Feeling Like A Fraud: What Is Imposter Syndrome And How Do You Stop It?

Ever had that sneaking suspicion you're only where you are because of sheer luck or coincidence? Do you often assume promotions and compliments are mistakes? You may be experiencing Imposter Syndrome, and we have the ways to combat it.

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What Is Imposter Syndrome
Photo: Pixabay/ Ryan McGuire

Feeling Like A Fraud? A Tale Of How To Survive Imposter Syndrome:

It’s your first day in a new position.

You’re already nervous to learn a new office layout, not to mention introducing yourself to a zillion new people (was his name Harry or Henry?), when you finally get a few minutes to yourself and… A panic sets in. Then little voice in your head says the six deadliest words a young professional can hear:

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

This is different than your regular run-of-the-mill self-doubt. It’s not as easily squashed by reminding yourself of your many accomplishments.

You start to go over your interview in your head… Did you somehow give the false impression that you can handle this? How did you con your way into this opportunity? When are they going to find out that you aren’t right for this job?

Suddenly it feels as though it’s only a matter of time before you are discovered, forced out, and completely humiliated.

Congratulations, you are officially experiencing full-blown Imposter Syndrome!

Also called ‘fraud syndrome’ and ‘imposter phenomenon’, this term was first coined in the late 1970’s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. It is defined as the constant fear of being exposed as a fraud despite your qualifications.

Basically, it’s the worst.

It disproportionately affects successful women. Even women who are synonymous with unparalleled success, like Maya Angelou, Meryl Streep, and Sheryl Sandberg, who have all spoken openly about the fear of being ‘exposed’ as frauds.

“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they're going to find [me] out now,'” Maya Angelou

So if this is so pervasive, can feeling like a fraud really do that much harm?

In a word: Yes.

The consequences of your mind running wild with these ideas can result in one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Higher stress
  • Over-preparation
  • Feeling too inadequate to apply for positions or opportunities
  • Nervousness when conversing with people in your field
  • Understating accomplishments

Essentially, by leaving this phenomenon unaddressed, you end up talking yourself out of certain opportunities and can even delay your own happiness.

“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’” Meryl Streep

“Everyone [has] been in a position in their lives where they’ve wondered whether just being themselves is good enough,” says Dr Harold Hillman, the author of The Imposter Syndrome: Becoming An Authentic Leader and co-founder of the Sigmoid Curve. Dr. Hillman is a firm believer that the pressure of ‘perfection’ is likely the greatest cause of Imposter Syndrome.

“Sometimes in the interest of meeting other people’s expectations—who other people want us to be, what other people want us to be—we move away from the core of who we are,” he continues, “If we compromise who we are just to please other people or meet other people’s expectations, it really robs us of a certain energy, and robs us of a certain uniqueness.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be robbed of my uniqueness.

So how do we counteract the pitfalls of Imposter Syndrome when we’re deep in that funk? Here are a few tips on how to stop feeling like a fraud, and start being awesome:

Imposter Syndrome Tip #1 TALK ABOUT IT

This can be hard if you’re in a new environment or role, but finding a trusted friend or colleague to confide in can help dismiss a lot of the darker thoughts associated with Imposter Syndrome.

By venting to someone who knows you well, you can release some of the more ridiculous thoughts associated with severe self-doubt, not to mention a good buddy will always be ready to remind you of all the times you rocked.

Imposter Syndrome Tip #2 RESEARCH IT

When writing this piece I scoured through other people’s experiences from all over the internet (seriously, so many!), and the greatest takeaway has been the stories from people I’ve admired.

It turns out, public figures you would assume are safe from getting anywhere near imposter syndrome have all experienced it. To hear them detail their own struggles with severe self-doubt is heartening, and it’s a great way to bring yourself back down when you feel yourself spiraling.

Imposter Syndrome Tip #3 NO ONE DID YOU A FAVOR

Employers generally don’t hire or promote professionals out of the kindness of their hearts. Even the most compassionate CEO or leader wants the right person for the job, and in the end potential and competence will always be their bottom line.

Remember this when you start to convince yourself that you somehow conned your way into your position.

Imposter Syndrome Tip #4 PAY IT FORWARD

The next time a coworker is helpful or comes up with a great idea, make a point to compliment them. By acknowledging when others do well you create an environment where openly appreciating effort is more commonplace.

It also feels good to bring light into the room and serves as a reminder that we all do little things that people appreciate every day. Not to mention that receiving positive reinforcement has been proven to be as good as receiving cash. So spread the love, and you’ll feel better for having made someone’s day.

Imposter Syndrome Tip #5 FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

While the concept of ‘faking’ anything might feel counter-productive, using confident words and body language can increase your own confidence. In fact, a University Of Harvard Colgate study found that the human brain is wired to default to body language cues over speech when it comes to communication.

If you strike a strong pose you can increase testosterone and lower cortisol (that pesky stress hormone), both of which contribute to feeling confident. So what’s a power pose? Anything where you take up space: spread out, don’t cross your arms or legs, and throw your shoulders back.

For language, eliminate ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ from your vocabulary. Those are “shrinker” words, and serve only to blur and soften your points, and why would you want to do that? Points are pointy for a reason.

“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” Sheryl Sandberg

The lines between self-doubt, humility, and imposter syndrome are difficult to define. If, however, you find it hard to focus because harmful words are building in your head, then regardless of what it’s called, it’s gotta go.

As Dr. Hillman puts it: “A basic premise of authentic leadership is that once you accept that you’re never going to be a perfect person, you give yourself latitude. And you give yourself room to be imperfect.”

We could all use a little wiggle room, right?

If you want to learn more about Dr. Harold Hillman, the Sigmoid Curve, and their leadership services you can check out www.sigmoidcurve.com, or check out his book The Imposter Syndrome: Becoming An Authentic Leader.

Do you have any tips or tricks for combatting imposter syndrome? Reach out to [email protected]

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Tara Millette
Tara has been writing for over 6 years, from stand-up comedy, to think-pieces, to political satire and blog posts. She now writes and edits for LEADx.org, and her door is open to any interested contributors.