October 22, 2019

Tips to overcome imposter syndrome

Madison, Wis. — At work, are you afraid colleagues might find out you’re not as capable as they may think? Do you feel like any praise you receive for success is because people are just trying to be nice, not because you actually deserve it? Rather than celebrating increased responsibilities or promotions, do they instead cause anxiety because – in your mind – now you’ll have to work even harder to keep them from learning the truth about your abilities

Here’s a secret: A lot of people feel that way. In fact, roughly 70 percent of us do at some point in our lives. While change can always cause feelings of doubt, for some people the feelings of inadequacy run so deep that no amount of success or achievement can sway them. And there is a term for it – imposter syndrome.

Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain said that imposter syndrome can be debilitating if left untreated. “In addition to causing stress, anxiety and depression, it can impact lives in other ways. Individuals with imposter syndrome may avoid pursuing new job opportunities out of fear. Feelings of shame may make it difficult to speak up for themselves or advocate for what they believe is right.”

Whether it’s a new job or even a student taking an AP course, feelings of self-doubt are normal. It’s easy to question whether we’re up to the challenge and especially to feel intimidated by others who may seem smarter or more talented. But for those with imposter syndrome the fear and anxiety of being discovered as ‘not good enough’ may interfere with their lives.

“Those with imposter syndrome tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves. They are vulnerable to ‘workaholism’ and often fall into a cycle of fear and anxiety driving perfectionist behavior. The problem is that the perfectionist behavior reduces any enjoyment of success. The fear of being ‘found out’ constantly drives impossibly high standards,” shares Mirgain.

The feelings of imposter syndrome can be deeply ingrained. They may have developed long ago due, in part, to growing up in an environment where self-worth was tied to accomplishments. Or perhaps praise was often in the form of “helpful criticism,” which could lead to a sense that nothing was ever quite good enough. There could be any number of reasons why someone experiences imposter syndrome and the reality is that it will take time to overcome the feelings – but it is possible.

How to feel more confident

Mirgain offers a few strategies to help overcome the feelings that are often associated with feeling like a fake.

Feelings aren’t facts

"Recognize the feelings for what they are – they are normal, but they’re also not true,” said Mirgain. Sometimes we play the negative tape over and over in our minds so much that we forget it’s just that – a tape. It’s a recording that can be turned off, but it will take time and energy to do that. When we make a mistake, it doesn’t mean we’re not capable – it just means we made a mistake.

Name it to tame it

Mirgain encourages breaking the silence and sharing how you are feeling with someone safe. Often, these feelings and thoughts swirl around in our minds and can seem overwhelming. Talking about them brings them into the daylight, so to speak, where it’s easier to realize how they’re not based in reality.

Don’t ruminate, rewire

It’s always possible to create new neural pathways in our brain and turn anxiety into resilience. Mirgain suggests a few strategies to help break the negative thought patterns:

  • Speak kindly to yourself

  • Create a mantra you can repeat to yourself

  • Keep failure in perspective

  • Focus on what you learned

  • Explore your core beliefs

  • Question your thoughts

When negative thoughts occur, asking “Is this really true?” can help interrupt the habit of thinking negatively about our abilities. Keep a list of accomplishments and refer to it in times of doubt. Use a mantra to interrupt the negative voice much sooner so it doesn’t end up undermining efforts.

Find mentors

Mentors can help us learn what success and failure looks like. A good role model will be honest and even vulnerable, sharing the challenges they’ve overcome to achieve success and how they approached new or difficult situations. It can mean a lot to know someone we admire had their own share of struggles.

Remember sometimes good enough is good enough

Mistakes are always learning opportunities. It can be really uncomfortable to come face to face with our mistakes. Instead, remember they are learning opportunities and who we are as human beings is not defined by the mistakes we’ve made.

Stop comparing

It’s easy to feel like others are more successful, have achieved more are doing more. But the important thing, according to Mirgain, is to keep focused on our own paths. And keep social media in check. Mirgain notes that the curated images that often appear on social don’t create a real or whole picture.

Action, not perfection

It really is about the journey and not the destination. When we focus on what has been accomplished so far, and the steps we took to get there, it’s easier to realize just how much we’ve really accomplished.

Work toward a larger purpose

It can feel intimidating to speak up in a meeting, let alone even consider starting a business. Mirgain suggests focusing on the “we” – how is what we’re doing benefiting the company, community or even our family. If we feel a part of a larger whole, it can help us develop greater confidence in approaching the task.

Visualize your success

Mirgain explains that athletes often focus on visualizing their success to help them in their performance. Imagining the steps to make a free throw from stepping up to the line, positioning the body and watching the ball going into the hoop can help create a sense of focus and calm when faced with the situation in a game. Mirgain said that can work in other situations as well, like taking a test or giving a presentation. Imagining the steps can help create a sense of calm and even confidence when it’s time.

Consider talking with a mental health professional

Humans are great at rationalizing decisions. We can talk ourselves out of pursuing a new job with reasons that seem very legitimate. Our feelings of fear and anxiety can keep us from taking on new challenges or even just trying something new like an exercise class. Talking with a mental health professional can help provide the tools to rewrite the negative messages in our heads and help us continue to achieve our goals.