How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
Impostor Syndrome is a term that describes high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. That’s at least the definition that pops up whenever you Google it. But let’s go beyond the definition for a bit and break down what it means to be “high-achieving.”
Do you have to have millions of dollars in the bank? Fame? The respect of your peers? Perhaps a combination of all three? Of course, you can have Impostor Syndrome for much smaller achievements as well. It just depends where your self-worth is when you taste an achievement you can be proud of for the first time.
Wherever you are at in the cycle, you can — and must — overcome it if achievement is to become the rule rather than the exception. Here are some tips for how to do it.
1. Look forward instead of back
Handling Impostor Syndrome, like all complex human emotions, requires a certain degree of balance. You don’t want to be so forward-thinking that you miss opportunities in the present, and you don’t want to be so backlogged that you constantly live on the achievements of yesterday.
When it comes to the past, people have a tendency to second-guess themselves to death. They analyze and over-analyze until they believe every single thing they accomplished was the result of a freak accident. “I got lucky,” you hear them say with a sheepish, downtrodden look illustrating someone who doesn’t know how to take credit or a compliment.
Worse, by looking so much at the past, you tend to see yourself as that green, inexperienced person and completely gloss over what you have accomplished. Try to keep your focus on what is to come, not on what has already been. In that same regard …
2. Focus on the next step
Not “goal.” A goal is a desired outcome, but not an action. You can achieve a goal through a series of actions. And when you take a step, you are taking action. So don’t get too hung up on the big picture. Be mindful of it, but realize that by inching forward, you are making progress that wasn’t there prior to taking said step.
When you take enough steps, one-at-a-time, you will be shocked at how quickly a lot of progress is made.
3. Try to see 3-5 moves ahead
It may sound hypocritical telling you to focus on the next step only while also trying to see three to five moves ahead, but it’s really not. The best way to explain this necessary coexistence is to point you towards defensive driving suggestions.
To avoid accidents, you have to become a defensive driver. That means having a firm command over your own actions behind the wheel, but also anticipating what the other drivers around you are going to do.
Unfortunately, we live in an age of distracted driving, where you may be the only person paying attention to what other motorists in your vicinity are doing. So long as you are, you will avoid most accidents and enjoy the benefits of safety, an un-dented car, and low insurance rates.
Similarly, if you wish to avoid Impostor Syndrome taking over your life, you need to eye what is on the horizon. Focus on the next step, but have a sense of the next few steps you will have to take afterward. Being mindful of these “coming attractions” will help sharpen your immediate actions and give you a real sense of where you’re going.
4. Break down your success
Whenever you do enjoy a success of some sort, don’t just chalk it up to fate or luck. Sure, there will be some of that in your life. There is in every life of the average healthy person. But you have more to do with your successes than you realize.
When you sit down with pen-and-paper before you, the mindset of breaking broad strokes into specifics at the front of your brain, and ask the simple question, “How, specifically, did this good thing come to pass?,” you will realize your success had as much, and likely more, “nurture” to it than nature.
5. Be thankful to others
What does being thankful have to do with conquering Impostor Syndrome? Quite a lot actually. When you achieve a success of any remarkable kind, it usually occurs because you had a wealth of support that guided you to that moment.
If you’re a superstar quarterback on the football team, you have your coach and your offensive line to thank. If you got an A on the chemistry test, it’s because your teacher explained it to you in a way that connected.
When you can demonstrate thankfulness to these helper individuals, you not only validate what you’ve accomplished, but you also endear yourself to those people and enhance those relationships.
And what you will find as you head out into the world is this: relationships equal revenues. The better relationships that you are able to make in a given field, the more opportunity will find you instead of you having to chase around after it.
6. Be You
Another tip for overcoming Impostor Syndrome is to be yourself. The more comfortable you get in your own skin, the more you will realize that you are a capable individual and that the successes of past and present had as much to do with the guy or girl in the mirror as it did anything else.
Yes, you are capable of screwing something up. We all are. But that does not invalidate you and what you are capable of as a person.
7. Find the faults of someone you admire
This drill is not meant to be mean-spirited. You don’t need to go around telling your friends, family, and role models that a) I am observing you closely, and b) here is what’s wrong with you.
It’s just about observation. No one is perfect. Everyone has flaws. You may not see those faults in your boyfriend, girlfriend, or favorite teacher at first. But if you make an effort to observe, the foibles and insecurities will reveal themselves in due time.
The process is really expedited when you’re looking. So observe, observe, observe. Then, allow your brain to come to the natural conclusion that yes, these people are flawed, but they are still wonderful, capable, and brilliant (like you).
8. Call out Impostor Syndrome by name when you recognize it
Knowing the name for something and calling it out when you see it — both in others and yourself — goes a long way in being able to conquer it. Rather than thinking you are so unique that you are the only one who ever experiences Impostor Syndrome, notice the symptoms and how it manifests.
As it comes to you, say it to yourself. Not in your head. Mouth the words: “This is Impostor Syndrome.” What will happen next? Usually it will evaporate and break the mental hold it has on you, allowing for a deeper state of focus on the task(s) ahead.
9. Know that being wrong does not mean you are fake
A lot of what drives Impostor Syndrome is the unreasonable fear that if anyone notices you were wrong about something you will automatically be discredited and turned into a fake or phony.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Every single person, from world leaders to the most brilliant scientific minds, have tested policies and theories that didn’t work. Those failures did not necessarily make them phonies. They have still contributed much to the state of our society and will continue to do so long after they’re gone.
Knowing how other brilliant people have been wrong in the past will allow you to come to terms with your own tendencies toward failure. Roll up the sleeves. Get your hands dirty. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to be wrong.
People have way shorter attention spans for that sort of thing nowadays, and that makes it much easier to put stuff behind you.
10. Go back in time to an idol’s first major achievement
All of your major idols in life started somewhere. They either rose out of ashes or they had to learn to stay relevant in a society that was passing by their inborn privileges.
In each case, there should be a turning point — a moment when they had to look in the mirror and determine what was next. This realization often comes in the form of achievement or a “first big break.” Find what that is, then go back a little further to where they were in the buildup to that achievement.
Did they do anything to push it along? Did it just fall out of the sky? Was it a combination of the two? What actions did they take to influence their luck? When you do this thought exercise, it’s easier to see that these people were once like you. And if they were and they achieved, then there is no reason you can’t either.
11. Get real with your own mortality
Life is short. People die. You will die someday. So will yours truly. It’s inevitable, and it can either be scary as hell or it can light a fuse under you to say, “Tomorrow is your only guarantee. What are you going to do with it?”
When you see each day as a gift, you tend not to waste the moments in work, in life, in love.
12. Write stream-of-conscious style
Call it a bias, but writing helps everyone who dares to do it. Stream-of-consciousness is a style of writing in which you just start scrawling or typing anything you can think of. It does not have to make immediate sense, and it can take you to some pretty weird (but wonderful) places.
Try to set your timer for about 15 minutes a day, and tell yourself ahead of time that you are not allowed to stop writing the entire length. If you can’t think of anything to write, then just use a stupid filler phrase over and over until some real meaty thoughts ease in to the conversation.
What’s a filler thought? What is in your head this instant? Write it down. Then, write it down again and again and again until your brain has had enough and kicks into intelligent thought.
13. Take action
Consider yourself Indiana Jones. Mr. Action. Always be taking it and seeing where it takes you. You’re not always going to take the right actions. Some are going to get you into sticky situations. But by refusing to stand by and let others do it, you’re accepting the responsibility of living your life on your terms.
14. Stop thinking of yourself as static
You are not static. That is, you are not the same today as you were 10 or five or even on year(s) ago. Your situation, circumstances, living arrangements, and thought processes have all undergone some type of metamorphosis.
So why are you still looking at yourself as that same timid guy or girl, who just knew they couldn’t do anything resembling what you just accomplished that gave you the Impostor Syndrome?
Grant yourself the leeway to mature. To be tempered. To emerge as someone more capable of accomplishing what lay before you.
15. Realize: for every Stephen Hawking, there is an Albert Einstein
Stephen Hawking has a list of educational credentials and accomplishments a mile long. He has attended and taught at one of the top schools in the world. His opinions are constantly scrutinized by the media and often taken as gospel. A high school dropout looking at Hawking probably doesn’t think he has much of a chance of making it in the world.
But then there is Albert Einstein — quite possibly the greatest scientist to ever live, and he dropped out of high school. Hawking and Einstein are not exceptional. No matter which field you’re looking to get in to, there is an inverse example that proves you don’t have to have a mile-long list of credentials to be successful.
16. Fake it till you make it
Countless studies have shown that your attitude towards something can influence the reality of it. If you act like you are happy, then yes, it is possible that you will become happy even if you’re feeling a little down in the dumps today.
While it may seem disingenuous to say, you should be willing to fake it till you make it. It’s simply a matter of visualizing the change you want in your life so it can start to take shape.
Impostor Syndrome isn’t something you want hanging around in your life, but it is actually a good thing in one sense. When it comes, it generally comes as a result of you making some great improvement. Let it come, but be ready to call it out and fight back with the tips presented here. Do you have a problem with Impostor Syndrome? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.
[Featured Image by StartUp Bros]