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“I have written eleven books,” Maya Angelou once said, “but each time, I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
As an outsider looking in, it’s easy to see that Maya Angelou is one of the most celebrated authors in history. Yet, she struggled with self-doubt that nagged at her despite her achievements. She isn’t alone in this either.
Research published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science indicates as much as 70% of the population has similar feelings. It doesn’t matter how much the person has achieved or how the external world views them. The “impostor” feels their accomplishments are the result of luck, accident, or perhaps other people believing they’re more capable than they really are, as was the case with Angelou.
Early research on the phenomenon focused on women and for some time it was believed that this was something women primarily dealt with. However, newer studies suggest it’s universal.
“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease,” Albert Einstein once explained. “I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
And while what’s been coined as “imposter syndrome” may not discriminate, its prevalence tends to increase in underrepresented and disadvantaged groups.
See it for what it is.
Most people who experience thoughts like Angelou and Einstein don’t actively view themselves as imposters but can identify with their sentiments. If you:
- Cringe when praised because you fear it sets the bar too high
- Worry that people will discover you’re not as competent or as capable as they think
- Feel like the good things in your life have come to you by accident, error, or luck
- Become frustrated because you’re not meeting your own standards for perfection
You might be experiencing impostor syndrome too.
Let it go.
Once you identify these self-defeating thought processes, pause when the thoughts come and reflect on them for a moment—not in terms of whether they’re valid—but whether they’re helpful. From there, you can choose to logically debunk it, let it go with one big exhale, or see if you can reframe it into something more constructive. For example, if you’re dreading your review because you’re certain your boss has suddenly discovered you’re not capable despite a brilliant track record, consider whether you might be able to take the information you learn from the review and funnel it into a self-development project.
Because there is no singular cause of impostor syndrome, there is no single way to address it either. Experiment with what works best for you.
Talk with a friend or mentor.
Interestingly, reassurance, even from trusted sources, doesn’t combat impostor syndrome. That’s because there’s a disconnect between what really is normal and what people perceive as normal. For example, if you’re surrounded by high-achieving people, then the perception becomes that all people are high achievers. If we don’t see the people around us struggle, then the perception becomes that they don’t. This concept is referred to as pluralistic ignorance.
That in mind, discussions that tear down pluralistic ignorance can be effective. So, instead of pointing out the accomplishments of a friend who feels like a fraud, it’s better to share your own experiences with imposter syndrome. Equally, if you’re trying to change your own thought processes, ask those you trust if they experience the same thoughts too.
Reach out for help if you need it.
“Impostor syndrome” sounds like an illness but it’s not. However, there are strong links between it and issues like stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout. Simply put, those who don’t believe they’re smart enough or good enough despite their achievements all too often push themselves even harder to come out on top, but nobody can push forever. If you feel like you’re not getting relief from your imposter thoughts, you start to notice bothersome symptoms alongside them, or it’s impacting your health and life, reach out to a counselor or therapist who can arm you with the tools you need to put your impostor syndrome to rest.
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