Do you ever feel like a fraud? Like you're not qualified to do the job you've been given, and that someone is going to find out and fire you at any moment? If so, you're not alone. Many successful people suffer from imposter syndrome, a feeling of self-doubt and insecurity that causes them to question their abilities. This article explores the hidden truth about imposter syndrome and what successful people don't tell you about it.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a term used to describe the feeling of self-doubt and insecurity that causes people to question their own abilities. It's estimated that up to 80% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, and it can be particularly common among high achievers.
People with imposter syndrome often feel like their success is due to luck and, in fact, they're not really qualified for the jobs they've been given. They constantly worry that someone is going to find out what they're really worth. They may also feel like a fraud or like they're just pretending to be successful.
This sense of self-doubt can lead to a number of problems, including anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, and even depression. It can even lead to job dissatisfaction and career stagnation in some cases.
"At its heart, the imposter syndrome refers to people who have a persistent belief in their lack of intelligence, skills or confidence."
-Valerie Young, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women
Some of the most successful people suffer from imposter syndrome
The dirty little secret that many successful people won't tell you is that they too suffer from imposter syndrome. And sometimes, no amount of success will make it go away.
In the public's eye, they are confident and competent. They've achieved success. But there is another side, a deep inner turmoil. Even though they are successful, they don't feel successful and suffer from feelings of self-doubt.
"Somewhere, deep inside, you don't believe what they say. You think it's a matter of time before you stumble and 'they' discover the truth. You're not supposed to be here. We know you couldn't do it. We should have never taken a chance on you."
- Jayce Roche, the former president and CEO of Girls Inc.
"I experienced feelings of extreme imposter syndrome when I got accepted into RISD—a highly competitive art school. Instead of feeling proud, I felt worried. Like they made a mistake. Even after I graduated, I still couldn't shake the feeling that somehow, I hadn't really earned a proper master's degree, and I had cheated the system," says Jess.
That's what successful people suffering from imposter syndrome do. They explain away or minimize their accomplishments and success. They might say things like, "I was lucky" or "I had a lot of connections." They fail to own their accomplishments and live in fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Unfortunately, there isn't a secret success threshold that, once achieved, guarantees that you won't feel like an imposter. It doesn't matter if you are a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, an award-winning author, or an Instagram influencer with 1 million followers; achieving high levels of success won't always make imposter syndrome go away. It takes self-awareness and a commitment to exposing false beliefs about your inadequacy.
Where does imposter syndrome come from?
According to Valerie Young, imposter syndrome doesn't happen in a vacuum. Here are 6 reasons why you might feel like an imposter:
- You were raised by humans. Yes, it's true. And humans are fallible. Early childhood messages about achievement, success and failure run deep. You can't change the past, but you can shape your future.
- You are surrounded by successful people. This is a double-edged sword. Maybe you've heard the adage that "you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with so make sure to surround yourself with successful people." However, when you're only surrounded by extremely successful, smart, and talented people, it's easier to assume that everyone is more intelligent and better than you.
- You work or study in a culture that feeds self-doubt. I felt this to be especially true during my career in architecture and design where rigorous debate was the norm. The process of presenting your design concepts is called a 'critique.' In architecture, you present your ideas to a 'jury' to be judged. These are obvious examples, but you also experience it in the business world where there is no shortage of competition and infighting to get ahead.
- You work alone. With remote working becoming the norm, this has become a much bigger issue than previous times. When you work alone, you don't have someone to bounce your ideas off of, making it easier to second-guess yourself.
- You feel like an outsider. If you work in an environment that doesn't support your culture or values, it can be very hard to feel like you belong. You literally do have to fake it to fit in.
- You represent your entire social group. Valerie Young discusses this a lot in her book. For example, if you are a woman and you fail, it feels like more than just a personal failure. It's not "I don't have what it takes," it's "women don't have what it takes." That's a lot of pressure to be responsible for the image of an entire population!
It's important to recognize that imposter syndrome stems from very real experiences. Use that understanding to gain some perspective and not take it so personally.
The good news and the bad news about imposter syndrome
The bad news about imposter syndrome is that you may never get rid of it completely. The good news is that you don't have to banish it completely to feel confident and successful.
Confidence in yourself and your abilities is a practice. With the right mindset and strategies, you can quiet your imposter syndrome.
So now what? Imposter syndrome doesn't have to hold you back from achieving your goals. If you're struggling with these feelings, read How to overcome imposter syndrome and stop second-guessing yourself.