‘I’m a Fraud’ – 7 Tips to Overcome the Impostor Syndrome

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During a recent run of my Anti-Procrastination Course, I was working with participants to uncover their inner resistances. A participant shared this belief, “I’m a fraud.” Even though she wants to build her coaching practice and host retreats worldwide, there are times when she procrastinates because she feels unconfident about what she’s trying to do. She says,

“[I feel as though] 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”

Introducing the impostor syndrome. The impostor syndrome or the belief “I’m a fraud” 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.[1] Many famous people have admitted to feeling like a fraud before, including screenwriter Chuck Lorre, comedian Tina Fey, actress 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 UN’s headquarters

“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

Meryl Streep, who experiences the impostor syndrome too

Meryl Streep. A 3-time Academy Award winner, she is widely regarded as one of the greatest film actors of all time — yet she still experiences the impostor syndrome!

Perhaps the most ironic part about the impostor syndrome is that it’s most prevalent among high achievers — meaning the people with the least reason to feel like impostors are the ones who feel it the most. Whereas real impostors like hucksters 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 causing her to put off her goal and explore yet another qualification to be “ready.” In the employment world, some avoid applying for better jobs or pass up promotions altogether 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.

Here are my 7 tips to deal with this.

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 in 2008, I had my doubts about why anyone would read what I had to say. Not only was I just 23 then, 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 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: no matter 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.

Here are 3 questions I challenge you to journal on (list as many answers as possible):

  1. 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 above others.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 in school 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 in life you are at 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 that you self-assigned this title of “coach” and no one has ever officially endorsed you as a “coach.” 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 positive 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.

To that I say, 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 X. 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.

Are you wearing an expert hat at the moment? Is it time to let it go? (Image: Kevin Spencer)

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 skills. 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, 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 nature. 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) continually 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 and tip #3 is about not getting hung up on your title, 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 (I don’t suppose it ever ends), 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 level, and so on. I would track my performance and aim for perfect scores with every new 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 continual feedback, and continually thinking of ways to help my clients achieve their next breakthrough.

For you,

  1. What area do you feel like an impostor in? What skills do you need to excel in it?
  2. How would you rate yourself in each skill on a scale of 0–10?
  3. How can you improve such that you are a 10 in each skill? Research? Go for training? Consulting experts? Get more hands-on practice? Reading books?

Read more:

5) Focus on the value you can give

For a while I felt like a fraud running my site. Part of it was because I couldn’t keep up with the tons and tons of people needing my help while busy managing so many other aspects of the business. Another reason was the never-ending noise. No matter what I wrote or didn’t write, I would be criticized and berated by people I didn’t know, who had never shared appreciation for my work but would jump to pinpoint and criticize what they didn’t like. This created a feeling that no matter what I wrote, there would always be people who would be unhappy, people I couldn’t please.

My solution was to do the very thing I did when I started my blog: 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? Do I write an article on what they’re struggling with? Do I conduct a new course targeting their issues? Do I open up for new coaching clients? Or should I create a new video or podcast?” And then I get down to work. In fact, it is this very thought that got me to write this post!

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. And 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:

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, we feel inadequate. A University of Michigan study showed that Facebook decreases subjective well-being among young adults.[2] A German study revealed that one in three people felt worse after using Facebook.[3] While I believe that part of this is due to inherent issues with Facebook that I wrote about here, another reason is that such close proximity among people and disparity in 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, successful, and well known?

But remember: 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 also force ourselves to follow a track that may not be what we want. As Albert Einstein once said:

Inspirational Quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ~ Albert Einstein

(Quote image: Personal Excellence. Photo: Pörrö)

Your goal here isn’t to compare with others. Your goal here is to compare and outdo yourself. Don’t let people’s successes cloud your vision of you. You can celebrate people’s success just as you can build your own path and excel. The world is big enough for everyone to succeed. Read: Why You Should Stop Comparing Yourself With Others (and How to Do So)

7) Remember that everyone is still figuring things out, just like you

Man in a wheat field

(Image: Matthew Henry)

Our society celebrates perfection. Magazine covers are perfectly photoshopped. Cover stories are always about some rags-to-riches story or some example 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 revolutionary tech that is going to change the world.[4] Celebrities become larger than life when seen often enough on TV and magazines.

People are then encouraged to think in binary 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, even online gurus, have full-time marketing teams who work to generate good press for these folks and clean up any bad publicity and negative criticism. If people didn’t already think of them as unicorns, they now have to.

But remember that everyone, including the experts, is still learning and sorting things out. 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.[5]
  • Lamar Odom, former NBA player and NBA Sixth Man of the Year who won 2 NBA championships, was found in a coma at a Nevada brothel in October 2015, after an alleged drug binge. He is awake and now on the long road to recovery.[6]
  • 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.[7] He was said to be battling drug addiction and depression leading up to his death.[8]

Minus fancy 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. 🙂 If you’ve found this guide helpful, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Let’s help everyone break out of the impostor syndrome and become their best self. Thank you! 🙂

Also check out:

This is part of the Skills Development series:

  1. Skill Building 101:
  2. Add-on tips:
  3. Obstacles you’ll face:

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