You don't belong here.
You're not good enough.
You got lucky.
They're going to realize you aren't that smart.
Ever heard this voice in your head? You're far from alone. It's called "impostor syndrome."
More than 70 percent of successful people have felt it at one point.
In a study of successful people by psychologist Gail Matthews, a whopping 70 percent reported experiencing impostor feelings at some point in their life.
Are you one them? Ask yourself these questions, via The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It:
- Do you chalk your success up to luck, timing, or computer error?
- Do you believe "if I can do it, anybody can"?
- Do you agonize over the smallest flaws in your work?
- Are your crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your ineptness?
- When you do succeed, do you secretly feel like you fooled them again?
- Do you worry that it's a matter of time before you're "found out"?
And even if you haven't heard that voice in your head, someone you care about almost certainly has. It plagues successful women; Sheryl Sandberg wrote about it in her bestseller, Lean In.
I've posted a lot about how to be more successful. But the interesting thing about impostor syndrome is that you already are successful. You just have trouble accepting it.
People with impostor syndrome have trouble "internalizing competency." You can see the achievements on your resume, but you're emotionally disconnected from them. The story the resume tells and the story you tell yourself don't line up for you.
Let's learn why this happens and what you can do to fix it.
What is impostor syndrome?
Why do so many know-it-alls really know nothing, while so many smart people are unsure of themselves? It's a serious question. Bertrand Russell once said:
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
Psychologists found an answer: It's called the "Dunning-Kruger effect." Basically, inept people don't have enough experience to properly evaluate how little experience they have, so they think they're brilliant when they're not. (Think about the people at the beginning of every season on American Idol. Yup. Bingo.)
On the other hand, experienced people realize how often they've been wrong in the past and will sometimes second-guess themselves — even when they're right.
And tons of very successful people you're familiar with have voiced these feelings.
...the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.
I have written 11 books, but each time I think, "Uh-oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out."
At any time I still expect that the no-talent police will come and arrest me.
What's even more ironic is that not only do very talented people often have impostor syndrome, but they are actually less likely to really be dishonest. People with impostor syndrome turn out to be more honest than average.
In fact, people who identify with the impostor syndrome have proven to be less likely than non-impostors to engage in academic dishonesty such as plagiarism or cheating.
Some studies show it's equally common in males and females, but others have found it's much more prevalent among women. The term "impostor syndrome" was coined in a study of high-achieving women by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes.
Sandberg summed up a number of the studies showing women consistently underestimated themselves at work and school.
Via Lean In:
Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is. Assessments of students in a surgery rotation found that when asked to evaluate themselves, the female students gave themselves lower scores than the male students despite faculty evaluations that showed the women outperformed the men. A survey of several thousand potential political candidates revealed that despite having comparable credentials, the men were about 60 percent more likely to think that they were "very qualified" to run for political office. A study of close to one thousand Harvard law students found that in almost every category of skills relevant to practicing law, women gave themselves lower scores than men. Even worse, when women evaluate themselves in front of other people, or in stereotypically male domains, their underestimations can become even more pronounced.
Why might impostor syndrome be such an issue for women?
Because it's extremely common among anyone who feels like an outsider, like they don't belong.
…a whopping 85.7 percent of foreign-trained medical residents in Canada tested high for impostor feelings.
And when you're not an outsider, these effects often go away.
As researchers at Massachusetts Institute for Technology discovered, once the percentage of female students in a department rose above 15, women's academic performance improved. Girls who attend single-sex schools have higher career aspirations than both boys and girls at co-ed schools. Studies repeatedly show that if you attended a women's college, you are likely to have higher self-esteem and more intellectual self-confidence than your counterparts at co-ed institutions. The same is true for African-Americans who attend historically black colleges.
And reality can follow feelings; when you feel powerless, you actually perform worse on cognitive measures. Feeling marginalized actually (temporarily) makes you dumber.
And if you're in a situation where stereotypes say you shouldn't do well, you perform worse. Are girls worse at math than boys? They definitely are if you remind them that they're girls.
The simple inclusion of a check box for gender on a math test causes women to perform worse than men.
And this goes for men, too.
Men who were told that a test measured "social sensitivity," on which "men do worse than women," performed more poorly than those who were told the test measured "complex information processing." In the same scenario, women's performance did not differ.
(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
So when you're feeling like an outsider or are dealing with negative stereotypes about your abilities it can lead to impostor syndrome. But if you actually are performing well, why can't you accept it and break free? There's a reason.
The vicious circle
Studies show impostor syndrome is related to anxiety and intense fear of failure. So you race to keep up the facade,but when you work hard to make sure you're not found out, it only reinforces the impostor belief. You think: You fooled them again. But next time you might not be so lucky.
The fact that researchers have found a strong link between fear of failure and the impostor syndrome is hardly surprising. In one way or another you've spent your entire adult life trying to avoid stumbling. In the impostor world there is no such thing as constructive criticism — there is only condemnation. To not make the grade in some way only serves as more proof that you're a fraud. And to receive less-than-positive feedback from someone else — well, that just makes it official.
You keep working harder but never feel better. As Jim Carrey once said about his own impostor syndrome and subsequent hard work:
If I remain worthless in my own mind, I will be the king of show business.
Now not only are you feeling bad and overworking, but you're also alone. You can't tell anyone your "secret." You feel like you can't ask for help because you'll look incompetent.
In the end, it's exhausting. Working hard, afraid of being "found out," and not being able to turn to anyone is enormously stressful. Eventually you may see self-sabotage as the only way out.
(To learn how to stop worrying, click here.)
But there are ways to get over impostor syndrome. Here's how:
1. Focus on learning
People with impostor syndrome often think they're not smart enough. And they don't think they can get smarter. So they focus on performance goals like, How can I get that perfect score? instead of learning goals like, How can I improve?
Focusing on improvement means you know you're not perfect but you know you can get better. With that attitude, you can. And if you fail, hey, you learned something.
But focusing exclusively on performance goals means anything less than perfect is death. That's incredibly stressful and pushes you to do things that are extreme, unhealthy, and maybe unethical.
(To learn the neuroscience behind four rituals that can make you happy, click here.)
So if you're focused on learning, what should your goals be?
2. Aim for "good enough"
Microsoft software has bugs. And they know it. And that's okay. Valerie Young quotes James Bach as saying:
Microsoft begins every project with the certain knowledge that they will choose to ship [a software product] with known bugs.
If they tried to make it perfect, it would never be finished. Ever. So they focus on "good enough."
Just stop expecting yourself to remain in a constant state of extreme brilliance. Instead strive to feel comfortable with being fabulously adequate. The reality is, even the brightest and most talented among us spend the majority of their waking hours smack in the middle of the competency scale.
Instead of doing everything to keep up this illusion that you're perfect, accept that you're not. Don't build self-confidence, build self-compassion. Forgive yourself when you screw up.
Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem — but without the downsides.
(For more on how to build self-compassion, click here.)
Learning goals and "good enough" can help but they're not the silver bullet.
3. Take off the mask
At its essence, curing impostor syndrome is simple: Take off the mask. Don't be an impostor. John Churton Collins said:
If we knew each other's secrets, what comforts we should find.
The pressure, the pain, the discomfort all come from the secrecy. But, as we established, 70 percent of successful people have felt like this at one point and a substantial number are feeling it right now. So, remember, you are the majority. But the pain is caused by not talking to all the others who are just like you.
No, you don't have to email everyone at your company or school, subject line: I'M A FRAUD. No self-flagellation with a cat o' nine tails is necessary. You just need to tell someone how you're feeling.
You suffer in silence because you're silent.
A group therapy setting or an inter-actional group in which there are some other high-achieving women experiencing the impostor phenomenon is highly recommended. If one woman is willing to share her secret, others are able to share theirs … A group setting is also valuable because one woman can see the dynamics in another woman and recognize the lack of reality involved. Mary cannot believe that Jane thinks she is stupid. After all, Jane has a PhD from an outstanding university, is a respected professor, and is obviously bright. In a group setting, the ways in which an individual negates positive feedback and maintains her belief system emerge in clear relief and can be brought to the attention of the client.
It doesn't have to be a therapy session. It can just be a chat:
A particularly effective tactic is talking to other people. "We can't peer into the minds of others and see that, 'Wait a minute, everyone else is also just as mystified!'" says Justin Kruger, a professor at New York University Stern School of Business. So people need to make the effort to discuss their performance with their peers. When you discover that the people you admire (or fear) sometimes worry about their own achievements, it can give you perspective on your own anxieties."
Talk to someone you suspect may be dealing with or may have dealt with impostor syndrome. Someone that can relate. When you share your feelings, three things happen:
- You're not an impostor anymore. You're not faking it. You took off the mask.
- You'll hear that someone else has felt this way too. You're not alone. And it doesn't need to be hidden.
And most importantly:
- They get to look you in the eye and tell you just how insane you sound. Now if it stopped there, you might be able to dismiss it: they're just being nice. But the best part of it is this person that you respect is going to tell you how they've felt like a fraud and then you're going to tell them how insane they sound. And then you're going to realize: Hey, uh, do I sound as crazy as they do when I say I'm a fraud? Yes. Yes, you do.
And that's how the spell is broken.
(To learn the lazy way to be awesome at life, click here.)
It may not happen immediately, but sharing with someone else and realizing how common this is is a huge first step.
Still think you're alone? Two hundred thousand people get my weekly newsletter. That's a lot of people. You don't think I've said to myself: I'm writing this in my underwear while drinking cold coffee. Why in the world would anyone take me seriously?
So, no, you're not alone.
Now let's round this up and take the vital first step toward curing impostor syndrome.
Here's how to overcome impostor syndrome:
- Focus on learning: Forget appearing awesome. You can get better if you try, so focus on that.
- "Good enough" goals: Stop trying to be prefect. (Yes, that was a typo. I'm not fixing it. It's good enough.)
- Take off the mask: Talk to someone you think is facing the same issue. You're not alone.
As Neil Gaiman said:
The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That is the moment you might be starting to get it right.
So what's the best first step?
Schedule an unmasking. Right now. Send an email to someone you think will understand and set a time to sit down and talk.
We all wear masks every now and then. It's part of life. But from now on, if you're going to wear one, don't do it because you're an impostor — do it because you're a superhero.
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