Imposter syndrome: its symptoms, causes, and solutions

Do you believe that your success in your career is thanks to luck? Are you afraid other people will eventually discover you’re not as talented as they think you are? Do you feel like a fraud? These are all signs of imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is the belief that you don’t deserve your success. It can impact any area of your life, although it’s typically related to careers. People with imposter syndrome are convinced they’re only successful because they keep getting lucky and eventually this luck will run out and everyone will realise they were never as talented or accomplished as they seemed.

Believing you’re a fraud who doesn’t deserve success takes a toll on your mental health. People with imposter syndrome typically experience stress, anxiety, depression and reduced career satisfaction. They’re also less likely to advance in their careers because their fear of making mistakes and being caught keeps them from taking chances, including accepting more responsibility or applying for promotions.

But because imposter syndrome is a pattern of beliefs about yourself, you can greatly reduce how much it affects you by challenging these beliefs and thoughts. Changing the way you think about your career to view success as an accomplishment you earned, rather than luck, you can be much happier, confident, and fulfilled.

Imposter syndrome keeps you from enjoying success

Imposter syndrome is a pattern of often-subconscious beliefs someone has about their abilities that makes them question if they deserve their success, their position, and/or how others think of them. It typically impacts professionals and students, although anyone can be affected. People with imposter syndrome tend to have very high standards for themselves and believe others expect them to meet these standards as well. No matter how long they’ve been in their career or how accomplished they are, they still believe their success is thanks to luck and not their skills. They’re always waiting for the day then their luck will run out and everyone will realise they were never as talented as they allowed others to believe. Therefore, people with imposter syndrome are often very talented but they can’t take pride in their work or reach their full potential.

Imposter syndrome also affects the way people think about mistakes – when someone with imposter syndrome makes a mistake, they worry that if others find out, they’ll be judged very harshly and it could lead to them being uncovered as a fraud who doesn’t know what they’re doing. They see making mistakes as proof they don’t deserve their success and that they’re right to believe they’re not as capable as they appear. To keep from making mistakes, they only take on tasks they know they can do well already. When they do make a mistake, they tend to hide what they did out of fear of what the consequences will be.

Sometimes questioning if you’re the best person for your role or worrying that others think you’re more capable than you believe you are isn’t necessarily imposter syndrome. Thoughts like these can help accomplished students and professionals stay humble and motivate them take valuable precautions like double checking their work and making sure they’re prepared. These are generally healthy thoughts and are a sign of humility rather than imposter syndrome.

Although imposter syndrome affects people’s confidence in themselves and their abilities, it isn’t the same as having low confidence or self-esteem in general. People with imposter syndrome can be very confident in other areas of their lives – they know they’re loving partners, are proud of their sport achievements, etc. – yet when it comes to their career, they believe they aren’t talented enough and don’t deserve to be successful.

Imposter syndrome keeps people from enjoying their career success and taking pride in their accomplishments. If you have imposter syndrome, you can greatly benefit – in both your professional and personal life – by challenging the intrusive thoughts that keep you from feeling secure in your career and harm your mental health.

Imposter syndrome is highly affected by your mindset

What causes people to develop imposter syndrome is varied and depends on a number of personal factors, although it’s highly connected to mindset.

There are two types of mindsets people can have towards personal development – fixed or growth. People with growth mindsets believe that who they are, including their skills and abilities, are changeable. When they face challenges, they ask themselves how they can improve so they’ll be more prepared next time. When they make mistakes, they learn what they can and resolve to do better in the future. These beliefs and reactions make them feel capable of taking on challenges because they believe they can learn and build their skills.

Fixed mindsets make people believe they can’t improve or learn new skills because they think of capabilities as being unchangeable. When they attempt something new and do badly, they consider this evidence that what they attempted was beyond their abilities and always will be, so they’re unlikely to try again. Rather than viewing challenges and setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow, mistakes are likely to make them feel ashamed and believe they should give up. This mindset keeps people from trying to better themselves.

Growth mindsets encourage people to take chances without ruminating on what could go wrong and what the consequences will be, while fixed mindsets make people feel limited in what they can accomplish. Most people are happier with growth mindsets because they’re highly empowering and give you a greater sense of control over your life. What you’re capable of isn’t predetermined at birth, but is a result of hard work and perseverance. Challenges aren’t signs of your limits – they show you areas where you could improve.

Although imposter syndrome and having a fixed mindset are distinct, they’re connected because they’re both based on the belief that improvement is impossible. If someone with a growth mindset is worried about being able to perform well, they’re likely to learn and practice in this area so they can be more confident. But someone with a fixed mindset who sometimes struggles in their career is likely to interpret their struggles as evidence they’re incapable of doing well in their role and always will be. They also tend to avoid challenges and miss opportunities for career advancement because their mindset tells them they can’t grow into new roles.

If you have imposter syndrome, you should ask yourself what type of mindset you have. If you have a fixed mindset, it’s likely responsible for many of your insecurities in your career. Adopting a growth mindset where you feel capable of taking on new challenges and learning from mistakes can give you a sense of control and ownership of your success, instead of believing it’s only thanks to luck.

How to be less affected by imposter syndrome

Because imposter syndrome is based on patterns of beliefs, you can be less affected if you challenge the beliefs you have about your success and capabilities. You can learn new ways of thinking about yourself and how others perceive you so you can be happier and healthier.

Some ways you can be less affected by imposter syndrome include:

1) Know what it is and how widespread it is

Imposter syndrome is very common; according to a number of studies, imposter syndrome is experienced by the majority of certain groups of people – particularly those from diverse backgrounds or women in male-dominated fields, especially leadership roles. However, many people with imposter syndrome believe they’re the only one who has these struggles, which makes them feel alone and isolated. Realising that feeling like a fraud is a common experience can help you think of imposter syndrome as a mental challenge to be worked through, rather than as accurate beliefs that reflect how you should feel about yourself and your success.

2) Practice self-compassion

A common characteristic of imposter syndrome is being very hard on yourself. You may even think that this is necessary to be a good worker. But using abuse and catastrophising won’t help you improve and progress – it’s more likely to hold you back because you don’t want to make mistakes or fall short of your expectations.

A healthier and more effective form of self-talk is practicing self-compassion. This means speaking to yourself the same way you would talk to a friend who made a mistake or is worried about an upcoming challenge. If you tend to be abusive to yourself when you do something wrong or wish you did better, imagine using the same tone and language with someone you’re close to. Would you tell a friend they’re a useless idiot who should have been fired years ago after they received some negative feedback from their boss? Or would you help them focus on the positives and consider how they can improve? Which do you think is the healthier approach?

Acknowledge when you make mistakes and try to learn from them, but also remember that you’re human and mistakes are unavoidable.

3) Take ownership of your success

A key feature of imposter syndrome is believing that success is caused by factors beyond your control. To begin challenging these beliefs, write down a list of your accomplishments and describe how you achieved them. Some of them may be in part thanks to factors beyond your control or with help from others, but you’ll likely find that the majority are a direct result of actions you deliberately chose. This exercise can help you realise that your success wasn’t accidental, but that you put in hard work and effort to get where you are now.

In the future, notice when you’re successful and describe what you did to earn this accomplishment and congratulate yourself when you do a good job, rather than being grateful you got lucky.

4) Reality-check your thoughts

Imposter syndrome causes unrealistic beliefs – you may tell yourself that your entire career is based on lies or that making small mistakes will lead to you being fired and losing everything. People who tell themselves unrealistic stories often do this quickly so they don’t have the chance to question the logic of what they’re thinking before internalising the messages.

Instead of just accepting your initial reactions to different situations, stop and consider your thoughts. If your beliefs are unfair or exaggerated, point this out to yourself and consider a more realistic explanation or outcome. If it helps, imagine someone else doing what you did and what you would expect their consequences to be.

Imposter syndrome may tell you that you have to meet higher standards than others to deserve to be where you are, but this is rarely the case. Reminding yourself that you can make mistakes and that the worst-case scenario is unlikely to happen can help you have a more realistic perspective of yourself and your job.

5) Change your feelings and reactions to mistakes and shortcomings

Imposter syndrome tells people that their mistakes define them and will drive others away, so many people with imposter syndrome avoid situations where they might make mistakes. But mistakes are necessary to learning and growth, and they’re usually easily forgiven.

People with imposter syndrome are also likely to hide their mistakes. But admitting to mistakes and accepting you’ll make them can help you realise that mistakes don’t make you worthless and can even be valuable learning tools.

Imposter syndrome tell you there will be very high consequences, so reality-check what you’re telling yourself.

6) Look for ways you can improve in areas you’re worried about

To prove to yourself that you can learn skills and improve in areas where you struggle, set goals designed to teach you new skills and abilities. If you’ve been avoiding taking on certain responsibilities because you’re convinced you’ll fail at them, spend time preparing and then take them on. You might not do as well as you’d like right away and need to keep working to improve, but you’re demonstrating that you can learn new skills and accomplish tasks you thought you were incapable of, which will help you adopt a growth mindset.

7) Talk to trusted people about how you feel

Sharing your feelings with people you trust can be very educational. Hearing yourself describe your beliefs can be an effective way of reality-checking them, and others can give you a more realistic perspective as well. You could also talk about how you feel and what you believe to a professional. They can listen to your beliefs and suggest effective strategies for how to move away from ways of thinking that are holding you back.

If you believe the people you work with hold you to impossibly high standards, consider finding out what your colleagues really think of you. While some may have very high opinions, chances are that most think of you as human and are willing to accept your mistakes, which can help you stop believing you need to be perfect to avoid disappointing others.

8) Let go of perfectionism

To avoid feeling like an imposter, some people try to be perfect in their work so it’s above criticism. Perfectionism is very time consuming and removes much of the pleasure you might get from your accomplishments. It often stifles creativity, innovation and productivity. Unlike ambition, which is motivated by producing work you’re proud of, perfectionists focus entirely on how they’ll be judged by others and are rarely happy with the results. By accepting when your work is good enough and being proud of your efforts, you can be more productive and more satisfied.

9) Accept that the feelings will never go away entirely, and that doesn’t make you a

fraud but someone with humility

Everyone will have times when they feel like they don’t know what they’re doing and that they haven’t earned their success. Rather than thinking you should be able to stop worrying that you aren’t good enough, you should focus on not believing these thoughts. You likely worked hard to be where you are and earned your position and success. You may always have to talk yourself out of believing you’re a fraud, but that doesn’t mean that your thoughts are true.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome makes you feel like you have to hide who you really are

Many successful people who have worked hard to be where they are don’t feel secure or confident in their roles because of imposter syndrome. Instead of being able to enjoy their success and take pride in their accomplishments, they’re convinced their careers are only thanks to luck.

Instead of believing the thoughts that imposter syndrome fuels, you can be happier and more secure if you challenge these patterns of beliefs and give yourself opportunities to prove you’re capable of meeting ambitious goals and taking on challenges. You’ll make mistakes and stumble along the way, but success without mistakes and hardships is impossible.

Imposter syndrome is an inherent part of success for a number of people, so you might not be able to stop having these feelings entirely, but they don’t have to limit you or hold you back. By adopting a growth mindset and having a more balanced perspective of what you’re capable of, how you earned your position, and what others expect from you, you can feel less pressure to meet expectations and be more confident in your ability to consistently succeed and take on challenges.

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