Imposter Syndrome: When You Feel Like a Fraud

These tips will help you with your fear of success.

Posted Feb 15, 2021

 Bob Basset; Bbsstt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
High-achieving people sometimes feel like an imposter.
Source: Bob Basset's Mask 2015, Author: Bob Basset; Bbsstt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The other day, I heartily congratulated a friend on her job promotion. She replied, “What if they made a mistake? What if I’m not really qualified; and it’s the Peter Principle in effect—that I’ve risen to the level of my incompetence?”

“You are totally qualified,” I responded. “They wouldn’t have given you the job if you didn’t deserve it.”

She then said, “But I feel like a fraud.”

My friend was suffering from imposter syndrome. I understood how she felt, so I said, “I get it. I’ve been there. In my first year of speaking professionally, I was hired to present the keynote speech for a national association. It was extremely exciting, and exactly what I wanted, but the night before I was to go on stage, feelings of doubt emerged. And, like you, I felt like a fraud. Worse, I started to feel panicky. At that point, I knew I needed to shift my feelings back to positive ones. So, I started thinking about how I got to the point of being hired for that speech. I went to my bookcase and looked over the trophies I'd won for speaking contests in Toastmasters. I picked up each one and thought about the speech I gave to earn it. I recalled the smiling faces, the laughter, the rousing applause, the standing ovation at the end, and the awarding of the trophy. Reliving those experiences restored my confidence, and I was able to convince myself that I was indeed worthy of the large fee I was going to be paid, and that everyone would love the speech I was going to give.”

Add Up Your Achievements

“That’s great, but I don’t have any trophies.”

“But you do have accomplishments. Make a list of them, big and small. I keep a journal of accomplishments and achievements so that I don’t forget them—especially the little ones because they all add up. Then when those negative feelings start up, and you start to doubt your competence, go back and read about all your successes for a quick attitude boost.”

According to Wikipedia, “Impostor Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud." It is an irrational fear that someone will discover that your success is unearned. Imposter syndrome is a term derived from imposter phenomenon, which was coined by researchers Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, who discovered that some high achieving women lacked the ability to acknowledge their accomplishments and instead credited them to luck or people overestimating their intelligence. It was later discovered that both men and women suffer from imposter syndrome in equal numbers.

To a degree, these feelings are natural. As Orrin Woodward, a leadership and management expert, observed, “Most people overestimate others' talents and underestimate their own.”

Perfectionism Is the Problem

Imposter syndrome for many people comes from perfectionism. Perfectionism is all about fear of failure, or fear of not performing well enough. It has its roots in criticism—usually from your parents or other authority figures in your youth. In her book, Perfectionism: What's Bad About Being Too Good, Miriam Adderholt cites family pressure as one of the main causes of perfectionism and notes that it often develops during childhood.

You can overcome perfectionism if you can teach yourself that it is OK to do an adequate job on a task instead of a perfect one. If you are a perfectionist, you need to accept that perfect is impossible. The trick is to allow some imperfection into your life a little at a time so that you can get comfortable with it. Like any other addiction, you must wean yourself.

Another way to deal with imposter syndrome is to live each day mindfully. Focusing only on what you have to accomplish each day helps keep your mind off the bigger picture, which can be overwhelming. Living in the now prevents the anxiety that comes from living in the future.

Keep a Journal of Your Accomplishments

If you suffer from imposter syndrome, or any feelings of inadequacy, I recommend that you keep a journal of your accomplishments to refer to whenever those feelings start to emerge. Record in detail the achievement: the what, when, why, where, and how. What did it mean? Why did you do it? What difference did it make? How did it make you feel? Who was there? Who congratulated you? The more specifics you provide, the easier it will be to relive the experience and boost your self-confidence. Start today by listing your past triumphs, then continue to add to the list as you remember more of them, and acquire new ones. And, whenever those feelings of fraud come along, open your journal and read!

I am an innovation/change speaker, author, and consultant.