Everyone’s felt it at some point in their professional life: “I’m a fraud and everyone is about to find out.” This feeling is called Impostor Syndrome, and it’s marked by a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fake” and an inability to internalize accomplishments. Common symptoms include worrying that your success in life has been the result of some error, and thinking that everyone around you is more intelligent than you.
High achievers are particularly susceptible to doubting themselves and feeling undeserving of the recognition they receive. Best-selling author Seth Godin wrote in The Icarus Deception that after a dozen best sellers he still feels like a fraud all the time. Similarly, author Neil Gaiman has said that even after his first few books were published — and some landed on the bestseller list — he still harbored nightmares about someone showing up at his door and telling him he didn’t deserve to write every day instead of having a “proper job.”
This phenomenon certainly isn’t confined to high-achieving men. Talk to any professionally accomplished woman, and you’ll nearly always hear that she has struggled with impostor syndrome at some point (and maybe still currently does). This is true even of people at intimidatingly high levels — Sheryl Sandberg, Tina Fey, Sonia Sotomayor, Meryl Streep, and loads of other highly accomplished women all have spoken publicly about grappling with it:
- Tina Fey once confessedthat she sometimes screams inside her head, “I’m a fraud! They’re on to me!”
- Sheryl Sandbergattended a Harvard University speech called “Feeling Like a Fraud” and decided they were speaking directly to her—she’d fooled them all.
- Sonia Sotomayorwas “too embarrassed” to ask questions while at Princeton University, and said, “I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”
- Meryl Streep gets “cold feet” before every new project and told a reporter in 2002, “I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
- Margaret Chan, former Chief of the World Health Organization, said, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”
The problem with impostorism isn’t simply psychological discomfort: It can lead directly to failure. Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy writes that impostorism causes us to self-criticize constantly, to “choke at the worst possible moments, [and to] disengage — thereby virtually ensuring that we will underperform at the very things we do best and love most.”
Unfortunately, achievements don’t necessarily alleviate impostorism. In fact, Cuddy says, they may just make the experience worse, because you have new opportunities to feel like you don’t deserve your success. While there’s no magic cure for impostor syndrome, here are some tips for moving forward when you’re caught in the throes of self-doubt:
- Force yourself to look at the evidence.First, what are the goals for your position? Are you meeting them? Exceeding them? If so, that’s pretty compelling evidence that you’re in fact equipped to do what you’ve been hired to do. Second, what do your boss and others say about your work? If you’re getting lots of praise and you allow yourself to believe it, what conclusions would you draw? And if you don’t quite believe it, why not? Have you seen evidence that your boss pulls punches, or is he/she generally candid with people? If your boss usually addresses problems with people when needed, assume that he/she would address them with you too (if there were any), and that you can believe what your boss is telling you about your work.
If that doesn’t convince you, then ask yourself this: Why are you giving your self-doubt more weight and more credibility than the opinions of your boss and your colleagues? You’re dismissing their assessment as if they must not know any better. But they’re probably reasonably smart people who know what they’re talking about and aren’t being fooled by you.
- Ask for feedback.If you’re not already getting regular feedback from your boss outside of things like formal performance reviews, you can ask for more. And if the feedback you do get is primarily praise, you can ask your boss to talk to you about where you could work on doing better — which, if your boss doesn’t have any big things to suggest you change, can help you realize you’re doing perfectly well. It’s reasonable to say something like, “I really value critical feedback, and I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts on ways I could be more effective.” If your boss doesn’t come up with any particularly helpful input on how you could improve, a good question to draw it out of him/her is, “If I were going to focus on improving in one area, what would you say would benefit me most?”
Or you might find it more effective to ask for feedback on specific pieces of work, especially when you’re feeling particularly shaky about something. For example, you could say, “I’m not sure how well I presented that idea in the meeting — is there a different way I could have approached it?” Or, “Could we talk through how Project X went? I’d love to get your thoughts on where I could improve that process for the future.”
- Fake it.How would you act if you did feel confident in your job and believed you deserved to be there? Start acting like that now, even if it feels insincere. Weirdly, doing this has a way of making it start to feel real over time.
- Embrace what you don’t know or when you get something wrong.There’s going to be plenty you don’t know at work and sometimes you’re going to make mistakes — because you’re a normal human, not because you’re terrible at your job. But impostor syndrome can make you feel like the occasional mistake or lack of knowledge is evidence that you don’t belong where you are.
Interestingly, openly acknowledging when you don’t know something or when you messed up will actually make people see you as more confident and credible. There’s real strength in calmly saying, “I don’t have a good understanding of X — can you walk me through it?” or “I really messed this up — can we talk about how I should have approached it?” If you’re confident in what you do contribute, you won’t feel like you need to hide the places where you’re not as strong. (And again, this is where faking it until it’s real can help.)
Plus, openly identifying the places where you’re not as strong — and seeking out information from others to rectify that — will make you better and better at your job over time. So, seen that way, one could argue that you should even be excited to find gaps in your knowledge, since that gives you a chance to build your knowledge.
- If all else fails, resolve to stop thinking about it for now.This might be easier said than done, but there’s something to be said for just focusing on your work, and not dwelling so much on whether you deserve to be there. At some point, enough evidence will have accumulated that you aren’t a fraud that it’ll be easier for you to accept — but until then, you might as well not agonize over it.