7 Tips to Overcome the Impostor Syndrome
Have you ever felt like a fraud? Like you are an impostor?
During my recent Anti-Procrastination Course, I was working with my participants to address their inner blocks for their goals. One of them has a goal to build her coaching practice. However, she kept facing procrastination, because she feels like she is perhaps a fraud. Even though she wants to build her coaching practice and host retreats, she feels unconfident about her abilities. She says,
“[I feel like] I’m a fraud. I still have so much to learn to be a coach. To be recognized as an expert, I was instilled with the belief that I need a lot of credentials under my name. I’m constantly reading and learning from others and sharing what I learn with others. However, I feel the ideas aren’t my ideas and that I sometimes use other people’s inspiration to express my thoughts and lessons.”
Have you ever felt this way before? That you are a fraud, an impostor?
The Impostor Syndrome, aka “I’m a fraud”
The impostor syndrome is the phenomenon where you feel that you are not as good as what others think, or the image you’re trying to portray. Someone who suffers from the impostor syndrome carries a fear of being “exposed” one day for their lack of skills and ability, even though this “lack” may just be in their mind.
If you feel alone in this, don’t! Research has estimated that 2 out of 5 successful people consider themselves frauds, while 70% of all people feel like impostors at one time or another. Many famous people have admitted to feeling like a fraud before, including Chuck Lorre (screenwriter), Tina Fey, Emma Watson, and even veteran actress Meryl Streep and best-selling author Maya Angelou!
“When you go and watch a rehearsal of something you’ve written and it stinks, the natural feeling is ‘I stink.’ I’m a fraud. I need to go and hide.‘ ” – Chuck Lorre
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!‘ ” – Tina Fey
“I was in my hotel room, thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’ I was just terrified,” – Emma Watson said of her reaction the night before giving a speech at the United Nations
“I have written 11 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.’ ” – Maya Angelou
“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’ ” – Meryl Streep
Perhaps the most ironic part is the impostor syndrome is most prevalent among high achievers — meaning the people with the least reason to feel like impostors feel it the most. Whereas real impostors don’t. Strange, huh?
Needless to say, the impostor syndrome can lead to serious self-sabotage. In my Anti-Procrastination Course, a different participant shared how she constantly feels “not prepared enough” to start her speaking business (even though she really is), in turn making her put off her goal and take yet another qualification to be “ready.” In the employment world, some avoid applying for better jobs or pass up promotions because they don’t feel qualified, even though they really are. With business owners like coaches and freelancers, some procrastinate on promoting themselves and getting new clients because they’re afraid of “exposing” themselves for not being skilled enough.
If you’re suffering from the impostor syndrome, don’t fret! Here are my 7 tips to deal with it.
1) Make a list of your achievements
As our harshest critics, we are often quick to cast doubt on our talents and abilities. We focus on what we lack and how we’re “not good enough.” This makes us feel like frauds even though we may already have the ability to do something well.
Before I started my blog, I had my doubts about why anyone would read what I had to say. Not only was I just 23 then, but there were already many great self-help blogs and gazillions of coaches out there who had been building their presence for years! Why would anyone listen to me? I thought. I felt redundant. I felt that there was no place for me in this field.
As I thought about how to differentiate myself, I decided to brainstorm on my unique strengths and achievements. While I initially thought that I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything, maybe 1-2 things at most, I was shocked when I came up with a full list of things that I had achieved throughout my life, through my hard work and merit, but had somehow forgotten! These included my scholastic achievements, barriers I had overcome, personal troubles I had tackled, and accomplishments in my hobbies. Interestingly, I had swept them under the rug soon after achieving them. Seeing this list was pivotal as I thought, Hey, I can really do this. There is really something I can offer to others.
I then stopped feeling self-doubt when I started my journey. I believe this was a big reason why I could single-mindedly focus on my goal and achieve quick results in my passion journey.
Perhaps you may think: Oh, I haven’t achieved anything great. I’m not capable of anything. This is a typical impostor syndrome thought. Here’s a surprising fact: Whether you’re 30 or 20 or even 10, you already have a set of achievements under your belt, achievements unique to you. The key here isn’t to compare yourself with others but to see yourself in your own light.
I have 3 questions that I challenge you to journal on (write as many answers as possible):
- What are your strengths? Are you driven? Passionate? Humorous? Witty? Hardworking? Committed? Genuine? Caring? Meticulous? These are traits that you have, traits unique to you. While they may seem natural to you, they are a form of achievement because YOU have these traits over others.
- What challenges have you faced and overcome in life? We all have challenges that we face and overcome. What challenges did you face growing up? Teasing? Bullying? Self-doubt? Criticism? Anxiety? Living in an angry household? A broken family? Living in an oppressive culture? Negative stigmas? How have you dealt with them? These are achievements in themselves too.
- What have you accomplished in your life? These achievements can be related to your work, hobbies, relationships, health, and finance. Maybe you worked your way through odds jobs to pay your tuition fees. Maybe you lost 15 kg and achieved a healthier weight. Maybe you studied really hard and got a scholarship. Maybe you worked hard to build your relationships today. These are all achievements!
Go deep into this exercise; I promise you’ll be surprised by the results. 🙂
2) Don’t sell yourself short
Maybe you feel like a fraud because you don’t think you have anything good to offer. Maybe you feel that you’re just lying and pretending to be good when you aren’t. But realize that whatever place you are at in life now, you are here because you are ready for it.
For example, say you want to be a coach. You feel like a fraud because you don’t feel good enough to coach others. Perhaps you feel like you self-assigned this title of “coach” and no one has officially endorsed you as one. Hence you feel terrified to market your work and put yourself out there, because, hey, What if someone realizes I’m a fraud, a phony?
Yet, consider this: What does “coach” (verb) mean? To me, it means to guide, support someone to greatness. Think back to your interactions with others in the past 10 years of your life. Have there been times when you helped someone move forward in their problems? Say when you helped a friend deal with a bad breakup? When you helped someone work through a career dilemma? Or when you inspired someone to take action? Aren’t these real people you’ve helped? So why would you think otherwise, when you’ve been coaching even before you started your business?
Here’s a different example: Say you just got promoted to manager. You feel awkward as you are now leading your peers. Instead of working side by side, you’re now their manager who delegates work, critiques them, and manages their payroll. Because of that, some of them feel unhappy. Perhaps you feel embarrassed as there is a more senior person who should have been promoted over you.
However, recognize that you have been promoted for a reason. While you may feel that you aren’t good enough for this role, trust that your managers have carefully evaluated your skills sets, performance, and potential before promoting you. After all, managements don’t just randomly promote people without reason. Your managers wouldn’t have put you here if you couldn’t do it. So how about you start believing in yourself and work on being a fantastic manager to your staff, way better than anyone else could?
Don’t sell yourself short. You are where you are today because you have what it takes and you’ve worked your way there. So why not make the best out of it? 🙂
3) Lose your expert hat
People with the impostor syndrome tend to feel as if they need to live up to a certain role as an expert. And when they don’t, they feel like frauds.
Lose your expert hat. Stop feeling like you need to know all the answers. For example,
- If you run a blog on X, be okay with saying, “Hey, I don’t know everything on this. But I’m constantly learning and I’m here to share what I’ve learned.”
- If you are a manager, know that you don’t have to know everything. Own up to mistakes and knowledge gaps when they happen. Then, strive to be better.
- If you’re a coach on dating, health, fitness, etc., you don’t need to pretend to know it all. Chances are there are things you don’t know, that you need to research on. And that’s okay.
Why is it important to lose your expert hat? Firstly, rather than get caught up with maintaining a certain image (which becomes an ego thing), you focus on what matters: your work and your customers. Secondly, when you stop obsessing about your image, you can then work on improving yourself, including your skills and knowledge. Thirdly, no one can know all the answers because there will always be new things to learn. The best actors will have new roles that stretch their acting ability. The best doctors will receive patient cases they have never seen before. The best life coaches will face problems of their own. I’m a coach but I face many issues of my own. Personal problems, family problems, and social problems, I deal with them just like anyone else.
Don’t get me wrong in that you can still position yourself as an expert especially if it’s part of your job status. For example, the titles of doctor, coach, consultant, and trainer convey expertise over the average person. However, don’t lose yourself in it because it’s just a title at the end of the day. There will always be things we don’t know and we should (a) humbly acknowledge our knowledge gaps and (b) continue to upgrade ourselves to close these gaps. Which brings me to the next tip.
4) Improve your skills
Addressing the impostor syndrome isn’t just about self-talk. Perhaps you feel like a fraud because deep down, you see a gap between your perceived and real skills. While tips #1 and #2 are about recognizing your achievements, this tip is about self-improvement. Because there is nothing more constructive than taking action to improve yourself.
When I started my business, skills improvement was huge on my list. It still is, but it was one of my top priorities when I begun. So much so that I had a scorecard of skills to build (coaching, speaking, writing), my personal rating for each skill, and plans to improve in them. For each skill, I had a workbook to map my progress. With coaching, I tracked all my coaching sessions and would evaluate my areas of improvement after each session. I would work on these areas leading to the next session. I developed my framework of coaching techniques which I reviewed and refined weekly. With speaking, I created a feedback form to get participant feedback on various metrics: usefulness of the workshop, value of content, engagement, and so on. I would track my performance and aim for perfect scores with every workshop.
I did these rigorously for 2.5 years. By then, I had developed a fair level of expertise, so it was no longer helpful for me to do such granular tracking. Today, I improve by studying the most successful icons, getting continuous feedback, and thinking of ways to help my clients breakthrough their goals.
- What area do you feel like an impostor in? What skills do you need to excel in it?
- How do you rate yourself in each skill, on a scale of 0–10?
- How can you improve such that you are a 10/10 in each skill? Research? Go for training? Consult experts? Get more hands-on practice? Read books?
5) Focus on giving value
In the past I felt like a fraud running my site. Part of it was because I couldn’t keep up with the endless streams of people who needed my help. Another reason was the never-ending noise. No matter what I wrote, I would be criticized by people I didn’t know. No matter what I wrote, there would always be people who would be unhappy, people I couldn’t please.
My solution: Focus on the people I want to help. The people in pain. People dealing with life’s challenges. People who need and want help. People who are eager to better their lives. Then I ask myself, “How I can make a difference to them?” Then I get down to work.
Impostor syndrome happens when you’re more concerned about your fears and image rather than what you want to achieve. Think about the people you want to serve. Think about the value you wish to create. Then create it. Forget the other things like fear, criticism, and naysayers because these are just noise that will be there no matter what.
How to deal with criticism:
- 9 Reasons Why Criticism is Good
- 8 Helpful Ways To Deal With Critical People
- Empty Vessels Make the Most Noise
- 5 Tips to Deal with Negative Criticism [Video]
6) Stop comparing with others
In today’s social media world, we are more connected than ever. Everyone’s updates are in our face — their Facebook posts, their likes, glamour shots, accolades, others’ praises for them, and for some, their monthly business income as they post their checks and earnings and what not.
When we fail to measure up to such people, we feel inadequate. A University of Michigan study showed that Facebook decreases subjective well-being among young adults. A German study revealed that one in three people felt worse after using Facebook. While I believe this is partly due to inherent issues with Facebook, another reason is that such close proximity among people and disparity in their achievements and success can create a sense of hopelessness among some people. For some, perhaps we feel guilty for not doing as well. Maybe we feel like phonies in comparison. We wonder, Why try when this person is already so good, so successful, and so well known?
But everyone starts from somewhere. When we compare ourselves with each other constantly, we prevent ourselves from coming into our own. We subject ourselves to others’ yardsticks which may not be relevant to us. We follow a track that may not be what we want. As Albert Einstein once said:
Your goal here isn’t to compare with others. Your goal is to compare and outdo yourself. Don’t let people’s success cloud your vision of you. Celebrate others’ success just as you can build your own path and succeed. The world is big enough for everyone to win. Read: Why You Should Stop Comparing Yourself With Others (and How to Do So)
7) Remember that everyone is still figuring things out
Our society celebrates perfection. Magazine covers are perfectly photoshopped. Cover stories are always about some rags-to-riches story that fits media’s narrative and appeals to people’s thirst for perfection. For example, a high-school dropout who becomes a millionaire with the next big startup. A woman who disrupts the male-dominated startup scene and spearheads some tech to change the world. Celebrities become larger than life on TV and magazines.
People are then encouraged to think in terms of “have” and “have not”; “success” and “failure”; “amazing” and “crap.” All experts are seen as the former; anyone who isn’t as good is lumped with the latter. Some of these experts and online gurus have full-time marketing teams to generate good press for these folks and clean up any bad publicity and criticism. If people didn’t already think of them as Superman/woman, they now have to.
But remember that everyone, including the experts, is still learning. Just because people are not revealing their struggles doesn’t mean they aren’t facing them.
- World-renowned comedian Robin Williams hung himself in 2014 at the age of 63; he was battling depression for a while.
- Lamar Odom, former NBA player and NBA Sixth Man of the Year, was found in a coma at a brothel in 2015, after an alleged drug binge. He is awake and now on the long road to recovery.
- Heath Ledger who played the Joker in The Dark Knight and won a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was found dead in his home at the age of 28 from the abuse of prescription medicine. He was said to be battling drug addiction and depression leading up to his death.
Minus accolades and flashy possessions, we are not all that different from each other. All of us have struggles underneath our successes. If we can recognize that everyone is here as a human on their life journey, we can stop projecting a front and start living. We can stop judging others and start embracing who and what we are. We can stop trying to be someone we are not or stop trying to appear perfect, but work on being ourselves, being our best self.
How about you? Which tips can you apply? Time to stop feeling like an impostor — because you aren’t. You are you. 🙂
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