What is Imposter Syndrome, And Can You Overcome It?

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Have you ever been in a room full of people and thought 'I don't belong here? They're going to find me out, and realise I don't actually know what I'm doing.'? If that little voice sounds familiar, then you may have experienced something called Imposter Syndrome. And the good news is, you really aren't alone. Imposter syndrome is one of the most common feelings in the modern world, and while it can be incredibly difficult to live with, it can be overcome with a little help.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Put in its simplest terms, imposter syndrome is the name for feeling like you're a fraud. Like you're an imposter in a certain space, and you don't really belong there. But it's not like gate-crashing a party - it's most likely to occur at work or in other professional situations. It's that feeling that you're not as competent as other people perceive you to be, and that your success is nothing but an act. You feel like a phoney, and you spent a lot of time worrying about what will happen when someone realises it.

The original imposter syndrome study was conducted in the 1970s, and it revolved around the idea that high-achieving women often had trouble attributing their success to themselves. Instead they were more likely to attributing their success to themselves. Instead they were more likely to attribute it to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, rather than hard work and talent. Fast forward to today, and absolutely anyone can suffer from imposter syndrome, at any time. People from all backgrounds, social status, skill levels and expertise levels experience imposter syndrome - including people as high up as the prime minister of New Zealand! Studies have shown that around 70% of people will experience the feelings of Imposter Syndrome at least once in their lives. However, those same studies have shown that women, and particularly women of colour, are often those hit hardest by imposter syndrome. But the key thing is that imposter syndrome doesn't mean you aren't successful - just that you don't feel as though you deserve that success. And interestingly it's often the people who are the hardest workers, the high achievers and the perfectionists that are most likely to struggle with imposter syndrome.

How Does Imposter Syndrome Manifest?

The big identifier for imposter syndrome is in the name - you feel like you are an imposter. But as with most mental health issues, imposter syndrome can feel and look different for everyone. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Self-doubt.
  • An inability to realistically assess your own skills and competency.
  • Attributing your own success to external factors.
  • Berating your own performance, to yourself and to others.
  • Fearing you won't live up to the expectations people have of you.
  • Overachieving.
  • Sabotaging your own success.
  • Setting overly challenging goals, and feeling disappointed when you fall short.

As well as the symptoms I described above, imposter syndrome can also appear in a number of different behaviour and personality traits. You may even be able to see some of them in your own workplace. They include:

The Perfectionist: The perfectionist is never satisfied with their work and always thinks they could do better. Rather than focus on and celebrate their strengths, they tend to fixate on any minor flaw or mistake. This usually leads to a very high level of anxiety.

The Superhero: Push themselves as hard as possible in order to make up

The Expert: The expert always want to know more. These individuals are always trying to learn more, and are never satisfied with their level of knowledge. They are usually very high skilled, but are always looking for the next training to do, book to read or way to improve. They also tend to underrate their own expertise quite heavily.

The Natural Genius: These are the people who set excessively lofty goals for themselves, sometimes going to beyond what is actually achievable. They then feel crushed if they don't achieve those goals on their first try, and enter a cycle of self-doubt and loathing.

The Soloist: The lone wolf of the pack, the soloist tends to be very individualistic and prefer to work alone. Their self-worth is directly connected to their productivity, and they often reject offers of help to preserve this. Instead, they see asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence.

Imposter Syndrome and Anxiety

While some people use imposter syndrome as a fuel and motivation to achieve, the result for everyone is usually the same – anxiety. And this anxiety and imposter syndrome mix can lead you into a difficult and vicious cycle. For example, you might have a presentation coming up at work, and to make sure no one ‘finds out that you’re a fraud’, you overprepare and stay up all night rehearsing for it. When the presentation goes well, you may now think that the only reason it did is because you overprepared so much. Another example is parties or family gatherings – if you struggle with imposter syndrome them you may memorise every single detail you know about the guests and come up with ideas for small talk so that no one ‘finds you out’.

But here’s the catch. Even if you did something well, imposter syndrome won’t let you see it. Instead, the more you accomplish, the more you feel like a fraud. It’s like you can’t accept and internalise your experience of success. All of this is fuel for the anxiety fire, which is why you often find imposter syndrome and anxiety going hand in hand.

5 Tips for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

1. Ask Yourself Questions: Often people struggling with imposter syndrome will hear a little voice in their head, criticising their efforts and seeding those thoughts of self-doubt. If you hear that voice, take a moment to recognise what those thoughts are, and ask yourself where they might be coming from. And then, remind yourself why they aren’t right. For example, if you’re preparing to give a presentation at work and you think ‘I don’t know enough about this to speak about it’, take a minute to remind yourself of how much you know, how qualified you are, and why you were asked to speak in the first place. This process will help you shift into a more positive and solution-focused state of mind, and give you a nice confidence boost as well.

2. Recognise Your Achievements: A good way to combat that feeling of 'faking it' is to look back at your achievements. Have you won awards? Have you been asked to speak at events? Have you worked on successful projects? Remember the work you put in and the results you got, and that someone without knowledge couldn't achieve those things.

3. Ditch the Comparisons: Comparison is the thief of joy. You are a unique person, and your journey is not the same as anyone else's. But a big part of imposter syndrome is comparing yourself to others - usually people who are at a different stage of their journey to you. Social media has a lot to answer for here, as we often only see the airbrushed, posed parts of other people's lives, and assume their whole life is like that. When in reality, most of it isn't real, and they have their own struggles and challenges. Instead, focus on measuring your own achievements without comparing them to someone else's.

4. Talking to Other People: If you're struggling to see your own abilities, talking to other people can really help. Imposter syndrome is very self-reflective and negative, so chatting to someone who knows you and supports you can help you put things into perspective, and realise that while your feelings are completely valid and normal - they aren't the truth.

5. Seek Help: IF imposter syndrome is really impacting your life, then I always recommend seeking support from a professional. Therapists can help you understand where your imposter syndrome may be coming from, recognise the feelings and thoughts associated with it, and help you build new thought patterns to overcome it.

Hypnotherapy for Imposter Syndrome

When it comes to overcoming imposter syndrome, the biggest solution is action. Instead of allowing those thoughts to stew in your head, taking control of your thoughts in key in the struggle against imposter syndrome. Solution Focused Hypnotherapy is a great option for overcoming imposter syndrome, since the entire approach is about helping you understand your brain and take those small steps forward using your own strengths and skills. We don't look at the past in Solution Focused Hypnotherapy - instead we look at your present and your future, using a mixture of talking therapy to activate and engage your 'intellectual brain', and consolidating that hard work with hypnosis to help change those unhelpful thought patterns on a subconscious level.

If you've been struggling with imposter syndrome, particularly around going back to work after a prolonged period away during the pandemic, then I would love to see if I could help you. Please get in touch to book your free initial chat, and find out if Solution Focused Hypnotherapy could help you feel more confident.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Major is a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist and Mindset Specialist. His therapeutic approach combines psychotherapy and clinical hypnotherapy techniques, based on the latest research from neuroscience. Through one to one sessions, workshops and talks, he helps clients overcome the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression which may have been holding them back, so they can lead more fulfilling lives and careers.

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