20 Ways to Combat Impostor Syndrome Every Day

By on Dec 12, 2016 in How To
20 Ways to Combat Impostor Syndrome Every Day

Before we dive into things, I want you to take a moment to watch the first two minutes of this video:

That, right there, is Natalie Portman giving the Harvard Commencement Speech in 2015. Correction: that's Oscar winner Natalie Portman, talking to graduating students at Harvard, and one of the first things she mentions is how she didn't feel like she belonged; someone made a mistake, and there's no reason for her to be there. And that is textbook Impostor Syndrome.

Unlike other syndromes that seem to be made up purely for website clicks, Impostor Syndrome is a very real condition that affects creatives all over the world, and some of them may not even realize it. And if you fall into this category — as I personally have many times — then you need a way to cope with the condition. Here are 20 ways to do just that.

Know What It Is

From Wikipedia:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud". Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.

In case that's not clear enough, let me use a real world example. A few years back, I was a copy editor at a local magazine, and shortly after I quit to freelance full-time, I received a phone call from a former publisher of mine. He needed help on this new magazine, and asked if I would be interested in writing a few stories for them. I said, "Sure," knocked out the stories, and then helped them through their print cycle because their existing editor couldn't do it. At the end of it all, I had impressed them so much that they offered me the editor-in-chief position, effective immediately.

I took the job, but I was positive that they would figure out that I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, I had been around editors before and I knew their jobs fairly well, but I had never done it personally, nor did I have any training. I was so sure they'd see me as a fraud that I lost sleep because of it. That position made me lose more brain cells to panic attacks than any since or before. I had Impostor Syndrome pretty bad. Sound familiar?

Knowing what it is and how to recognize the signs is crucial to moving past it.

Consider Therapy

There's a reason why therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists exist, and it's for people that have very real concerns about their situations. Impostor Syndrome is no different; patients come to these doctors and therapists because they don't feel that they deserve their success, and they give them tools to come with the issue. It's not for everyone, and depending on your insurance situation, it can be pricey. But it is something that you should consider if your means allow, because if nothing else, it's another person to talk to.

Admit Your Fears to a Confidant

If therapy isn't an option, then talk to a friend or mentor. This should be someone that you've dealt with on a personal level — not necessarily professionally — but that you can trust. It's nice to get an outsider's perspective on things sometimes, and often they can point out the things that may have slipped off your radar.

Expose Yourself

Think you don't know what you're doing? Maybe you're right. Tell someone — or everyone — exactly how you feel. Tell them what you're afraid of, and all of your concerns. That way, the people on the other end can respond appropriately by either consoling you, or confirming your fears. Either way, you won't feel like an impostor anymore.

Pretend the Job/Project is an Experiment

I've gone on a lot of job interviews, and every time I think to myself, "Who cares if you get this job or not? This is just a little test to see if I can get better at interviewing." It means that I don't worry about the end results, I just look at the entire experience like I was testing a hypothesis in the lab. It's a bit out-of-body-ish, but it can work for you.

Accept That It Is Impostor Syndrome and Move On

Feeling like a fraud sucks, but self awareness can move you forward. Whenever you start to get the vibe that you're not good enough to do the task at hand, think about it, and then ask yourself, "Is this Impostor Syndrome at work, or am I just that bad?" Chances are it's the former, and if you can identify it early on, you can move past it quicker.

Death is Imminent

It's a bummer to think about, but we're all going to die sometime. And there are stories in the news all the time about people taken away in the prime of their youth before they had a chance to accomplish anything. If you look at the big picture, and accept that you too will die someday, then you'll know that this is all just a blip in your personal timeline. You'll get through it, impostor or not, so go for it.

Find (or Create) a Support System

You are not alone. There are lots of people who suffer from Impostor Syndrome, and chances are pretty good that you know a few of them. Seek them out and talk to them about the problem. See where you can find common ground, and let them help build you up. Do the same with current or past co-workers who know your strengths and weaknesses. They can help confirm your abilities, and give you the extra confidence you need to succeed.

Take the Risk

So you've been offered a position at a new place where you clearly don't think you're qualified. You'll surely be discovered as a fraud, so there's no reason why you should accept the job, right? Wrong. Screw that. Step out of your comfort zone and take the risk. Sure, there's a chance that you're actually not qualified for the job, but there's also one that you are. Focus on that last part, because it's there that you'll find hope and a straight-through path to success.

Get Off Your High Horse

Now this is a bit counter-intuitive, but work with me here for a sec. If your confidence is high in what you do and how you do it, you may have set a higher bar for what you're able to do than is actually realistic. Thus the feeling of Impostor Syndrome creeping in may actually have some basis, since you're doing something you think you may not be able to do because of your loftier opinions on your abilities. By taking your ego out of the equation, you can look at things a bit more realistically and get back to doing what you need to do.

Say What You Can Do, Not What You Can't

Start by assessing the situation at hand. Say you're a new Art Director for an advertising agency in town, but you've never held that title before. What can you do to succeed? What can't you do? Focus on what you can accomplish, and then make those your priorities moving forward. More often than not, that alone will push you toward success.

Accept Your Successes and Your Failures

I was a pretty good editor at that first role, but I was a horrible editor at another, and that sucks. But I own up to both of them, because I'm the only one responsible for both. By owning and accepting what you're good at and bad at, you can get a more realistic look at the big picture of things. When you inevitably screw up in this new role (which we all do), then you can chalk it up as a failure and move on. Do the same with your victories, and be aware of both. It's a sure-fire way to combat the problem.

Forget About Being Perfect

There is literally nobody in the world that is perfect, contrary to what John Stamos will tell you. Therefore, there is no perfect standard that you need to hold yourself to, right? Right. So stop thinking that you have to be perfect. I know that sounds easy to do in concept, while sometimes struggling with your own high standards just seems like a way of life. But once you let go of your need to be perfect, you're a lot further along the trail to getting rid of Impostor Syndrome.

Ditch the Comparisons

I'm not a religious guy, but I've heard of the 10 Commandments, and one of them is "Thou Shalt Not Covet." Sound familiar? Look, it doesn't have to be your neighbor's house, wife or donkey; it could be their abilities or successes. And if you covet those, then you're being envious. As a result, you'll think you're not good enough because your "neighbor" is performing better than you. And that's dumb. Stop comparing yourself to others and focus on yourself first.

Your Boss Likely Experienced Impostor Syndrome Too

Whether or not they admit it or not, everyone has felt Impostor Syndrome at one point or another. Why wouldn't one of those people be your current or future boss? Makes sense, right? Of course it does. So consider opening up to that person, or just put that info in the back of your head. It will help you power through the rest of the way.

Know That You're in Good Company

It wasn't just Natalie Portman that had Impostor Syndrome, it's a ton of other people, too. Maya Angelou, Don Cheadle and Tina Fey all battle(d) with the condition, and they're not the only ones. Everyone, at one time or another, has felt something similar. Nobody feels like they're the best they can be at every given time, nor do they feel like they're the right one for the job. So keep at it, and know that whether you fail or succeed, you're in good company.

Focus On Providing Value

Instead of worrying about what you think you can't do, focus instead on what you can do. It helps take the stress off the job, and means that you'll be moving in the right direction: forward.

You Are an Evolving Being

Every successful person started off in a role where they didn't have any idea what they were doing. Think about it: did Brad Pitt know what it would be like to become a big movie star before he shot his first film? Of course not. We all start off in the same place, where we gain experience along the way, getting better as we go. Use that as your light in the coal mine to get you through the dark times.

Credentials Don't Determine Your Future

Know what a college degree gets you? A nice piece of paper that sits on a wall. Otherwise, all that credentials tell the world is that the person that earned them had the time (and money) to go to school and do the work. So if your future boss/client has one of those fancy degrees and it intimidates you to the point that you start feeling Impostor Syndrome, understand that they've just done a little bit of extra work beyond what you've done, it doesn't make them any smarter or better than you.

Nobody Knows What They're Doing

Hey when you turned 18, did you get that big manual that told you how to be a success, manage your finances and always be happy? Me either. And the older I get, the more I realize that nobody has any clue what the hell they're doing. We're all just winging it, trying to decipher the world and the clues it gives us so that we can be successful doing what we want to do. And if you're this way (which you are), then so is every potential boss that you'll ever have. Ever. Don't be intimidated by anything or anyone, because they're just as lost as you are.


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5 Comments

  1. Death is Imminent - I too find this reassuring! Also thinking how insignificant you are to the world helps me in times of stress. It means if you screw up, no harm done. It takes the pressure off trying to have a perfect 'score' in life.

  2. This is great. The "just tell someone" point is very good advice - it's not always easy to do, but it definitely works. Thank you.

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