Feel Like a Fake Even Though You're Accomplished?

Prevent imposter phenomenon from blocking your success.

Posted May 01, 2019

“At first I felt good about the honor, but that only lasted for about 20 minutes. Then I realized it was a fluke, and I’ll never be able to pull it off again. I think I’m going down the tubes this year.”

Imposterism is when you feel shame that you fooled people that you're competent.
Photo By Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Source: Imposterism is when you feel shame that you fooled people that you're competent.

It was January. Snow covered the ground. Inside my psychotherapy office, Gloria was having an anxiety attack because she feared she would not be able to succeed in the highly competitive real estate field in which she had worked 24/7 for several years. She believed it was only a matter of time before her incompetence would reveal itself and she would lose her job. The paradox was that she had just received an award and a bonus for being the top salesperson in her company for the year.

Do You Suffer From Impostor Syndrome?

Initially, I was puzzled at the contradiction. I saw her as bright, friendly, and obviously capable and accomplished, but her self-doubt clouded her vision of herself. After more discussion, I realized Gloria suffered from imposter phenomenon—a nagging sense of inadequacy despite observable evidence to the contrary. You believe you’ve been able to fool people that you’re competent, even though you’re not convinced yourself. You think if people really knew you, you’d be discovered for the fake you truly are. You’re afraid of failure and success at the same time, and these fears motivate you. You tell yourself that you must work harder and harder to keep up the charade. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first identified imposter phenomenon in 1978. Their research showed that a lack of internalized acknowledgment of accomplishments occurs more in women than men, partly due to gender stereotypes, conditioning, and family and cultural dynamics. 

Well-Known “Imposters”

Some of the most accomplished personalities of our time have struggled with “imposterism.” Journalist Jeff Jarvis said, “Like most other creatives, I struggle with self-sabotage, self-doubt, and feeling like an imposter more often than not.” When actress Jane Fonda won her second Oscar, she told a talk show host she felt like a phony and feared the Academy would find out how talentless she was and take the award back. Even American author and poet Maya Angelou lamented, “I have written eleven books, 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.’” Other well-known people from Tom Hanks to Michelle Obama have experienced the imposter phenomenon.

Send Imposter Syndrome Packing

If you believe that something is deeply flawed in you, you will take those beliefs and treat them as facts in your everyday life. Even when a situation contradicts your mindset, your persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud causes you to superimpose your beliefs on the situation. The key is to not allow successes to roll off but to become intentional about internalizing your accomplishments and radically accept the external evidence that spells out your success and let it rule over your internal perspective. These 8 tips can help you make these changes:

  1. Refrain from discounting or downplaying your achievements and tell yourself you earned the success, taking time to let it sink in.
  2. Give yourself praise. Don’t allow your thoughts to get hijacked by your shortcomings. Make a list of your “tall-comings” to bring a more accurate perspective of how others see you in the world.
  3. Avoid attributing your success to luck or deceiving others. Look back and remind yourself of other successes you accrued—all of which couldn’t have happened from deception or happenstance.
  4. Curb your perfectionism. Unchecked perfection’s iron-fisted grip causes you to set unrealistic goals, try too hard, and over-focus on your defeats. You start to see failure even in your triumphs because your expectations are out of reach.
  5. Remember you’re not alone. When you realize you’re actually a member of an elite group of high-achieving individuals (70% according to experts), it can free and reassure you that your abilities and successes are valid.
  6. Celebrate your accomplishments. Instead of moving on to the next challenge, take time out to underscore and validate your successes (as frequently as you do your defeats) so that your brain properly stores and retains the recognition.
  7. Re-frame the imposter thoughts. When the imposter thoughts pop up, flip them around. “There’s no way I can get the promotion” becomes “I have as much chance of getting the promotion as anyone else.”
  8. Embrace defeat. Everybody who strives for success faces defeat at some point. It’s a package deal. You can’t have an up without a down or a front without a back, and you can’t have success without defeat. You haven’t failed until you give up. So take the towel you want to throw in, wipe the sweat off your face, and keep on going until you reach your goals.