Imposter syndrome is something that I’ve suffered from most of my life—and I thought I was the only one.
After 15 years working with people in personal development and then running my own training and coaching business, it transpires that many others feel exactly the same.
I spent most of my career doubting my abilities, and getting promotions didn’t seem to help. I still felt like an imposter who’d be found out one day. The reality was I was good at my job and even bigger jobs as the promotions came—but each new job would raise the same fear: I’m not sure I can do this.
The same voice also told me I’d never be a writer. Who would read it apart from my mum? You’re not good enough, you’re not qualified, you can’t spell, and you don’t even have a degree.
It’s called imposter syndrome, and it’s a lot more common than we think. I thought it was only me, but every woman I speak to who confesses they feel it too also believes she is the only one! According to the Journal of Behavioural Science, 70 percent of people suffer from imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” It’s that voice of self-doubt that, despite our successes, keeps us feeling like we might fail, we might not be good enough, and we might get found out.
Those with imposter syndrome have a tendency to attribute their success to external factors—like luck, or the work of the team. It takes courage to take on challenges and pursue dreams that leave you open to the risk of failure, falling short, losing face, and being “found out.”
So what can we do about it?
It’s something I’ve learned to handle and to live alongside because it’s always there. Sadly, it’s not something we can easily overcome—but we can learn to navigate through and succeed in spite of it. Here’s how:
1. Own your successes.
You didn’t get lucky by chance. We tend to be modest when it comes to our achievements, and have been brought up not to boast about our strengths. We feel uncomfortable accepting praise and our negativity bias in our brain means we’re wired not to think of the positives so much.
I’ve found that keeping an achievement journal helps. I also have a folder on my computer where I file messages of praise and feedback to look back on when I’m having those moments of doubt. Remembering positive feedback from colleagues and friends helps too, as it often carries more weight than when we praise ourselves.
The most important thing to remember is that if we’re getting praise or positive feedback, it’s because we’ve earned it and deserve it. Own it and let it help counter some of those moments of self-doubt.
In fact, let’s start now: write down your top three strengths. Why do people come to you, what do your colleagues at work value in you, and what do people tell you you’re good at?
2. Give it your all and know it’s enough.
Sometimes our imposter syndrome is due to our fear of failure and our perfectionism manifesting all at once to give us this fear of not being good enough. We fail to meet our own unrealistic ideals of perfection—either in the way we look, our abilities in life, or our achievements at work. Perfectionism so often sets us up to fail and feeds these feelings of self-doubt.
Overcoming the imposter syndrome requires self-acceptance: you don’t have to attain perfection to be worthy of the success you’ve achieved. It’s not about lowering the bar, it’s about resetting it to a realistic level. You don’t have to be Einstein to be a valuable asset or worthy of love. Nor do you have to attain perfection to share something with the world.
3. Don’t let your doubt and fear stop you.
We need to continue to take risks and challenges even though we might not think we’re ready—especially women. Too often, we stand back and let the opportunities pass us by because we doubt our capabilities. The best way to see if you’re ready is to dive in and take on the challenge!
There will always be a feeling of fear and the risk of failure—we grow and develop by facing these fears and getting outside of our comfort zone. Don’t let your worries hold you back. I’d often use the “fake it till you make it” technique to overcome these feelings of fear and doubt when I took on new challenges. I’d act and dress confidently so I at least looked the part, and took comfort in the fact no one else could see what was going on in my head.
4. Remember: your thoughts are not common knowledge.
I know how it feels to be gripped by imposter syndrome—we spend all our energy trying to prove our worth to everyone else to make it go away. The funny thing is, only we believe that we’re not capable. For example, we wouldn’t have been offered the job if people didn’t think we were capable. The only person we need to prove anything to is ourselves.
5. Acknowledge it and know it’s not just you.
We need to be mindful that the voice in our head is often swayed. We are wired to see the glass as half empty, to focus on the negative. This comes from evolutionary times when it was helpful for us to always see the worst that could happen in order to survive. In the days of cavemen and women, it was useful for us to be wary of a saber-toothed tiger around the corner because then we’d be prepared to run.
What this can translate to in our modern world is a constant focus on what we’re not good at, things that went wrong, and why we’re not enough—in our jobs, how we look compared to our friends, who we are as a person, or what we’ve achieved in life.
This negativity bias can leave us feeling like we’ll never be good enough. So to counter the bias, we need to focus on what we have, not what we haven’t, to direct our energy toward the things we’re good at rather than on what might go wrong and where we might fail.
Know that it’s not something we experience alone. Some of the most successful people I know who seem to have mastered life admit that underneath, they feel the opposite some days. Even famous people earning millions and excelling at what they do admit to having moments of self-doubt.
6. Stop comparing yourself to others.
It’s the fastest way to feel inferior and feed our self-doubt. Unfortunately there will always be someone more beautiful, clever, talented, or stronger than you. But the reverse is also true: at times, you will be the most talented and successful. So instead of comparing yourself to others, look to see if you’re fulfilling your own potential and celebrate the things you have.
We are all capable of more than we know, and we can do amazing things if we’re not busy doubting our abilities. Next time that negative voice in your head starts to speak, turn down the volume.
What matters most is not whether we fear failing, looking foolish, or not being enough; it’s whether we give those fears the power to keep us from taking the actions needed to achieve our goals.