What Makes Imposter Syndrome So Frightening? Three Ways to Help You Cope

It amazes me how many talented people say they have imposter syndrome. Recently, I’ve been hearing about this in both coaching calls and social situations. It bothers me because the term has become a catchall for not feeling worthy or good enough, yet it’s the kind of shorthand that leaves no room for people to help themselves feel or perform better

Do you think of yourself as suffering from imposter syndrome? If so, let’s take that apart and look at what happens when people apply the term to themselves. By labeling themselves as imposters, they categorize themselves as being anything from unprepared to undeserving. Plus, they make it harder to see how they could realistically fit into whatever group or situation is scaring them.

Whether they’re new vice presidents or experts in their fields, the people who’ve complained to me recently about imposter syndrome seem more concerned about not belonging to a group they want to join or are expected to be part of than they do about the likelihood that they might screw up their actual work. If you feel similarly, here are three ways to address your own concerns about imposter syndrome.

Reframe: Once you label yourself as an outsider or interloper, you’re effectively judging yourself as not having a chance, and you’re more likely to play out that belief. Essentially, you’re writing yourself off, which may separate you even further from others. Instead of looking for concrete ways to feel more comfortable or better accepted, you’ve been holding rigid assumptions about other people without really knowing what anyone else thinks—or how they got to where they are. Not only are you eliminating the possibility of learning from the other people involved, but you’re mentally reenforcing both the distances and the differences you feel, making it more likely that others will think you don’t want to belong. 

Rather than miring yourself in the belief that you don’t belong or that you’re not as worthwhile or deserving as others, recognize that you’re experiencing self-doubt. And self-doubt can be useful. First of all, it involves you questioning yourself rather than assuming that others are judging you negatively—so much more is within your control. Second, by doubting yourself, you’re asserting something you have rather than something you are, so you can more easily work on whatever you find. 

Once you acknowledge your self-doubt, you can actively seek alternative ways to shore yourself up, like focusing on what you might need to learn, asking people who know you well for reassurance, or even bringing a supportive colleague along to an event or meeting when you feel less confident.

Assess: Get curious! Question your beliefs about yourself and your possibilities for improvement, including how to be more clear-headed about the other people to whom you are ascribing so much superiority. Here are some questions you might ask yourself: What makes me feel like I have to be the same as the others, or at the same level? Am I trying to pass myself off as someone I’m not, and therefore feeling inauthentic? Or do I merely have less experience or a lesser public reputation than the other folks here? What would be reasonable to expect of someone else in my position? What strengths and benefits do I bring to this situation—and could I add to those? 

You might also identify the skills you need to strengthen. Do you need some network outreach or introductions from a trusted intermediary? Maybe all you need is more confidence. How have others handled this situation? Who can you partner with to learn more or practice? Who can explain the “lay of the land” or cultural norms? Can you get yourself a mentor, sponsor, or coach who will help you add to your resources or capabilities? 

Above all, check on yourself: Question whether that this role, group, or activity is really something you want.

Assert: Once you’ve reframed the situation to recognize that your so-called imposter syndrome has more to do with your not feeling comfortable with yourself rather than with others, and you’ve assessed what you truly care about in the situation, you can plan your path for moving forward. Remember, when people say, “Fake it till you make it,” the faking part is only temporary. The whole point is to grow into yourself and learn what you need to be successful over time. Embed the assumption that there will be a path to making it. Think in terms of growth mindset: “If I’m willing to work at this, I will get better. What small things can I try to build my skills and confidence?”

Instead of obsessing about not being ready today, focus on what it would take for you to get there. If you’re struggling with a new job or role but you’re not yet up to speed, find ways to demonstrate your willingness to step up. If you’re trying to break into a group that feels out of reach, think about what you can offer that will benefit the people you admire. The bottom line is this: Think a little less about yourself and a bit more about the impact you’d like to have—and then figure out what steps you can take to make that impact tangible.

Onward and upward—

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