Updated: Feb 10
The number one thing that seems to come up when talking to my coaching clients about making a much-needed career change is, “What will people think?” It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s trying to change industries, totally retooling the plan, or starting a new business, many seem to be more concerned about everyone else’s opinion versus what is best for them.
This phenomenon has been labeled Impostor Syndrome and runs deep in high-achieving women and minorities. Men also experience it, though they deal with it in different ways.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is the state of being afraid that you will be exposed as a fraud or as an “impostor.” It’s generally accompanied (and exacerbated by) perfectionism, black-and-white thinking, and intense fear of rejection and failure. These thought patterns create a perfect storm of insecurity, anxiety, and stress.
Impostor Syndrome is not about self-doubt or lack of confidence. Imposter Syndrome DOESN’T mean someone isn’t good enough for the job. It means that they don’t believe that they are, which affects their performance, productivity, and mental health.
Imposter Syndrome is much deeper than self-doubt, it’s based on who you think you are, vs. what you can do.
The impostor phenomenon seems to present itself when someone is embarking on a new endeavor—career change, seeking a promotion, starting a business, etc.
Most people experience some self-doubt when facing new challenges. But someone with Impostor Syndrome has an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes. Even if they experience outward signs of success, they have trouble believing that they're worthy. Instead, they may chalk their success up to good luck.
The impostor phenomenon and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand. So-called impostors think every task they tackle must be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help. That perfectionism can lead to two typical responses. An impostor may procrastinate, putting off a task out of fear that he or she won't be able to complete it to the necessary high standards. Or he or she may overprepare, spending much more time on a task than is necessary.
If you want to find out if you are indeed suffering from Imposter Syndrome and not just self-doubt, take the test created by Psychologist Pauline Rose Clance. You will find it here.
Why do we feel it?
Many people who feel like impostors grew up in families that placed a big emphasis on achievement. In particular, parents who send mixed messages—alternating between over-praise and criticism—can increase the risk of future fraudulent feelings. Societal pressures only add to the problem.
"In our society, there's a huge pressure to achieve," says Psychologist, Suzanne Imes. "There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving."
Critical self-talk is also at fault. If you’re in the habit of believing all your negative thoughts about yourself, you’re likely to feel like you aren’t good enough and don’t belong.
Some experts believe it has to do more with personality traits—like anxiety or neuroticism.
How do we overcome it?
It’s a process to overcome Impostor Syndrome, but it’s definitely not impossible. And it’s not something you should just have to live with. These are the steps that Impostor Syndrome experts recommend to overcome it:
Acknowledge the thoughts:
One of the first steps to overcoming impostor feelings is to acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective. “Simply observing that thought as opposed to engaging it” can be helpful, says psychologist Audrey Ervin.
Change your thinking:
This goes much deeper than self-affirmations and positive thinking that you don’t actually believe. You have to change your thoughts, literally rewire your brain so that new, confidence-boosting thoughts become natural to you, and your old, anxiety-producing thoughts wither away—along with the neural circuits that created them.
Master Certified Life Coach, Kara Lowentheil’s, The Thought Ladder is a great tool for this.
Figure out what you are thinking about yourself now. Brainstorm what you wish you could believe about yourself. Brainstorm 3 thoughts you could try to think now. Practice whichever thought you brainstormed that you like best. Or all of them! Read them over every morning, and any time insecurity hits. Put them on a post-it on your computer, write a note on your mirror, or set an alarm to remind you to think of them. More on the Thought Ladder and how to use it here.
Meditation and Mindfulness:
Author Clare Josa found in a 2019 study that one of the most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome is to cut stress levels and negative self-talk through regular meditation and mindfulness. Develop a regular schedule to take time to just be with yourself in quiet, peacefulness. Get in touch with the real you, not the noise in your mind. Get out of your head and pay attention to the things around you, the sound of the wind, the chirping of birds, the smell of a fresh cup of coffee, savoring a piece of dark chocolate.
Talk with a coach:
A coach will help you identify that yes, you are dealing with Imposter Syndrome. Then help you design a personal plan to combat it. Most importantly they will hold you accountable for your plan. Did you build your Thought Ladder? What does it look like? Have you been practicing it? How many times did you meditate this week? What came up? You get the drift.
Now that you know that there are ways to combat your Impostor Syndrome it’s time to work on it so you can comfortably and confidently move in the direction that you want to go without overwhelming fear that you aren’t good enough. Do the work on yourself, then take the steps to move forward with command and grace. You know you are good enough, now go for it!
Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here's How to Deal With It, Time Magazine, June 20, 2018
Feel Like a Fraud? American Psychological Association
Kara Loewentheil (Host), Unf*ck Your Brain Podcast, Episode 2, Imposter Syndrome, October 25, 2017, https://unfuckyourbrain.com/podcasts/
Clare Josa, November 2019, Impostor Syndrome White Paper, http://www.clarejosa.com/