Do you ever feel like a sheep in wolf’s clothing? Yep, you read that right. A sheep in wolf’s clothing: Someone who appears to be strong-willed, powerful, and very independent while on the inside they feel like they don’t belong where they are. It’s only human to have self-doubt—“Am I good enough?”—however, when that self-doubt manifests itself as a constant nagging feeling—“I’m a fraud and everyone here will find out!”—that’s when one truly feels like they are fighting a losing battle. This is actually a very real phenomenon called “Imposter Syndrome.” Do you have Imposter Syndrome?
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The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. – Bertrand Russell
Introduction to Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome is said to affect about 70% of the population at some point in their lives, according to a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. The term was first coined in the ’70s by psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and “Refers 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.” (Source) People who exhibit Imposter Syndrome remain convinced that their own success and achievements are attributed to luck, timing, or because they were able to fool others into thinking that they are smarter and more competent than they actually themselves believe they are.
Even though Imposter Syndrome isn’t listed as an official diagnosis in any of the manuals about mental disorders, psychologists and healthcare professionals do acknowledge it as a crippling form of intellectual self-doubt. What’s interesting is that even though the syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis in itself, the feelings associated with it usually go hand in hand with other recognized mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
It’s so important to understand that statistically, 7 out of the 10 people around you may actually be facing emotions of Imposter Syndrome, or at least are likely to at some point in their lives, just like you. Even though it was initially believed that women were more affected by Imposter Syndrome than men, recent studies have shown that this is not a gendered experience.
Oftentimes, the root of these fraudulent feelings can be traced back to our childhood. Growing up in a family where parents or other influential role models oscillate between over-criticism and over-praise—wherein success and achievements are of the utmost importance—can prompt the child into becoming a highly ambitious over-achiever who is at risk of experiencing Imposter Syndrome as they mature. Of course, society’s standards of success and the pressure that accompanies them, only adds fuel to the fire.
Other factors that lead to fuelling this sense of being a fraud are the way we differ from the majority of our peers, be it our appearance, gender, sexual orientation, race, or other defining characteristics. Millennials are also at a higher risk of facing feelings of Imposter Syndrome, as their time of entering the workforce is occurring during some remarkable technological and socio-economic developments that require constant learning and adaptability due to the rate that mankind is excelling at.
While some people may see adaptability as a good trait to possess, it can also make others feel like they aren’t equipped with the expertise they should have to begin with, rather than learning and adapting to situations. Perfectly curated social media feeds don’t help either—in many cases, people base their self worth on another’s Facebook or LinkedIn page and are severely critical about the way they perceive themselves in comparison. At this point, their perceptions are often not aligned with the reality of things.
One attribute that commonly occurs in high-achieving people and often accompanies Imposter Syndrome is perfectionism. Perfectionism typically leads a person to take one of two routes: Procrastination or over-preparation. Someone dealing with imposter-like feelings is very likely to put off tasks until the very last minute due to a sometimes irrational fear that they may not complete the task at high enough standards, or on the flip side, they may spend way too much time on the task when it isn’t required.
Criticism, failure, and mistakes seem to be the only thing that people with Imposter Syndrome dwell upon. This trait often translates into a deep-running fear of the person’s failures being exposed and can limit the chance to explore and take a leap of faith.
Although it is possible to ease the feelings related to imposter syndrome, the best way to deal with it is to address it while it’s taking root. Transparency about such feelings with someone you look up to, or in a safe environment, can really help. However, this method of management works best when there is two-way communication; When mentors open up about their experiences with imposter syndrome, it brings light to the fact that others also face the same feelings of inadequacy. This may help others from victimizing themselves as it no longer feels like a negative experience that is limited to only them.
Another great reflective tool that many people use includes making lists of their own successes, accomplishments, and positive experiences where they stood out or felt like they truly deserved the accolades they received. This helps to reiterate the fact that one may not be an “imposter” after all. Of course, having a strong support system that is open to discussing these feelings while providing feedback regularly, is one of the best ways to cope with the syndrome.
You Aren’t Facing Imposter Syndrome Alone
In the name of cutting out the isolation that comes with the infamous Imposter Syndrome, here is a list of 10 highly successful individuals in their respective fields who at some point have or still experience these crippling insecurities.
Even a man of Einstein’s caliber and genius was not immune to feeling like a fraud. Perhaps one of the most influential scientists of the last 5 centuries, Albert Einstein was known to have faced Imposter Syndrome later in life. He was once quoted saying to a close confidant:
The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler. – Albert Einstein
It’s extremely surprising and a little hard to understand how someone as brilliant as him may have had insecurities about his own achievements, but it only goes to show that it’s all a part of being human.
Maya Angelou’s list of achievements is one that can hardly be replicated by someone else. She was a poet, civil rights activist, memoirist, actor, director, producer, and author who published 7 autobiographies, 3 books of essays, countless books on poetry, has an extremely impressive literary career wherein she is credited with writing a long list of plays, screenplays for movies and television—over the span of 5 decades—and has over 50 honorary degrees along with several other impressive awards and accolades—all while facing her own personal hardships. A woman of such substance and grit, yet Angelou was once quoted saying:
I have written eleven 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
Another brilliant author, Steinbeck was the winner of two of the most prestigious awards in the world: The 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for his famous work, The Grapes of Wrath. Not only are his literary works inspiring generations even after his death, his books are also being adapted to movies, namely the 2016 film, In Dubious Battle, which starred James Franco and Selena Gomez. Contrary to how successful others thought he was, Steinbeck wrote in his journal:
I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. – John Steinbeck
He also famously admired the characters in his works for being “So much stronger and purer and braver,” than he was.
The first woman to serve on Facebook’s board of directors, Sandberg is currently the company’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), however, even before Facebook, she has been linked to an impressive number of organizations. In the past, she has also been the Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google and had an active role in launching Google.org, which is the company’s philanthropic vertical. Her long list of achievements further include serving as the United States Secretary of Treasury’s Chief of Staff, being named in the Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list, and, more recently, establishing the Lean In Foundation and becoming an author. Sandberg is said to be worth over 1 Billion US Dollars, thanks to her stocks in Facebook and several other profitable companies. Even after achieving what would seem like the epitome of success to many career-oriented people, she states:
There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am. – Sheryl Sandberg
Often hailed as the best actress of her generation, Meryl Streep is hugely famous for her ability to adapt to different accents and for the versatility of the roles she plays. Streep is said to be one of the only six actors who have won 3+ competitive Oscars for acting and 20 nominations, has had 30 Golden Globe Nominations, of which she won 8, which is more nominations or competitive wins than any other actor. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2010 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 by President Obama and has managed to secure accolades and fame internationally too, wherein even the Government of France made her the Commander of the Orders of Arts and Letters in 2003. Even after smashing records and winning the highest and most prestigious awards possible across the globe, Meryl Streep still has been quoted as saying:
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
Given how remarkably tough it is for female comedians to make it an industry renowned for sexism, Tina Fey has truly carved a niche for herself, all while silencing naysayers. She is an actor, comedian, writer, and producer, has won 9 Primetime Emmy Awards, 2 Golden Globe Awards, 5 Screen Actors Guild Awards, 4 Writers Guild of America Awards throughout her career so far and has also been awarded the Associated Press Entertainer of the Year Award in 2008. Furthermore, she surpassed any remaining glass ceilings when she was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2010, making her the youngest ever recipient of the award. She talks candidly about her encounter with Imposter Syndrome:
The beauty of the imposter 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!” So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. – Tina Fey
Anyone who knows of Cheryl Strayed can tell you that the woman is the definition of grit and determination. She has had a tumultuous past ever since her mother died of lung cancer and she took to heroin to deal with the grief. This eventually led to the end of her first marriage. Strayed’s journey to healing and self-discovery led her to hike solo along the 1,100 mile-long Pacific Crest Trail without any prior knowledge or experience of hiking at the age of 26. She was able to beautifully capture the parallel narratives of the experiences during the hike and her personal challenges in life, in the book. She is a memoirist, essayist, podcast host, and the author of 5 bestselling books. Even though she was triumphant in the face of adversity and difficult situations that she got through all by herself, she has also dealt with Imposter Syndrome in some ways:
Writing is always full of self-doubt, but the first book [Torch] is really full of self-doubt, and it was much more of a struggle to keep the faith. By the time I wrote Wild, I was familiar with that feeling of doubt and self-loathing, so I just thought, “Okay, this is how it feels to write a book.” – Cheryl Strayed
Emma Watson is an actor, model, and activist with an estimated net worth of 70 Million US Dollars—all at her current age of 27. Her accomplishments include graduating from Brown University with a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature, all the while handling a professional acting career as well. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts honored Watson with the British Artist of the Year title in 2014 and in the same year she was also appointed as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. With her role at the UN, Watson launched the HeForShe Campaign that actively encourages men to take up the role of gender-equality advocates. Reaching such heights of success at a young age sometimes made her feel like an imposter. She once said:
When I was younger, I just did it. I just acted. It was just there. So now when I receive recognition for my acting, I feel incredibly uncomfortable. I tend to turn in on myself. I feel like an imposter. It was just something I did. – Emma Watson
While most people know of Natalie Portman as a brilliant actress, her genius isn’t just limited to the arts. She is well known for her affinity towards foreign languages since childhood and has thus subsequently studied Hebrew, French, Japanese, German, and Arabic. A lesser-known fact about her is that she co-authored two research papers that were published in scientific journals—”A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar” which she co-wrote in high school and was entered into the Intel Science Talent Search, and worked on the “Frontal Lobe Activation During Object Permanence: Data From Near-Infrared Spectroscopy” paper, during her time studying Psychology at Harvard. Yet she stated:
When I got to Harvard just after the release of Star Wars: Episode 1, I feared people would assume I had gotten in just for being famous, and not worthy of the intellectual rigor here. – Natalie Portman
Gaga is known to be one of the best selling musicians of all times, with over 27 million albums and 146 million singles sold. Her talent and hard work have paid off in the form of 3 Brit Awards, 6 Grammy Awards, awards from the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and even several Guinness World Records. She was voted to be one of VH1’s Top 5 Greatest Women in Music, Time’s Most Influential People of the past decade (2011), and has also been on Forbes’s Power and Earning Rankings. Her efforts towards LGBTQ rights and social activism has led her to start the Born This Way Foundation in order to combat bullying and empowering LGBTQ youth. Lady Gaga’s philanthropic work stems from her own experiences as a young person and sometimes those feeling do resurface. She once was quoted saying:
I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I’m a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need for me to be. – Lady Gaga
This list of prominent personalities opens up a small window into the minds of some well known successful people and helps cement the fact that no matter how alone you think you are when it comes to Imposter Syndrome, the reality is that you aren’t. Celebrities can feel like imposters, successful people can feel like imposters, and anyone else can as well. It’s important to remember that the feeling of being a fraud doesn’t actually make you one.
How Do I Know if it’s Imposter Syndrome?
People who experience Imposter Syndrome lose out on some great opportunities because of their lack of faith in themselves and the feeling that they may not be qualified. Here are some situations that arise or pointers that can be noticed that can become detrimental to a person’s mental health over a long period of time:
- Having a marginally higher level of stress.
- Anxiety about even the smallest of tasks.
- Procrastination that leads to more anxiety.
- Constantly living in the fear of someone finding out about their lack of experience or skills.
- Feeling like they don’t belong.
- Always either understating or completely disclaiming their achievements and experiences.
- Shying away from asking for a raise because they feel that someone else may deserve it more than them, thus implying that their own worth isn’t as much.
- Not applying for jobs or promotions, even when it’s an appropriate position for them.
- Extreme nervousness and sometimes even anxiety when they have to talk to someone in their own field due to the fear of being “found out.” Can hamper some great networking opportunities.
- Over-preparing for tasks.
- Looking for perfectionism in everything and everyone and when expectations aren’t met, it causes anxiety.
- Even going to the extent of becoming a people-pleaser to keep up the “perfect” image thus never being able to say a firm “No” to anybody.
I Think I Know Someone Who May Have Imposter Syndrome
Firstly, kudos to you for recognizing this pattern in someone else. Unfortunately, the chances are that they may not even be aware that Imposter Syndrome is a real thing. So, what are the steps that you could take to support them?
- Have an open line of communication with the person before you delve into the nitty-gritty details of what they are going through.
- Share your own experience of having these fraudulent feelings if you have been through them, too.
- Maybe start a blog and help even more people connect to a community of supporters.
- Encourage the people that you care about to apply for a job, raise, or promotion that you know they deserve, but back it up with why you think they qualify for the position.
- Don’t let the people around you underplay or misrepresent their success or experience as any less than it is. Empower them by letting them know that it’s okay to own it!
- Maybe even write a LinkedIn recommendation for someone you know who deserves it.
- Ask questions about them and drop little compliments that aren’t superficial, but actually relate to what they are insecure about. It may help them see themselves in a different light.
I Think I May Be the One Dealing With Imposter Syndrome
The fact that you recognize that you might be experiencing Imposter Syndrome is a big plus. It is understandable that you may want to prove yourself but feel that you aren’t equipped with reputable skills or abilities, but oscillating between the fear of failure and fear of success can be self-sabotaging. This constant internal struggle can prevent you from reaching your full potential. Here are a few tips and tricks to deal with Imposter Syndrome when you notice its effects:
Own Your Achievements
Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. – C.S. Lewis
Learn to take a compliment. When someone says that you did a good job, instead of being modest and rejecting what they said, say a simple “Thank you,” or “I appreciate you noticing the effort I put in, thanks!” Not only is it good manners and makes others feel like you know how to graciously accept a compliment, but it also makes you feel good about yourself. Being humble is a good thing but while you may think you are being modest by not accepting accolades, it may actually come off as insulting to the person who gave you the compliment as it makes them feel like you don’t value their opinion.
You have to realize that even if you were given an opportunity that others didn’t get a shot at, you may have done something to actually deserve it. Our inability to internalize our success may sometimes make us feel like we don’t deserve it but in reality, there are other factors than just luck and timing: The way you present yourself, your personality, your ability to pick up skills fast, or communication skills can all play a role. It could be the smallest thing, or a combination of things, that landed you the opportunity, but it was all you. Own it.
Stop Comparing Yourself to Everyone Around You
So you log into Facebook and you see that one individual who is traveling the world and living the good life. You log onto LinkedIn and you see that person from your high school who is now the CEO of a successful start-up. You check your Instagram feed and you see that friend who is now getting their third Graduate Degree.
Here’s the thing: Just as you’re thinking about how you wish you were one of them, they, and probably several others, are probably wishing they were you. Think about it: Do you post a selfie of your 3 am mental breakdown on your bathroom floor, or do you post about the marathon you ran last week and the fun Saturday night out? The perfectly curated and filtered out feeds on social media are only the best version of the life that others want you to see. In the kind of connected world that we live in, it’s too easy to fall down the comparison rabbit hole. As Emerson once wrote:
Envy is ignorance. – Waldo Emerson
There will always be someone doing what you do or what you want to do, but that doesn’t make your unique skills and abilities lesser than theirs. Respect your own experiences and just be you. Stop focusing on your neighbor’s grass and water your own.
Make a physical note of every nice thing that someone says about you
A visual reminder can be very reaffirming. Make a note of the compliments you receive on a daily basis, no matter how small it is. When someone compliments you, it gives you a glimpse into how others perceive you. It can be easy to forget all the positives about yourself because you live with it every day, so turn to these notes whenever you feel like a fraud and they will help lift your spirits.
Remind yourself of the value that you provide
Instead of asking yourself “Why me?” ask yourself “Why not me?” In a professional environment, it can be easy to doubt your skills and experiences, and that may cause anxiety. However, you belong in the position you do, because your boss or someone at another senior-level hired you, as they think you have what it takes. The value you add can be anything from doing the actual work or even just keeping the team morale up.
Remember, everyone is just as clueless as you are
Honestly, no one knows what they are doing. Everyone is just putting their best foot forward, trying as hard as they can, and hoping things work out. The future is uncertain for everyone, not just you. Most success stories you hear about only actually happened after multiple failures such as inventions that didn’t work, millions of dollars that got lost, or start-ups that didn’t make it. Thomas Edison famously said:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. – Thomas Edison
The point is that if Edison had given up the first time, or even the hundredth time, that something didn’t work, he wouldn’t ever have come to be known as one of modern-day America’s best inventors. It took a lot of bravery and constant failure, but also perseverance in the face of the unknown, which led to his success. One wouldn’t call him an imposter for trying to add value to the world and the same logic also applies to everyone else, including you.
Stop giving yourself so much importance
Perfectionism may be the cause, or the unfortunate side effect, of Imposter Syndrome. The truth behind perfectionism is the stress we put on self-importance and perfection that may have never been there. To be human is to err. When you constantly try to put forth the image of being the poster child of success and achievements, you risk doing things that make you feel less like you and more like a fraud. Take yourself off that pedestal and watch a bit of the stress evaporate.
Vulnerability can be liberating. What fuels Imposter Syndrome is our misconception that others may not be able to deal with the “real us”. This again relates to putting yourself on a pedestal. Not only is it self-inflicted intellectual torture, but it stops you from connecting to others. Our vulnerabilities are part of what allows us to form true human connections, so be open to being vulnerable so you can share your “real” personality with others.
Being vulnerable can also be achieved by just writing down your deepest, darkest thoughts and fears, no matter how taboo they are. This process helps you push these thoughts and feelings out and externalizes them—you may then be able to see them from a more organized and sane perspective. If you feel that you’re able to express yourself through some other art form better, do that instead. The more you write or create the more you’ll be connected to yourself and eventually, you’ll be able to be your most vulnerable self around others as well.
Find Your Confidant
Finding someone with who you can openly discuss your feelings of Imposter Syndrome can be so therapeutic. Being able to tell them that, “Hey, I feel like a total fraud and don’t deserve any of this,” can help relieve you of the emotional and mental burden that you carry. Your confidant may be able to talk you through your feelings and help point out why they think you deserve your success, even when you can’t see it yourself.
Say it out loud
Acknowledging a problem is usually the first step towards dealing with it. If you are in denial, the problem will only fester and the eventual consequences may be worse. So say it out loud and accept the responsibility of addressing the issue.
Realize how it affects those around you
When you let Imposter Syndrome take over your life, it not only affects you but also the people around you. When you hold yourself back it can make you emotionally stunted and unavailable for those who actually need you. Those who have always supported you and/or look up to you may feel disappointed in the fact that you don’t see yourself the way they see you. Not only that but on a daily basis, even your mood can rub off on others and create a negative environment around you, which is harmful to yourself and the others around you, too.
Messing up does not make you a fraud
Why would you glorify your failures if you don’t also glorify your successes? Making a mistake or being wrong about something that you think you know well does not make you an imposter. Everybody is wrong about stuff all the time. Big deal. Just look at the number of goof-ups that people on your social media platforms have made: Celebrities say stuff that they shouldn’t have, people make mistakes about technical stuff, and even famous writers have typos and grammatical errors. Heck, even we started from the bottom here on A Better Lemonade Stand, eventually improved our website, and built a dedicated audience of entrepreneurs eager to build, launch and grow their own ecommerce businesses.
Look at the sports team that you support or your favorite athlete. I can guarantee that they won’t have a 100% track record. They are bound to lose some games and it’s absolutely normal, in fact, if they won every time, what would be the fun in watching them play? Losing does not make them any less of an athlete, it’s just part of the game. The same goes for you—making a mistake does not make you a fraud. Learn from your mistake and move on.
Fake it Until you make it
It works more often than you think. The term “neuroplasticity” means that you can shape and train your brain by pretending. That’s how babies learn to walk and talk and also why sometimes smiling when you’re upset, can actually make you feel better. So even if you feel like you’re fake right now, that may not be true forever.
The point here is that most of the people who have made it big have definitely imitated others and picked up on different skills and mannerisms by faking it. There’s nothing wrong with it and it also doesn’t mean that you are an impostor for doing so.
The “Real You” is subjective
Think of who you were two years back and think of who you are today. Are these two versions of yourself EXACTLY the same? No? That’s because you are constantly growing, changing, learning, and shaping into a better version of yourself. The experiences you have, the hardships you face, the people you meet, all have a lasting impact on your life thus changing you bit by bit. So when you say that you want to be yourself, what does that even mean? Is it a solid and attainable version of you that will never change, no matter what? That actually sounds scary as it takes away the zest for learning and prevents you from opening up your mind to new ideas.
You will also never be the same with any two people. Your interactions will be based on the kind of relationship you share, the situation you are in, and the experiences you have had with them individually. Everyone gets a different version of you and that’s alright. It doesn’t make you fake, just a normal human being.
Your title and credentials DO NOT define you
Focusing on the titles you’ve earned instead of the good you’ve done is a fast track way of driving yourself crazy. No matter how many credentials you obtain, you may not feel like you’ve achieved enough if you are dealing with Imposter Syndrome. However, focusing on the minute details of all the good things that you have done may help ease the feeling of not being good enough. Truth be told, even the “experts” are people who are constantly learning new things and may very well be proved wrong in the near future. That doesn’t make them an imposter and also goes to show that titles can often be just empty shells.
You Won’t Live Forever
As morbid as it sounds, it’s true. Essentially, everyone is going to die. Just because Shakespeare created beautiful literature and Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, did not excuse them from eventually meeting their fate. Success doesn’t guarantee anything. So instead of wasting all your time worrying about the fact that people will find out about your apparent “fakeness”, just do your best and move on. At the end of it all, you don’t want to be left with regrets; “I should have applied for that job!” “I shouldn’t have wasted my time trying to be perfect!” Accept yourself just as you accept and recognize the efforts and achievements of others.
In conclusion to this article, I’m going to leave this excerpt from a blog post by the bestselling author Neil Gaiman, in response to a fan reaching out for help to beat Imposter Syndrome:
“The best help I can offer is to point you to Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence. She talks about Imposter Syndrome (and interviews me in it) and offers helpful insight.
The second best help might be in the form of an anecdote. Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realize that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”