It’s OK, you’re not a fraud: Dealing with Impostor Syndrome
I’m a fraud. Maybe I only got this job thanks to random luck. What if my co-workers find out I’m not good enough? When impostor syndrome gets in our head, an avalanche of insecurity and self-sabotage can overwhelm our everyday thoughts.
And that’s pretty common.
This phenomenon is well known, and it’s been studied since the 1970s. It was first identified by psychologist Pauline Rose Clance after she noticed shared experiences among high performing women.
Impostor syndrome means that you feel like every achievement is a false positive, a result of good luck or coincidence, and it creates a constant fear of being discovered, of being outed as a fraud.
According to The Journal of Behavioral Science, 70% of people experience this cognitive distortion.
The Five Types of “Impostors”
In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women (ew, success), Dr. Valerie Young defines five variants of this phenomenon:
Perfectionist: Focused on how things should be done, everything must be perfectly executed, and any flaw can call their competence into question. Perfectionists tend to set extremely high goals, and even reaching 99% success can feel like a total failure. They are often guilty of micromanaging.
Expert: Always nodding along to every idea. Experts are afraid of being perceived as stupid or unknowledgeable. They need validation from certifications and trainings before starting big projects, and they won’t apply for a job unless they meet each and every requirement. Asking questions or speaking their minds during meetings is just creating a potential opportunity to unveil their lack of knowledge.
Natural genius: For this group, a failed first attempt is a clear indicator that they just don’t have the skills and talent. Natural geniuses expect to get everything right on the first try. Struggles and difficulties along the way just make them think that maybe what they’re pursuing just isn’t for them.
Soloist: They must do everything themselves. For soloists, asking for help is shameful and a sign of weakness. Accomplishments have to be personal and on their own terms.
Superhuman: Being an outstanding and efficient student, brother, wife, manager, friend, mom, etc. should never be a problem for this variant. They push themselves to work as hard as needed to prove they can handle every role and every detail in life. If they’re not performing at 100% across all of these responsibilities, they have failed.
There is a clear pattern across all of these variants: the fear of failure. And that’s music to our ears.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
There are a lot of different ways to help address imposter syndrome. At Fuckup Nights, we’re big fans of Albert Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy.
According to Bandura, self-efficacy is “a perceived ability to ‘succeed’ at a given task.” In other words, self-efficacy is about believing in our own ability to organize and execute a task. This is exactly the opposite of imposter syndrome, which is grounded in a lack of belief in this same ability.
Bandura proposes four concrete actions to boost self-efficacy:
Enactive mastery experience:
This involves moving away from the “stroke of luck” mindset to understand the systems behind our achievements. How did I accomplish this or that goal? What was the process I followed? What good practices did I apply? It’s important to recognize our processes and stick with our systems to show that our accomplishments aren’t due to luck, they’re due to skill.
One of the biggest problems with impostor syndrome is that we’re comparing ourselves to others, including our role models. We tend to aim high, to focus on trying to be just like our favorite CEO or celebrity. But maybe we’re just looking at the wrong person. And by looking we don’t mean comparing, we mean observing.
Bandura explains that if we observe people that are similar or slightly higher in ability, we’re more likely to have a more insightful and informative understanding of our own capabilities. Instead of comparing yourself to the best of the best, observe your peers: How do they work? What do you have in common?
Impostor syndrome is tough—it works to undermine our achievements, results, and abilities and leaves us questioning our worth. Sometimes, all we need to overcome these feelings is some external motivation.
Social persuasion is a healthy dose of positive, sincere feedback. It’s even better if this feedback comes from an expert or someone in our area, and it should always be focused on abilities instead of hard work (impostor syndrome belittles our ability, not our capacity to work). It’s important to recognize that deriving our professional self-worth from external compliments can lead to a need to please others, so it’s important to balance social persuasion with the other aspects of self-efficacy.
Feeling like an impostor can be expressed in many ways inside your body. Maybe a nervous tic, an accelerated heartbeat, bad mood, stress, or crankiness. But maybe what we’re feeling is actually just the result of our bad night’s sleep, our eating habits, or the winter blues, and has nothing to do with our skills.
When our mind is occupied creating an impostor delusion, emotions and physical symptoms can be misinterpreted, reinforcing feelings of inadequacy. Take a moment to genuinely ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way?” Work to reframe your feelings and emotions in a way that isn’t focused on your skill or self-worth, but rather on a non-emotional or transient source.
The Power of Vulnerability
Self-efficacy is an extremely useful tool, but at Fuckup Nights, we believe that there’s another approach that can be powerful in the fight against imposter syndrome. Over the course of years tackling failure, we’ve witnessed the power of being vulnerable and opening up about our frustrations and fears, and it is clear that this same approach can be used against impostor syndrome, which is fundamentally a fear of failure and internalized expectations run amok.
Impostor syndrome thrives in silence, blossoming in environments where people hold in their fears, doubts, and concerns. Of the 70% of people that have experienced impostor syndrome, how many actually share or discuss what they’re experiencing? Speaking up normalizes this shared experience and generates awareness, helping people break through the isolation, fear, and shame.
In addition to creating a sense of shared experience, being open and vulnerable around imposter syndrome helps create a more level professional playing field by showing the realities of success, which helps relieve some of the pressure to be flawless. Connecting over a shared fear of failure and outsized, self-imposed expectations helps humanize seemingly perfect role models, revealing how imperfect “success” can be and how even the most successful among us are often burdened by self-doubt.
You don’t need to organize a private Fuckup Nights event in your company to have these conversations with your team members—you can easily start sharing your experiences at lunch with your colleagues, during chance meetings in the hallway, or on the elevator.
Impostor syndrome, like failure, is practically universal, and there are no silver bullets. It’s important to speak up, take a chance, and pull back the veneer of success. The struggle is real, so let’s share it.