have an extensive list of achievements, but you’d struggle to name just a few. Opportunities keep coming your way, but you don’t feel like the best person for the job. You don’t see yourself as others see you. In your mind, you’re an imposter about to be exposed for the fraud you believe you are. The stress keeps you constantly on edge; it keeps you from being your best self.
You are not alone. According to one study, 65 percent of professionals experience this mental phenomenon called Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that makes you doubt your abilities. Despite your accomplishments and competence, you feel inadequate and fear you’ll be exposed as a fraud. It affects many people, regardless of social position or previous achievements.
“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” — John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath and the 1962 Nobel Prize winner for literature.
“Now when I receive recognition for my acting, I feel incredibly uncomfortable. I tend to turn in on myself. I feel like an imposter…Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved.” — Emma Watson, award-winning actress
Imposter Syndrome can hold you back from achieving your full potential, it can induce anxiety or depression, and it can keep you from enjoying your successes. I know first-hand. It’s a tough way to slog through life. You don’t want to live that way and you don’t have to.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Mrs. Roosevelt makes a great point. How you feel is entirely up to you. Winning this battle is a mental challenge. I don’t know if you can eradicate Imposter Syndrome from your life, but I’ll share a few tips with you that have worked for me to keep it from wreaking havoc on my life.
Tip #1: Put Away the Pedestal
I used to put people on a pedestal before I knew anything about them. I made myself inferior from day one.
I started my first professional job working in a government data center when I was 19 years old. I had recently flopped at community college but excelled at a technical school where they prepared me to be an entry-level mainframe computer operator. I remember feeling nervous and wondering if I was in over my head.
Working with experienced people skilled at their craft, I feared I wouldn’t measure up. I later learned the self-imposed capability gap between us wasn’t reality. I didn’t give myself enough credit and I gave others too much credit.
Fast forward a few years, I landed a new job I shouldn’t have been given. I did not have experience with the particular line of work or the corporate office environment, and I did not have a degree. Surely these degreed people with corporate experience were amazing and I didn’t belong there. Wrong again.
Don’t misunderstand me. I worked with some amazing people that I emulated. The point is, I made too many assumptions and put too many people on pedestals before I knew anything about them. I raised the bar between us without evidence, which led me to feel unworthy and less qualified out of the gate. As a result, I chose not to pursue opportunities that might expose me as an imposter.
The takeaway: there are some amazing people to follow, but the competency gap between you and others isn’t as great or vast as you imagine.
Tip #2: See the Game for What It Is
A mentor once encouraged me to “fake it until you make it.” He suggested I exude enough confidence to ward off questions of my competence and experience until I had enough to back it up.
This strategy provides two potential benefits — it can generate self-confidence and may garner confidence from others. The strategy can also be risky. Overconfidence can be dangerous depending upon what you do. Faking confidence is one thing, faking competence is another. The other risk is exposure to the truth — you’re a fraud.
Here’s the secret — everybody fakes it until they make it. Anyone worth their salt is constantly living on the edge of their comfort zone. That’s how we grow. I used to look at others as having their stuff together, and some do, but many people are figuring it out day-by-day just as I am. This is probably why so many professionals struggle with Imposter Syndrome. It’s stressful.
There aren’t many positions I’ve taken in my professional life where I knew exactly what I was doing when I walked in the door. I didn’t have extensive experience in some of the roles, yet people hired me and I performed well.
You can be an expert in your comfort zone with all the confidence in the world, but personal and professional growth only comes from discomfort. Challenging yourself is uncomfortable. You’ll have a learning curve and wonder if you belong because you don’t have the same resume chops as someone resting in their comfort zone.
I was in my late 20’s when I believed I was just as capable as others who had more education and experience. I had demonstrable success and affirmation to lean on. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to overcome Imposter Syndrome. It’s an irrational feeling of inadequacy that continues to barrage its victims. I felt like an imposter every time, and still struggle at times. I learned others secretly feel the same way, too.
The takeaway: If you only take roles you feel comfortable doing, you’ll be bored. If you’re doing it right, you’re always stretching yourself into challenging roles. What I want you to remember is everyone else is faking it until they make it, too. We are all playing the same game.
Tip #3: Fear Is a Liar
Fear will hold you back from achieving your full potential. Fear will tell you you’re not good enough and you’re a fraud. Fear will cause you to stay back and let other more capable people take the lead. Fear is a liar!
When I wrote my book, Pursuing Timeless Agility: the Path to Lasting Agile Transformation, I let fear hold me back. It was my first book in a space where I was a relative newcomer. I wasn’t the most experienced person on the topic and I wasn’t known as a thought-leader anywhere outside my small circle.
I received fantastic reviews from everyone who read the book. Despite the affirmation, I hesitated to promote the book too heavily for fear of being challenged by the “gurus” and exposed as an imposter. What if I was wrong and naive? What if I was made a fool? I believed fear’s lies.
Years later, I see more and more people adopting the positions I took in the book and it confirmed I do know what I’m talking about. Sadly, I’ve known tips 1 and 2 for a long time, yet I still occasionally let fear mess with me.
Fear is your biggest obstacle because it’s an emotional response. It sends you into fight or flight mode. It’s easier to withdraw and reduce the risk of exposure. When that happens, fear wins. When fear wins, everyone else loses because they do not benefit from what you could have done.
Key takeaway: the presence of fear means you’re on the right track — you’re challenging yourself. The trick is to remember that fear is a liar. You are good enough. Your ideas are worth hearing. You are more capable than you think. When you squash fear, you’ll exponentially increase your odds of achieving your full potential.
Fear is sneaky. It will pretend it wants to protect you, but its primary goal is to make you feel miserable and hold you back from your full potential.
Elevating people beyond what you should diminishes your perception of yourself and creates a false competency gap between you and them. The greater the gap, the greater your fear. Believing you’re the only one feeling inadequate increases the fear response. Remember, we are all playing the same game — you’re not alone. I’m right there with you.
The more you embrace these truths, the better you can control the fear and the less you’ll feel like an imposter. It’s all easier said than done, I know. The struggle is real, it’s hard, but you can do hard things!
I write about strategy, business, leadership, product development, and Agile. Challenge what you know. Get blog updates and short weekly insights in your inbox — subscribe on this page.