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If you’ve ever felt like an impostor, please know that you’re not alone. Most of us feel that way at some point in our lives. Even famously successful folks have admitted there are times they felt like a fraud.
America Ferrera felt like no one believed she deserved to win an Emmy in the lead actress category in 2007 for Ugly Betty.
Tom Hanks said that no matter what you’ve done, you always wonder when everyone will figure out you’re a fraud and take it all away from you.
Maya Angelou experienced self-doubt and once said that although she has published more than ten books, every time she thinks, “Uh oh, they’re going to find out now.”
Howard Schultz was the CEO of Starbucks for more than 30 years but said that almost no one feels qualified for the job of CEO.
Emma Watson feels that she’s “fooled” people about her acting abilities.
In fact, up to 82% of people have experienced impostor syndrome (depending on the screening tool used). The condition was first identified in 1978 by the psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. It’s common among both men and women and across various age groups.
I’ve certainly felt like an impostor at different points in my career. I would guess that many of you reading this have felt that way too.
Impostor syndrome can definitely hinder your career progress. When I experienced it, I found myself taking fewer risks, questioning my judgment, and doubting my talent. I dismissed my accomplishments as luck and worried that someone would eventually reveal that promoting me was a mistake.
Those who experience impostor syndrome struggle with self-efficacy, perfectionism, and neuroticism. Gee, thanks. Competitive environments in school and at work — and pressure from parents — don’t help the situation.
However, more seriously, it often co-occurs with depression, anxiety, and chronic procrastination. People suffering from it experience impaired job performance, poor job satisfaction, and sometimes burnout.
I know some people don’t take impostor syndrome seriously (I’ve read their articles about it). Yes, haven’t we all had bad days (or even weeks?) when we experienced doubt, felt like a fraud, and didn’t believe in our success?
But, like anything (e.g., occasional sadness vs. clinical depression), it becomes an issue when the feeling persists, and you almost always feel that way. Impostor syndrome can rob you of your confidence, motivation, and drive.
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Why do we feel like impostors?
It begins long before you enter the working world. It reaches all new heights as you progress in your career, but it starts much earlier than that. Impostor syndrome doesn’t suddenly appear overnight.
It begins the moment in childhood when someone first told you — and you started believing — that you were somehow not enough.
Who you are is not sufficient or acceptable.
You need to be someone different to fit in, be accepted, and make friends.
You need to behave and be perceived in a certain way to succeed.
So, you began creating layers of camouflage and defense.
This layer makes me look smart.
This layer helps me make friends.
This layer protects me from bullies.
This layer is how successful people look and behave.
This layer is what everyone expects from me.
In their book, If I’m So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like a Fake? The Impostor Phenomenon (my Amazon affiliate link), Harvey and Katz called out three indicators of imposter syndrome:
1. Believing that one has fooled others into overestimating one’s own abilities.
2. Attributing personal success to factors other than one’s ability or intelligence, such as luck, extra work, charisma, or an evaluator’s misjudgment.
3. Fearing exposure as an imposter.
The cycle of feeling like an impostor and dismissing your success typically follows this pattern:
You’re faced with a significant task.
You doubt yourself and your ability to succeed at this task.
You’re a perfectionist and fear failing at the task.
So, you procrastinate because you feel overwhelmed.
But, you pull it together at the last minute and work like crazy to get it done under immense time pressure, stress, and anxiety.
Surprisingly, it turns out well, and you’re successful.
But you don’t believe that you deserve that success. It only happened because you worked like crazy at the last minute and got lucky.
You feel like there is no way you can repeat this success, so the cycle starts again with the next task.
Sound familiar? It sure does to me.
The good news is there is something you can do about it. Even though I lived with this feeling for most of my earlier academic and professional life, I found a way to manage my impostor syndrome (I’ll share some strategies later in this article).
I suspect that it may never disappear entirely. But, it has faded to a faint whisper that I’ve learned to ignore.
Why my impostor syndrome faded
I’ve been on a journey of personal career transformation for the past 11+ years, ever since I left my last corporate exec job in Silicon Valley tech. I want to tell you that I left my impostor syndrome behind when I left the corporate world. But, unfortunately, that’s not true.
Instead, it accelerated and climbed to all new heights as I pursued a new career as a strategic advisor and then founded my tech startup. I raised funding, incorporated the company, became the CEO, hired a team, and immediately experienced the crushing weight of feeling like I was in over my head.
Of course, I really was, as any honest startup founder will tell you. But, the impostor syndrome made the gut-wrenching fear, doubt, and anxiety almost unbearable. After a few years, my startup failed.
Shutting down the company was one of the saddest moments in my life. I went through a long period of darkness, as many founders do. I should have been honest about that and talked with someone. But I didn’t.
☎️ Let me take a moment and tell you that you shouldn’t suffer through something like that alone. There are online resources where you can get help.
The silver lining is that it forced me to completely reevaluate what I wanted to do with my career and life. Should I try again and spin up another startup? That’s the “Silicon Valley Cinderella” story we all love to read.
Should I even stay in tech? I had invested more than two decades in that career path, so leaving it seemed insane.
Or should I set all of that aside and go deep on what I really wanted for my life. If I could live anywhere I wanted, doing what I really wanted to do, what would that look like?
I thought long and hard about who I was. Not who I wanted to be. Not who I may have aspired to be or even pretended to be. Not the layers upon layers of the “persona of me” that I had developed since childhood.
I dug deep until I got to who I am at my core:
What I’ve always enjoyed doing.
What I’ve always been good at doing.
Who I was before people began telling me what I should be.
Also, admitting what I suck at doing and don’t enjoy doing. Ever.
No more pretending.
I uncovered a few core truths, strengths, and talents, fully accepted them, and centered my new career (and business) on them to force my impostor syndrome to fade away. For example, I’m an explorer, lifelong learner, teacher, and relentless problem solver. I also believe in rescuing good people from bad situations (e.g., terrible jobs and bosses).
We all have different natural talents, strengths, and interests. Your core truths about who you are will be unique to you. I work with my clients to uncover theirs while pursuing their future career goals and life plans.
The point I’m trying to make is that someone else’s recognition or praise doesn’t generate your core truths. They can’t be taken away by someone else’s criticism, either.
Failure doesn’t affect them.
They are neither good nor bad.
No one else can measure them.
They don’t have a rating or score.
They simply exist.
I stopped trying to be what I was not and would never be. I played the corporate game for many years. But, I finally decided that I could no longer pretend to be some heartless exec who was ok with good people getting laid off while some jackass got promoted for being a ruthless bastard.
Whew! I guess I had to get that off my chest.
Instead, I focused on creating a life and career centered on my core truths.
You’ll notice that none of mine are about being a genius, wildly popular influencer, successful billionaire, or the world’s greatest leader. No one would ever compare me to Elon Musk or Steve Jobs.
Most importantly, I no longer compare myself to someone like that either. Or anyone else, for that matter.
My core truths are what they are, flaws and all. They aren’t particularly impressive, but I don’t need to pretend that I’m something I’m not. I’m honest about what my truths are and who I am.
Impostor syndrome exists when you fear that someone will discover your lack of fantastic talents and abilities. You worry that you’ll be revealed as a fake or fraud.
Maybe it’s part of growing older. Perhaps it’s part of leaving my past career behind. But, I no longer fear being exposed as lacking talent because I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most intelligent or most talented person in the room.
I’m ok with that. That’s not the value I bring to my relationships with others.
I’ve survived. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve learned. I’ve found my way around obstacles to achieve goals (there’s that relentless thing again). I’ve had enough success that even I finally had to admit that it couldn’t all be due to luck.
I’ve had a good life, and I’m happy. I’ve figured out how this crazy world works, and now I want to help others make their way through it so that they can be happy too.
Six strategies for dealing with your impostor syndrome
It’s not unlikely that you have suffered from impostor syndrome. Maybe it comes and goes. Perhaps it makes you feel sick to your stomach every time you achieve success and fear that the whole facade will come crashing down.
However, there are ways you can manage your impostor syndrome. Here are six suggestions that might help:
Remember that you’re not alone. Almost all of us experience it and feel like “frauds.” The next time you’re in a meeting, remind yourself that even the most seemingly confident person in the room (or on-screen) has moments of self-doubt.
Accept that no one is perfect. I doubt that you expect others to be absolutely perfect. No one is expecting you to be perfect either. Side note: If someone does demand that you are perfect, you should question whether you want this person in your life.
Recognize your achievements. The people who know you believe in you and what you’ve accomplished. It can’t all be luck when you’ve been successful more than a few times.
Consider the source. External events and other people can trigger impostor syndrome. When that happens, consider the source of criticism. I remember one leader harshly judging my leadership skills. It bothered me a little until I considered the source and thought, “This person is a terrible leader. I don’t give a damn about their opinion.”
Find your inner circle. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s so valuable to join or create a group of supportive peers and advisors. When you doubt yourself, they will lift you up, cheer you on, and remind you of how great you are. That’s one thing that I do for my clients, and my Invincible Career community does that for members too. It’s an incredible feeling to have people believe in you.
Finally, invest some time in deeply understanding yourself. What are the core truths about you that no one can take away?
Stop defining yourself by who you think you should be or the expectations others have placed on you. Stop letting others judge you on talents and skills you secretly feel you don’t genuinely have.
Instead, center yourself on the deep truths that have been core to who you are for as long as you can remember. Think back on your life.
Reflect on your childhood to see the patterns. Talk with friends and loved ones who have known you for a very long time.
Your truths will reveal themselves as consistent threads that keep cropping up in how you work, live, and interact with others. They are a part of defining you as “you.”
The secret to eliminating impostor syndrome is to center yourself on who you truly are. Be radically honest about your strengths, talents, weaknesses, and flaws. It’s ok to be a normal human being.
Really, it is.
Discard the labels and assessments used to measure you by what you are not. You can’t be revealed as an impostor for something you no longer define yourself as being. It is incredibly liberating.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m not saying that you don’t need other knowledge, skills, and experience to do your job well. Of course, you do. But they don’t have to define you. That’s an important distinction.
Your manager’s assessment of these skills (good or bad) should have no impact on your sense of worth. Your knowledge and skills are helpful tools. But they are not who you are.
I’m also not saying that you don’t need to make a good impression on others if you want them to hire you. But you don’t need to be fake.
Being fake might get you in the door, but maintaining that facade will make you miserable. You’ll be much happier in your next role when it maps closely to your core truths and who you really are.
If you have other tips for managing impostor syndrome, please share them in the comments. There’s no reason any of us should suffer with it!
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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who hosts a private mastermind community for ambitious professionals with weekly challenges, office hours, and 24x7 support. If you’re interested in starting your own business or side hustle someday (or accelerating an existing one), check out his “Employee to Solopreneur” course (launching in 2022).
Larry lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others take complete control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.
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