“It’s just so good to have a name for what I’ve been experiencing,” Annette told me recently.1
Annette came into coaching to help launch her new consulting business. What she discovered along the way is that she suffers from Imposter Syndrome (IS), a term coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s.
These researchers found that despite ample external evidence of achievement, some people suffer from pervasive feelings of self-doubt and are unable to internalize their accomplishments. It can leave them feeling less competent or intelligent than other people think they are and paralyzed from moving forward.
Feeling Less Intelligent or Competent Than Others Think I Am
People with IS are sure they don’t deserve their success; They feel like frauds, and they live in fear of being found out. This can happen to the brightest and best among us.
An experienced physician, despite excellent performance reviews, is riddled with anxiety, “knowing” she’s not really qualified. A world-renowned author of 11 bestsellers can’t enjoy her success, convinced she’s just been lucky. A corporate executive works more hours than anyone else, unable to delegate or leave anything to chance, yet is never satisfied that she’s done enough.
These smart, capable people suffer from lousy thought habits that impact even high achievers. Left unchallenged, the syndrome traps its victims in low self-esteem, rendering them incapable of reaching their true potential.
Left Unchallenged, IS Disrupts Your True Potential
For Annette, the constant second-guessing of her abilities led to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. To escape the discomfort, she resorted to comfort foods and other distractions. She found herself in a downward spiral of unhealthy thought patterns and coping mechanisms that included sugar cravings, binge-watching television, and over-sleeping.
“I think I’m depressed,” she ultimately admitted. “I just can’t get going and stay focused.”
Imposter Syndrome had done a number on Annette, leading her to believe that, despite plenty of evidence that she is creative, intelligent, and a hard worker, no one would take her seriously in her new role as a consultant.
Annette is not alone.
Prevalent Among High Achievers
First thought to be more prevalent among women, further research indicates that about 40 percent of all high achievers, regardless of gender, suffer from the syndrome, and 70 percent of all people will be affected at some point in their careers. The syndrome affects people of all ages, races, and occupations, and it impacts men and women in roughly equal numbers. In another example, a 2018 study of medical students found that 60 percent suffered from severe or very severe symptoms.
A study by the University of Salzburg found those experiencing IS were paid less, promoted less frequently, and were less satisfied in their work. IS has also been associated with burnout and turnover.
Common Signs and Symptoms
While Imposter Syndrome is not recognized as a clinical diagnosis, it has been getting greater attention in recent years. That attention is helping those who suffer to find a way out.
In fact, the moment I mentioned to Annette that Imposter Syndrome might be why she was having so much trouble moving forward, she felt immediate relief that she was not alone in experiencing the following common signs and symptoms:
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Fear of failure
- Never feeling good enough
- Lack of confidence
- Discounting personal achievements and accomplishments
- Negative self-talk
- Feeling defective or inadequate
- Unable to let go of past failures or mistakes
- Fear of being exposed as a fraud
While these symptoms can seem to come out of the blue, the syndrome is believed to have its roots in childhood. A triggering event in adulthood may bring on the symptoms.
Causes and Contributing Factors
If you were raised in a home where high standards of achievement were expected, or where praise was withheld unless perfection was reached, you are a candidate.
If you were raised by a perfectionistic parent with their own set of impossibly high standards, even well-intentioned criticism (“That was a good effort, Honey, but I know you’re capable of so much more,”) could lead to feeling never quite good enough.
Some experts think social media contributes to feelings of inadequacy. We measure our reality – warts and all – against the photo-shopped perfection of carefully-crafted images displayed by our friends and colleagues.
A Triggering Event May Bring On Symptoms
The syndrome may lay dormant until a triggering event brings it to the surface, such as entering a new role, like Annette who’s starting a business, or entering college or a graduate program.
Simply feeling ignored or disrespected in a team meeting could trigger feelings of inadequacy and the spiraling, looping thoughts of self-doubt and isolation that are the hallmarks of Imposter Syndrome.
Another trigger might be a human mistake or actual job failure. For a candidate of IS, the impact can be devastating.
Annette is an example. She has impressive industry experience as a financial analyst. Unfortunately, early in her career, she was fired from a job by an unscrupulous employer. And although she was advised that she had a wrongful termination case, she couldn’t see beyond her own failure. She was traumatized with shame.
Now that she’s starting her own consulting business, crippling self-doubt has set in.
Whatever the cause, if you think you’re an imposter and in danger of being found out as a fraud or you’re scared that you’re not as smart as other people are expecting you to be, the problem is in the thinking patterns that have become normalized for you over time.
Your Brain Scans for Negative Evidence
Perhaps without even realizing it, you’ve established well-ingrained habits of toxic thought. Over time and subtly, you’ve discounted everything positive about yourself and your accomplishments and instead have focused on any possible evidence that you are inadequate.
In other words, you’ve trained your brain to scan for negative evidence, and your brain is happy to comply. That’s what our brains do. They help us “prove” our thoughts by scanning for evidence that what you think is true, actually is.
For example, if you have an underlying thought that you are not as smart and capable as everyone thinks you are, your brain will build a body of evidence to support that thought.
So let’s say you were a day late in paying a bill. Your brain will offer that up as evidence that you are an irresponsible human being. A healthier and non-toxic thought would be to simply acknowledge that you had made a mistake and corrected it as soon as possible, which is what successful, responsible people do.
But that’s not what your brain is scanning for. It’s looking for evidence that you are not very smart or capable. So it discounts anything positive.
Later that day, you trip over a rug. Your brain says, “See, you’re an idiot,” as opposed to thinking how successfully agile you are that you caught yourself and didn’t break your neck.
A few hours later, a co-worker rushes past you in the hall and doesn’t say hello. Your brain offers up thoughts that she doesn’t think much of you or that she’s discovered that you’ve done something stupid. A non-toxic thought would guess she was having a bad day or was late to an appointment, but that’s not the mission your brain is on. It’s looking for the negative.
Your brain will continue to gather evidence that you are an incapable, unsuccessful person until you interrupt the thought pattern.
If You Think Toxic Thoughts, You’ll Feel Toxic Emotions
Meanwhile, thoughts lead to emotions. And if you’re thinking you’re a screw-up, what kind of emotions are you going to be feeling?
Bad ones! Thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to actions.
This is the downward spiral Annette was experiencing. Her thoughts, left unchallenged, led to feelings of depression and fear that no one would take her seriously and that her new business would never get off the ground.
That fear led to actions of escape – overeating, wasting time, and numbing the pain however she could. Fearing failure, she rationalized herself into never stepping forward.
The results were that she postponed her business launch and felt more and more inadequate to the task. Thoughts lead to emotions and emotions lead to actions.
So what’s the answer? How do you begin to step out of the thinking patterns that hold you in bondage? You’re going to have to “do battle” with some deeply ingrained beliefs about yourself.
Six Steps Out of Imposter Syndrome
When I coach someone with Imposter Syndrome, we spend time talking about the signs and symptoms they are experiencing and how these are interfering. Often, the costs are high. Then, we take the following important steps.
1. Get Out of Isolation
Talk about what you are experiencing and learn more about Imposter Syndrome. This can offer almost immediate stress relief from irrational fears. You are not alone.
2. Identify Your Achievements
Write an actual list of your accomplishments, achievements, and “wins” on paper. This begins your work in retraining your brain to find evidence of your competence. Post the list and refer to it daily.
3. Practice Gratitude
It may feel counterintuitive, but if you are suffering from Imposter Syndrome, it means you have already achieved a degree of success, even though you attribute it to luck or feel fraudulent about it. Lean into your accomplishments by acknowledging that they are something to be thankful for.
4. Identify Toxic Thoughts
This may take some time, but it is vitally important as you begin to rewire your thought patterns. You can start by identifying your feelings and simply asking, “What must I be thinking to feel this way?”
5. Interrupt Negative Thinking
I have several tools to help you take advantage of neuroplasticity and your brain’s ability to change. One of them, The STEER Method, is available in my free gift on my website. Get it here.
6. Practice Baby Steps
Celebrate progress rather than demanding perfection from yourself. Again, you are building a body of evidence that proves you are a responsible, capable, intelligent human being. This takes practice.
Does Any of This Sound Familiar?
Don’t let Imposter Syndrome steal another day of your life. Invest in yourself and your own mental and emotional well-being. If you are in emotional crisis, seek a mental health professional immediately. But if you are ready to step out of Imposter Syndrome and into a more productive and peaceful mindset, consider coaching. Take a baby step right now and learn more here.
1Name and identifying details changed for confidentiality.