“I’m not good enough for this job.” “They made a mistake hiring me.” “I have no idea what I’m doing.” “I’m terrified people will find out I don’t belong here.” Such is the mind of someone suffering from imposter syndrome. Overcoming imposter syndrome is an exhausting mental task, but it can be done!
What is Imposter Syndrome?
The definition of imposter syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. Studies suggest that more than 70% of people have imposter syndrome at some point in their career. So it’s safe to say that when your fear of failure sets in, you’re in good company. The good news is that overcoming imposter syndrome isn’t impossible. First, you only need to understand it.
What’s Imposter Syndrome Anxiety?
Imposter syndrome anxiety fuels a cycle of over-preparation or procrastination. Even positive outcomes have no effect on a person’s perception of personal success. Achievements gained through hard work is (falsely) interpreted as luck and not a matter of ability.
This way of thinking gets in the way of work or school. It also affects job hunters, who generally suffer from lower confidence because of the rejection and success cycle that comes with searching for a job. (Fortunately, we have lots of tips and tricks to help you with your resume and cover letter to help on your job-hunting and self-discovery journey!)
What Imposter Syndrome Looks Like
Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realize that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
The man Neil Gaiman spoke to was Neil Armstrong. Like many of us, both the first man on the moon and the world-renowned author felt like imposters: out of their depths and like someone had made a mistake by attributing their efforts to their objective successes.
So, what we can do to build our self-esteem and recognize, “Oh yeah—I totally got this!”? Continue reading for tips on how to conquer imposter syndrome.
1. Review your accomplishments and how far you’ve come
Take a few minutes to sit down with a blank sheet of paper. Thinking as broadly as you can, start listing your accomplishments. Some people find it helps to start by mapping their path like rivers or roads, with many branches and dead ends. These paths might include any competitions or tests you did well in, classes or school trips that helped widen your gaze, as well as side projects you've taken on in the past.
Reflect on the jobs you’ve done so far. Which responsibilities did you knock out of the park? What project did you work on that was a formidable challenge with pleasant results? Highlight achievements you’re proud of that are as big or as small as you like.
Here are some more questions to reflect on as you write down all you’ve done so far:
- What are some things you’ve achieved in your career?
- What praise do you remember receiving from coworkers?
- Did you get a promotion you were working for?
- What are some mistakes or hardships you overcame on the job?
- When was the last time a failure at work opened up a door for you?
- Have you secured a position you had been longing for?
- How many times did you start a new job feeling insecure only to have all the responsibilities down in 6 months?
And let’s not discount all that you’ve achieved outside of work and school. Have you successfully kept up an herb garden for over a year? Have you self-published a book? Did you take any online courses or seminars? Have you been learning how to cook, how to paint, how to speak another language? Did you teach yourself how to code or how to play an instrument? What do you do in your free time that’s helped to grow a skill you now have?
The purpose of this exercise is to look objectively at what you have succeeded at doing in the past and how far you have come from when you were younger. The fact is, we are all growing and changing constantly. You are not the helpless child you once were, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
2. Separate your feelings from reality and let go of your inner perfectionist
Let me guess: you’re a perfectionist. Maybe you’re the anxious type who wants everything done and everything done well. Maybe you have a bit of a complex and want to always come off as one of the smartest people in the room. Maybe school came naturally to you but now that you’re in the real world, nothing seems as simple as it once was. Maybe you’d rather work alone because asking for help feels like failure.
These feelings are stealing away what reality actually looks like. The desire to impress the people around us; the need to make everything perfect with no room for error; the pain and fear of failure. Our emotions cloud our reality even when an outside perspective tells us: Hey, you’re doing just fine. (Side note: We’d all be a lot happier if we learned to let things go.)
The reality is, nothing will ever be perfect.
You’re driving yourself crazy trying to achieve perfection. Especially when anything can go wrong at any time and—oh, right—there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s actually a beautiful thing! At the end of the day, try not to worry about the things you can’t control—you’ll always be able to control how you respond to it.
And for the stuff that is under your control? Try to keep realistic standards and allow mental room for mistakes or things to go wrong. Set up the expectation that, no matter how hard you prepare, something WILL go wrong. Just because something went wrong doesn’t mean that it’s your fault or that you’re bad at your job. In fact, whatever misstep happens, you’ll be able to better prepare for it in the future. See mistakes and failures as challenges and learning opportunities; not death sentences.
And finally, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Nobody got to where they are today all on their own, without any assistance from anybody, ever. It’s okay to need a hand, or to ask a question about something you don’t know. There’s much value in admitting ignorance, widening your knowledge, and growing from the experience. If you need help learning how to ask for help, we’ve got you covered.
3. Observe your thought process and begin rewriting it
We have some tens of thousands of thoughts every single day, the vast majority of which we don’t even remember having. Imagine what a difference it makes for someone to take negative thoughts like this:
- I’m a failure.
- I don’t deserve this job.
- It was just luck that helped me succeed.
- I have no clue what I’m doing.
- Everyone knows I’m a failure.
- It’s not perfect.
- People will realize I’m a fraud.
- I’m not good enough.
Into thoughts like these:
- Just because I did not succeed does not make me a failure. I will learn from my mistakes.
- I applied to a lot of places and worked hard to get this job—I deserve this.
- People believe I can do this job well; that’s why they hired me.
- I’ll put in the extra work to figure out how to do things I don’t yet know, and I’ll ask for help when I need it.
- Everyone knows how hard I worked on that project and feel that it’s too bad it didn’t work out. Better luck next time.
- It’s not perfect. That’s okay. Nothing is perfect.
- I am good enough.
Need another boost? Here’s a reminder that you’re better at your job than you think.
As someone with imposter syndrome...
...if you succeed, it’s dumb luck that made it happen. But at the same time, we attribute our failures to who we are as a person. You get to choose: are our lives run by dumb luck we can’t control? Or are our successes due to hard work and worth? Our failures are proof we’re trying hard to succeed!
When in doubt, remember: you can overcome imposter syndrome because a true imposter doesn’t recognize that they don’t belong or don’t deserve the credit they receive. Take heart that by doubting yourself, your self-awareness is proving that you DO deserve all the good that has come to you.
Finally, be kind to yourself. If your friend confided in you thoughts of not being good enough or defined themselves by their failures, you would assuage their doubts and tell them they ARE good enough. Be that friend for yourself. (And if you’re a really good friend, you’ll give them a proper face smack and a reality check.)
And to my fellow knee-jerk apologizers out there (you know who you are), take a page from our book and learn how to stop saying sorry all the time.
You can overcome imposter syndrome
We’re off to a pretty good start to conquer imposter syndrome. Begin with those three steps and see how you feel after a week or two. Do you feel less dread going into work? Is it easier to speak up or ask questions? Do what makes you feel better and do it regularly.
Still need more help? Check out the continuation of this article: How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome, Part 2.
Already feeling confident enough to start your job search? We can help.