“Help me to stop feeling an imposter or a fake”
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve opened an email or a private message that’s contained either those exact words or something very similar.
And I know that by the time that person’s decided to message me that they’re probably at their wits end – often after years of battling with this ‘thing’, this secret, this feeling that they must simply be… An Imposter or A Fake.
But it’s a bit odd, when you think about it – to feel you have to ask for someone else’s help to change a habit, especially when most who suffer from feelings of being an imposter are invariably high achievers in their chosen profession.
It’s as if the act of asking for help seems, to them at least, a clear indication that they ARE imposters, otherwise they be able to sort this out by themselves.
But that’s one of the issues with feeling an imposter, or Imposter Syndrome, or Fraud Syndrome or Imposter Phenomenon – this challenge truly has many different names and faces.
It turns your thoughts upside down and uses your good abilities in various areas to ‘prove’ that you’re not really any competent after all.
Let’s see what this is all about
So what you’ll find here are some of the most commented upon ways that feeling an imposter presents itself – along with some of the ways people have found they could control those feelings.
You’ll also discover more about why ‘it’ happens to us and why many of the ways you’ve tried in the past might not have worked
(Key message: It’s NOT your fault they’ve not worked to date).
This means that by the end of reading this you’ll hopefully be able to stop berating yourself for not have dealt with this issue sooner.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
It’s rather odd to consider that something which now appears to afflict such a massive proportion of the population didn’t apparently ‘exist’ until the Fall of 1978.
Since that’s the time when Dr Pauline Rose Clance & Dr Suzanne Imes published their key research paper which detailed just how many skilled, professional women suffered from what they named “The Impostor Phenomenon”.
If you’re interested you can read that article on Dr Clance’s website.
In it they describe how they worked with 150 women over a five year period and how they identified particular traits or beliefs that those women held as true.
In fact, it’s estimated that around 70% of people will experience feeling an imposter at least once in their lifetime.
No official diagnosis
Drs Clance & Dr Imes named what they had identified as Imposter (also spelt Impostor) Phenomenon and whilst it’s often referred to as ‘Imposter Syndrome’ there is not, at present, an official medical definition.
Imposter Syndrome, however, has become part of the language of IS sufferers.
While impostor syndrome is still not a recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) it is a very common issue and it’s symptoms overlap many other recognised disorders.
This can mean that some people may be misidentified as being troubled by something else, rather than focusing upon resolving their feelings of Imposter Syndrome.
What does Imposter Syndrome feel like?
In some respects Impostor Syndrome can act rather like a panic attack, in that once someone’s had their first experience of feeling an imposter it can ‘prime’ them for further recurrences.
They can then find themselves monitoring their thoughts, staying hyper-aware of a possible return of Impostor Syndrome, which leads to them precipitating an attack.
This is one of the reasons why people who suffer from feeling an imposter are often prone to ruminating or replaying thoughts about Impostor Syndrome related issues.
Which in turn keeps them in IS mode for longer and longer periods of time.
Rather like someone coming down with a virus, sort of recovering, but then finding that any stress or overwork brings the virus back up to full power again.
It can feel like a never-ending feeling of inadequacy, as if whatever you can do is never sufficient.
There’s not enough praise, adulation, results or certificates that will ever convince you that you’re really absolutely OK at doing what you do.
Imposter Phenomenon is like a shattered windscreen
I don’t know if you or any one you know has ever had their car’s side window or windscreen smashed?
I’m thinking of such times as when someone’s broken into the car, or if something’s hit the window and the windcreen’s been forced inwards.
If you’ve seen one go they explode into hundreds and hundreds of little pieces – and the noise – it can sound like a gun going off.
This happens because the glass used in cars is safety glass, so if we’re in an accident and hit the glass with our head or arm the safety glass is produced in a way to ensure there’s less chance of the sharp edge of a piece of glass cutting us.
What this means, however, is that there’s a LOT of energy that has to be dissipated when the window blows up and all of those little pieces of glass spread out EVERYWHERE in the car.
If the shattering happens whilst the car’s in motion then those individual pieces will shoot off into all the crevices, gaps and corners of your car.
Even after you’ve had the glass replaced those little pieces will be turning up in the most unexpected places for months to come.
The initial event (the shattering of the glass) doesn’t hurt us but we’re left to pick up the pieces (literally) in lots of other locations instead.
And that’s rather how it is with Imposter Syndrome.
The originating cause leading it to begin will invariably be different for each person, but, just like that shattered window, its effects split off into hundreds of places in your daily activities.
That’s why so many of the methods you’ve perhaps tried in order to ‘control’ feeling an imposter haven’t worked – you’d missed a bit here, and a bit there and rather like a virulent disease, unless you get rid of it all it simply regrows again.
The Greeks knew a thing or two about Imposter Syndrome
It’s interesting to note that a perusal of Greek mythology shows us that Imposter Syndrome may well have existed during their era.
Rather like the many headed hydra of Greek mythology, your Imposter Syndrome is a multi-headed beast – however many heads you cut off it you feel like it’s always coming back, ready to attack you just where you least expect it.
The myth of Achilles’ heel
There’s another Greek myth which helps to understand more about why we each can suffer from Imposter Syndrome in the way we do – and that’s the myth of Achilles’ heel.
In case you’re one of the few who hasn’t heard of this myth, in Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die young.
His mother Thetis, in an attempt to make him invulnerable to death, bathed him in the River Styx and dipped his body into the water.
But Thetis held Achilles by the heel and that one spot wasn’t bathed in the magical river.
(Clearly she wasn’t the sharpest knife in the pack, otherwise, she’d have swapped ankles half-way through this procedure, but never mind – it’s a myth after all).
Anyhow, Achilles grew up to be a man who survived many battles – until he dies from an injury to that particular ankle during the Trojan War.
And this is exactly what happens to you (except for the death part) – in that your Impostor Syndrome will always look for and attack the chink in your armour, wherever that is.
Where does feeling an imposter strike?
Your Imposter Phenomenon will seek out the weakest parts of your emotional armour, rather like how children at school seem to know instinctively how to name call to upset one another or how hazing rituals cut to the emotional quick.
- Some of the ways feeling an imposter shows up can include:
- Ongoing nagging thoughts of self-doubt over one’s skills.
- Over-rating other people’s abilities compared to one’s own.
- Seeing your (excellent) exam results as lucky and another person’s (lower) score as better than yours.
- Being driven to overachieve even if that results in health issues.
- An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills.
- Downplaying your success as luck or a fluke.
- Not wanting to take the credit for a piece of work since you ‘know’ that what you did wasn’t very important to the result.
- Berating your performance during an annual review.
- Worry that your very next report / presentation / sales call, etc will be the one when you’re ‘found out’
- Whenever there’s a new member of your department, fear that they’ll ‘find you out’ for being a faker.
- Feeling sick with worry that ‘this time your poor showing in some exam, or test will mean you’re going to be sacked.
- ‘Accidentally’ making errors prove your no-good (self-sabotage).
- Aiming for excessively high goals and then castigating oneself for not achieving 100% – even 99% will be considered a ‘fail’.
Other ways feeling an imposter shows up in our lives
There is no, single place Imposter Syndrome appears and so what I’ve found is that whilst some clients will contact me not because they feel they’re suffering from IS, but are wondering whether some other issues they have may be liked to IS – and yes, they invariably ARE linked.
Sometimes those people who say they don’t suffer from Imposter Syndrome, self identify with the traits of Underearning, Fear of Failure or Self-Sabotage.
That’s because they are often found to be ways we’ve found that allow us to try to avoid feeling an Imposter.
Rather like trying to get to the north pole by driving south, we avoid the feelings for as long as possible but we keep on having to think about them, otherwise how can we tell we’re still staying well away from them?
So this is why when we begin to investigate further we often find Imposter Syndrome style thoughts popping-up in the unlikeliest of locations, eg:
- I’m no good at keeping the kitchen cupboards clean
- I’m a bad daughter because I forget …
- I’m a bad friend because I should have …
- I didn’t do Y good enough for my friend so that ‘proves’ I’m a fake.
- I should do more for my family (as well as at work)
Each of these are out situations out of our work or career lives but are still places where our Imposter Syndrome traits are showing up for us.
The 5 Competence Types
One of the most well known books on the subject of Imposter Syndrome was written by Dr. Valerie Young. In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, she highlights five different ‘competence types’ that many females appear to follow.
You may have seen her TED talk on YouTube.
These competence types shouldn’t be seen as rigid frameworks but are best treated as a way of allowing someone to begin to understand more about how many ways Impostor Syndrome is affecting them.
Those five competence types, along with some examples of how they play out in day to day lives are as follows:
1. The Perfectionist
Often the micromanager, you’re never able to delegate, knowing no-one can do a job as good as you. Everything you do has to be 100% right else it goes in the bin and you start again from the beginning.
Unless feedback or score cards are A+ you feel totally dejected and may ruminate of what went ‘wrong’ for days afterwards.
2. Superwoman (or Superman)
You feel that the facade of perfection must be kept in place at all times, leading to staying in the office longer than anyone else.
You detest, downtime, never taking holidays and not having any hobbies that don’t somehow help with your career.
You don’t feel you’re worthy of any titles or awards you receive. It’s hard for you to take time off, feeling as if you should always be doing something work-related.
3. The Natural Genius
Often showing ‘natural’ promise since your childhood, you’ve learnt to prize speed of learning and ease of assimilating understanding.
This can, however, result in you feeling ashamed if you don’t ‘get’ something quickly or if others seem to grasp new understandings before you do.
You think like a perfectionist, but unlike them you don’t even allow yourself the chance of a ‘learning curve’.
You must get it right first-time or you’ll panic or give up.
If you’re studying for a series of exams and drop from an A to a B in just one you feel like giving the whole lot up and changing courses – anything less than 100% won’t cut it for you.
You seem to avoid trying out new tasks, roles, jobs since you don’t want to take on anything where you don’t feel 100% competent and confident from the get go.
(Side note: If you’re a natural genius then you probably wouldn’t be reading this since the very idea of needing a coach or a mentor, well that’s not for the likes of you, is it?)
4. The Soloist
Soloists feel that to have to ask for help or to rely on someone else’s participation in something somehow ‘proves’ that they’re no good at their duties.
They’re prone to needing to work on their own since no and if help were to be required it would be ‘the presentation’ that required it, not the person themselves.
You can find yourself ‘hoarding’ tasks or projects because you feel ‘it’ all must be completed by you and you alone.
5. The Expert
If you’re an Expert you’ve grown accustomed to being rated on the knowledge you hold on your subject.
Driven to learn ever more about your subject you both seek out roles that ‘prove’ how encyclopaedic your knowledge is, whilst also fearing that there’s some key fact you don’t know.
There’s always a nagging feeling that you need to know even more before you’ll let yourself feel competent.
You’ve possibly thought about applying for a new position, or put in for a promotion, but you’ve passed on this since you feel you’re not 100% ready, yet.
Same traits, different experiences
As you can see from the way those five competencies play out in your life, it’s possible for two people to work in the same company in similar roles and have totally different experiences of the work they do.
And since those traits are really alternative ways IS expresses itself it’s best to consider them all under one umbrella.
How to stop feeling an Imposter
As you’ve probably realised and perhaps already experienced, if you’re often feeling an imposter then it’s going to exhibit itself in more places than purely your work life.
The good news, therefore, is that you may be able to find ways when you’re away from work when you can practice acting and thinking non-Imposter Syndrome thoughts.
I’m not suggesting you’ll be able to do all of these, and perhaps the thought of some feel quite uncomfortable, but, let’s be honest for a moment, people who don’t have Imposter Syndrome would look at the list and say, ‘But I do this anyway’.
And that’s an important point for Impostor Phenomenon sufferers to recognise – not everyone thinks and reacts the same way you do – so change IS possible.
27 easy ways how to quickly stop feeling an imposter
Here are some suggestions for you to try on for size.
Health / Trigger warning: I don’t know you and haven’t met you so there’s no way I can tell whether reading the following suggestions will be discomforting for you – but if they are then all that means is that you need to get this IS thing dealt with soon.
Perhaps you may be able to handle this on your own, or you might find it useful to work with a coach or a therapist. If you wish to contact me I may be able to suggest some next steps or contacts for you.
1. Acknowledge your achievements to date
You’ve undoubtedly achieved a lot, otherwise you wouldn’t be where you are today – so note those results down.
Since there’s a part of your mind that’s prone to forgetting those results take some time each day to read through your list of successes and yes, revel in feeling good about how far you’ve come.
2. Set achievable goals – then celebrate achieving them
It’s easy to simply strike a line through that task as ‘job done’ without allowing yourself the luxury of reflecting upon your success. So before you write the next task(s)s down consider how big they are and then, when you achieve them, congratulate yourself.
3. Schedule R&R time
If you’re a non-stop go-getter then include in your diary some time for YOU. That’s NOT fininising off a project time, or catching up on emails time, but YOU time. No work, no studies, just fun, relaxing time.
4. Set yourself a ‘prize’ for when you achieve a milestone
If you’re someone who’s always deferring gratification then set a success-point in your schedule plus what your prize will be for hitting that mark.
Then, when you get there (as I’m sure you will) award yourself the prize.
And if you find that when you get to the winning post you come up with some reason to defer the prize-giving, that’s useful information that you and your coach can work on too.
5. Practice asking for help for YOU
This may require ‘baby-steps’ at first, but select something within your work that you feel is ok for you to ask someone a few questions about.
Perhaps it’s how to use a programme or a piece of equipment. Or whether A or B would be a more appropriate way of auctioning a task.
Just dip your toe in the water and see how you find this one. Then note down your experiences, how you felt and what you learnt from this.
And then, do it again for another issue – since asking for help is what non-IS sufferers do quite readily.
6. Delegate a task
Select some task, or part of a task that you would usually handle yourself – and delegate it to someone. When you do this don’t feel the need to check everything in detail when it’s done, give some leeway and trust that person’s done it to their best ability.
There’s every possibility that they’re so shocked you’ve let them alone on the task that they will have worked extra-hard on it too.
Note down how you felt at the idea of delegating and then how it felt when they had completed the task, and how this may have benefitted you.
7. Set a time to leave work – and keep to it
Using whatever diary system you prefer set an end date for your work day – and at that appointment time – Stop!
Yes, urgent issues crop up and yes, deadlines must be met, but if we’re Imposter Syndrome sufferers we’re currently hard-wired to not be able to quit when the time’s right.
So in the run-up to your home-time, prep work for tomorrow set any diary notes you require and then Let. It. Be.
8. Review some mistakes to see what you can learn from them
Take some time to review a few mistakes or errors and notice what feelings are attached to those experiences.
Then, take a ‘helicopter view’ and look at those errors in the overall context of the work that was carried out. On a scale of 1-10 how much impact did those errors have?
Yes, you might have wanted everything to be perfect, but it wasn’t. So how big a deal was it in the end? Note it down and see what that’s telling you.
9. Take up a hobby
Perhaps you have a hobby you’ve let lapse, or if not choose something new.
Make sure that whatever you select is something that you won’t be 100% perfect at from the get-go. This will mean you will have to practice and learn by trial and error.
Yes, ERROR! That’s what other people do to learn and actually, when you become accustomed to it, you can find it’s a quite enjoyable process.
10. Find a coach to work with
There are many good coaches who could well help you to break through your patterns around Imposter Syndrome.
Having someone ‘outside of your mind’ who is able to listen to you and see the bigger picture of what you’re saying could be the perfect next step for you.
At the least give consideration to having a dialogue with someone about this.
If you’d like some recommendations for a coach that’s in your area I invite you to get in touch and I may be able to provide you with some names.
11. Ask someone for help, even when you don’t require it
Be humble. Assume that others know a thing or two about the subject too. Ask, even if you’re reasonably sure you know what you know, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
I think Donald Rumsfeld expressed this much concept much better than I can so perhaps this video will help you understand what I’m getting at.
Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, 2002
There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, 2002
12. Let someone else go first
Select or let someone else take the lead in the next project or in a presentation or something that you would normally hold the reins for.
When you do this don’t micro-manage them – allow them to operate in a way that’s safe and fair for the level of work being carried out.
And don’t sit around waiting for things to go wrong – trust that they will do a good job and help them where necessary if they ask for your help.
13. Delegate report production
If you’re someone who always pulls all the information together and writes the final report, delegate some or all of this so that others can prepare the first, or subsequent drafts.
You could also consider delegating the reviewing or amassing of information and then let others provide the semi-final item to you.
14. Monitor your diet
What you eat and the levels of nutrients therein have a significant bearing on how you react to events during the day.
Your food intake along with the amount of fluid you consume will cause you to respond more positively or more negatively to the various events that occur during your day.
Simply by ensuring that you eat regularly and keep stocked up with clean drinks during the day, you’ll find you’ll be more able to keep your IP thoughts at bay.
And if that means cut down or stop alcohol and high caffeine drinks the do that too.
15. Ask for feedback
Rather than ask for this from current work colleagues, get in touch with an ex-colleague and ask them how you were ‘back then’.
Let them know you’d prefer an honest appraisal of how you were and take what they say as information.
Don’t justify or defend any incidents they may refer to – let’s assume for the moment that they were seeing things more clearly than you were at the time.
If you’re feeling brave you could then speak to someone in your current or more recent employment and ask they how you used to act.
If it helps you could use some of the examples from the Five Competence Types and ask whether you fitted with any of those styles.
16. Stop blaming yourself
Yes. The next time something goes ‘wrong’, STOP! Catch yourself in mid-thought and say to yourself, “I’m not a failure. It’s just my IS playing up. I’m an OK person.”
17. Find some gold in the failures
Make a BRIEF list of some times in the past when you ‘failed’ and reword each failure in a way that shows what you discovered that was useful and positive from the experience.
Perhaps you realised an alternative way of doing something, or that a different timeframe would be better. Whatever you discovered was relevant and may never have been revealed without that ‘failure’.
18. Define a positive affirmation for the new you
Write out a positive statement about who you’re becoming and read it out every day. If you’re stuck for something positive to say about yourself then you could start with one of the most famous affirmations, by Émile Coué. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”.
and in every way,
I’m getting better and better.Émile Coué
19. Track your thoughts
During the day notice your thoughts rather than run on autopilot. You’ve got an awesomely quick brain, which is actually part of the problem, and so what we want to do is to introduce a short delay so you can catch yourself thinking IS thoughts.
When you do, smile, because, rather like the young child caught with their hand in the cookie jar, you’ve caught yourself in act of thinking IS thoughts.
So think something else instead!
20. Practice self hypnosis or meditation
There are many very good meditation apps that can help to provide a way of learning to meditate. Try a few out and find one which fits best with your requirements.
Alternatively, you may find self-hypnosis a good way to introduce new positive ways of thinking and acting.
There are many apps available and I have taught self-hypnosis to many of my therapy clients where appropriate so this may help you to stop feeling an imposter.
21. Practice creating your future in advance
In your journal write out the way you’d like your life to be, one where you’re free from feeling an imposter.
Let yourself include whatever feels good – and if that includes changes to your work, family or social environment, include those too.
You might want to keep the notes from #21 away from prying eyes!
22. Praise someone
If you’re someone who has a hard time accepting praise then find someone and praise them and notice how they react.
If they simply say ‘thank you’ or fail to acknowledge you, notice how that feels and if they engage in a conversation let that flow and see how that feels too.
23. Focus on the younger generation
Research has shown it’s better to praise children for what they are attempting to do, rather than only for the results they achieve.
Many people who suffer from feeling an imposter or a fake remember how they were praised for their academic results and other non-academic endeavours were ignored.
So if you have children or grandchildren, note how many times over the next few weeks you praise them for what they’re doing rather than achieving.
24. Design your life
Create your future and live into it.
Write down how you’d rather be over the next few months.
Notice the ways you’d prefer to act, think and behave. Document how you’d rather act with other people – and how they’d see and act with you. Then read this and act it out every day.
At the end of each day notice where you got it right, and where you may have slipped a little. Plan to correct your direction the very next day.
Keep sailing and you’ll make land eventually.
25. Be someone else for a day
Imagine that you knew that tomorrow morning, when you woke up, that you’d have a new personality, that of someone else you either know in real life, or perhaps you’ve seen in a film. (Someone who’s NOT an IS person, obviously!)
Notice how they might act when doing your work. How might they stand, how might they speak, how would they interact. What would their priorities be?
Simply bathe yourself in that possibility, playing it out through your mind. Then, when tomorrow comes, let yourself play that out in real life.
It’s all an act, anyhow, so why not act being someone else for a while – you might quite enjoy it!
26. Prune back the to-do list
Identify some tasks you’ve got on your to-do list that are incomplete and then, assuming it’s safe or otherwise to do so, consider them complete.
Yes, let something that’s not 100% be called ‘job done’. Notice what that brings up for you and let those feelings settle.
Note also how long those items had been on your to-do list, compared to other tasks you’ve already finished.
If they’ve been on your to-do list for a fair while (whatever that means to you) then it’s indicative that they weren’t really that important to you anyhow and so, perhaps, you were keeping them unfinished so you could look or feel busy. (Don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger!)
27. Who’s validating you?
For the next seven days note down who you need validation from.
Notice whether they are senior, junior, older, younger, or whatever else you may identify.
Check whether there’s just one person, or more than one and whether the same names keep appearing or if it’s a random selection.
At the end of the week review your results and notice what that’s telling you. Determine how you can let go of the need for their validation.
Review of your findings
As you will have noticed, many of those approaches are stepping stones, ways to enable you to begin to understand both how you are acting, and how those actions are making you think about yourself.
You may find that some of the suggested ways are uncomfortable to you – totally opposite ways of acting compared to your usual way of doing things.
Well, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it. You’re locked-into an IS way of thinking and so these alternative approaches can help you to begin to change, providing you let yourself experience them and then notice your reactions.
I’d recommend you keep a note of all of your reactions since they will be helpful to refer back to if you carry out any work with a coach to help you further on this.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and feeling an imposter can be difficult because the person who’s suffering from this (that’s you) is usually very clever and quick-witted.
This means it can be hard for them to interject in the flow of their thoughts and notice where IS is making them think in non-useful ways.
Give yourself a week to test this out
You may find it useful to pick a couple of the suggested methods above and try them on for size.
Set yourself a deadline of a week, for example, to try some of them out.
Then, at the end of each day, track back through your day and compare what happened with those two techniques and notice how you got on.
If you’re clever (and most Imposter Syndrome sufferers are) you may already see a flaw in this method, which is unless you’re careful you may begin to berate yourself for not doing those techniques correctly.
That’s NOT what you’re meant to be doing!
Simply note how you got on, where you scored a goal and where you missed the back of the net.
This is why working with a coach can be such a rewarding experience since your coach will be able to filter though the fog of your thoughts and help you to develop a better way of seeing your world.
You should by now understand more about how your feeling an imposter can influence your actions in many areas outside your work environment.
You also have 27 ways that you can try on for size to see if they help you to reduce its impact – you may well discover that you can ‘switch it off’ totally.
Which ways are you going to use? Comment below which ones resonated most with you, or if you’ve tried some of them previously and if so, how you got on.
Also, if you’ve found a way to control or reduce the effects of feeling an imposter, comment below so other people can benefit from your knowledge.
And if you’ve found some ways that work for you comment below so others may benefit from your learnings on this too.
An invitation from me to you
Once you’ve had a practice run through with a couple of those suggested techniques to address your feeling an imposter I invite you to contact me and let me know how you’ve got on.
I would be pleased to provide you with some feedback on what you’ve discovered and may be able to suggest some fine-tuning that would help move you forwards to an even easier way of being.
And if you know someone else who’s affected by Imposter Syndrome remember to share this post when them.