Imposter syndrome is a surprisingly common issue that many people struggle with on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, it’s also far more painful and pervasive than most people realize. It can even lead to serious issues with anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and low self-esteem.
But here’s the good news:
No matter how long you’ve struggled with imposter syndrome, it is possible to overcome it.
In my work as a psychologist, I’ve helped many people understand the root causes of their imposter syndrome and develop realistic strategies to undo the deep habits and beliefs that maintain it.
In the rest of this guide, we’ll take a deep dive to understand the psychology behind imposter syndrome, including what it really is and what causes it.
Then we’ll move on to a collection of strategies I’ve found to be most effective in helping people free themselves from imposter syndrome for good.
Table of Contents
Feel free to use the following links to jump to a particular section of interest:
- What Is Imposter Syndrome?
- Signs and Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome
- What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
- 4 Common Types of Imposter Syndrome
- 8 Strategies for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
- Summary & Conclusion
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
To better understand what imposter syndrome is, let’s look at a quick example from real life…
Janie was a former client of mine who came to see me to work through her issues feeling like an imposter. Having recently started a prestigious job at a law firm, she was flooded with thoughts and worries about not being good enough.
Even though she had graduated top of her class from a very prestigious law school, she felt like a fraud at work. All day, every day, thoughts like these would run through her mind:
- I’m out of my league. I don’t even know what they’re talking about right now.
- I don’t know why I convinced myself to take such a high-pressure job. I never do well under pressure. It won’t be long before they regret ever having hired me.
- Everyone thinks I’m so great, but that’s just because I’m really good at hiding my weaknesses. It’s going to be so embarrassing when they find out I’m not what they think.
Besides being incredibly distracting and making it hard to focus on her work, this stream of negative thoughts about herself and her abilities kept Janie in a near-constant state of anxiety and insecurity. She dreaded going to work each morning and, ironically, couldn’t enjoy her evenings and weekends because she was worried about going back to work and being “found out.”
Janie would try to remind herself that she was smart and that everyone struggles when they first start a new job, but it didn’t seem to help much against the waves of self-doubt and insecurity that plagues her each day. While she opened up about her fears to her mother and one close friend, they both tried to reassure her that it was “all in her head” and that she would be fine—again, this didn’t seem to help much.
And on top of all the anxiety and insecurity, Janie was also just frustrated. She was frustrated that she knew she was smart, had worked hard, and that her talents and passion were being held back by these thoughts of being an imposter and not good enough.
Janie knew she wasn’t a fraud but she felt like it all the time. Turns out, that’s the definition of imposter syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome: A Quick Definition
While there’s no official consensus on what imposter syndrome is technically, here’s a simple, straightforward definition that I think fits most people:
Imposter syndrome is the tendency to think and feel that you’re not good enough despite knowing that you are.
While people with imposter syndrome understand intellectually that they are not in fact frauds, they feel like it nonetheless. And no matter how much success they achieve, they tend to devalue it and exaggerate their weaknesses or faults.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome?
While imposter syndrome can take many forms depending on the person and the situation, these signs or symptoms are often found among people who feel like an imposter:
- Devaluing successes and strengths. Ironically, people who suffer from imposter syndrome understand intellectually that they have many strengths, and frequent successes or achievements. But they tend to devalue or diminish those successes. They often downplay their importance or attribute them to purely external factors like luck.
- Exaggerating failures and weaknesses. At the same time, people with imposter syndrome often spend a lot of time and energy thinking about and analyzing their mistakes and failures. They exaggerate the relative importance of their failures, imagine people care more about them than they really do, and convince themselves that even small mistakes are the beginning of much bigger more catastrophic failures to come.
- Chronic self-doubt. People who feel like an imposter tend to experience a lot of negative self-talk, often in the form of self-doubt. They consistently question their own judgment and decision-making, which often leads to feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem. They often also feel indecisive as a result of their self-doubt.
- Dwelling on past mistakes. When people with imposter syndrome do inevitably make some mistakes, a hallmark is that they tend to dwell on them and ruminate about them, often to the point of obsessiveness. They’ll frequently find themselves going over a mistake at work while they’re at home eating dinner with their family or in bed trying to fall asleep. In other words, they have a hard time accepting and letting go of even very small mistakes in the past and keep those mistakes front and center in their attention.
- Worry about being “found out” and revealed as a fraud. A final common sign of imposter syndrome drone is social anxiety. Specifically, people who feel like an imposter often spend a lot of time and mental energy imagining what other people think of them—especially, what other people might think if they realize how much of a fraud they think they are. This leads to high levels of anxiety and anticipatory guilt and shame.
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
After working for a few weeks with my former client Janie who struggled with imposter syndrome, I discovered some interesting facts about her history and background. In particular, she described how her family growing up was extremely “achievement-oriented” and that her parents often went back and forth between extreme praise for success and extreme criticism and judgment for failure.
Janie told me that she always worked hard and was able to achieve a lot of success because of how much her parents valued it and how much she craved their approval. On the other hand, she described how even as a young child she felt like “failure and disappointment were always right around the corner.”
Janie managed to get through high school, college, and law school without too much trouble with imposter syndrome because she was, in her words, “a big fish in relatively small ponds.” However, when she arrived at her first major corporate law job, it was like all those fears and insecurities that had previously been in the background came charging upfront and center in her life.
I also noticed after spending some time working with Janie that a lot of the things she was doing to try and deal with her imposter syndrome were likely making it worse without her realizing it.
For example, she had begun asking for more and more reassurance from trusted friends and family. And while this often made her feel less anxious in the moment, it was clear to me that this habit was only making her anxieties and insecurities worse in the long run.
This story of my client Janie illustrates two key ideas when thinking about what causes imposter syndrome:
- The initial causes of imposter syndrome often come at a young age. And it often has to do with our relationship with primary caregivers or important adults in our lives.
- The maintaining causes of imposter syndrome happen in the present. And they often take the form of habits and behaviors that seem like coping skills but actually reinforce the imposter syndrome in the long term.
Common Initial Causes of Imposter Syndrome
As we mentioned, the most come initial causes of imposter syndrome happen relatively early in life:
- A parenting style that is highly achievement-oriented and highly critical. A common pattern among people with imposter syndrome is that one or both of their parents had an approach to parenting that put a lot of focus on success and achievement and rewarded it strongly. But one where there was extreme criticism, judgmentalness, or even shaming for failure and mistakes. This pattern is a set up for being high-achieving and driven but also insecure and looking to other people for signs of self-worth and value.
- An early traumatic experience. When children experience any kind of trauma, it’s not uncommon for them to develop a deep sense of shame and fundamental unworthiness in themselves—as if having been the object of something truly evil makes them evil by association. Consequently, when these children grow up, no matter how successful they are, this deep belief in their own unworthiness can manifest itself in the firm of imposter syndrome.
- A fixed mindset. A fixed mindset refers to a person’s belief that their personality, talents, and abilities are relatively predetermined and fixed by nature and genetics. This means that any failure or mistake is often interpreted to be a sign of personal deficiency and low self-worth. Having such a fixed mindset is frequently a risk factor for developing imposter syndrome.
- Extreme talent relative to one’s peers. A little-talked-about but frequent pattern I see in people with imposter syndrome is a history where early in life they had enormous talents and abilities relative to their peers. As a result, there was often considerable pressure on them to live up to their high potential. And for many of these children, that pressure morphs into imposter syndrome as they age into adulthood.
It’s essential to understand that regardless of what led to a person developing or being at risk for imposter syndrome initially, nearly all cases of imposter syndrome are maintained by habits and reinforcement in the present. And often working through imposter syndrome is more about these maintaining causes than the initial ones.
Common Maintaining Causes of Imposter Syndrome
These subtle habits—many of which are mental habits—tend to be primary drivers and maintainers of imposter syndrome:
- Reassurance-seeking. Reassurance-seeking is the habit of looking to others to alleviate your anxieties or insecurities. While reassurance-seeking—and the reassurance you often get as a result—feel good in the moment, it tends to perpetuate imposter syndrome long-term. When you habitually look to other people for confidence and validation, you miss out on the opportunity to do so for yourself. And if you never validate yourself, you’ll never truly believe that you’re competent enough.
- Mind-reading. Mind-reading is the mental habit of assuming you know what other people are thinking, especially about you. When you imagine that your boss knows you’re a phony or that your supervisor can see through you and see all your insecurities and doubts, you’re making assumptions based on your imagination rather than facts in real life. This leads to increased anxiety and other unhelpful habits like reassurance-seeking or catastrophizing.
- Hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is the tendency to be on the lookout for danger and threat. While this is normal in times of genuine danger, it leads to chronic stress and insecurity when it becomes the default way of operating. Furthermore, hypervigilance can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy because we tend to be more aware of, and then fixate on, otherwise small or inconsequential mistakes or doubts.
- Rumination. Rumination is the mental habit of dwelling on and getting stuck thinking about past mistakes or failures beyond the point of helpfulness. Of course, some amount of reflection on our mistakes in the past is helpful, but when we get stuck ruminating endlessly on mistakes it biases out thinking to become overly negative and self-critical.
- Catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is the tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios. As soon as some little mistake is made, for example, you quickly move from that to being severely reprimanded, losing your job, and never being able to find another one again. When you’re in the habit of catastrophizing, it leads to the feeling that everything is wrong and bad, which tends to exacerbate similar feelings in imposter syndrome.
- Emotional Reasoning. Emotional reasoning is the habit of making decisions based on our emotions and feelings rather than evidence and fact. Because people who struggle with imposter syndrome often feel like frauds, emotional reasoning tends to lead them to make decisions in-line with this feeling of being a fraud. If you feel incompetent, for example, it might lead you to hesitate and waver on an important decision, which then would be seen as a sign that you lack initiative and decisiveness.
Note that many of these core maintaining causes of imposter syndrome are subtypes of negative self-talk. As we’ll see later, a key approach to dealing with imposter syndrome is learning to identify negative self-talk and then retrain it to be more compassionate and realistic.
4 Common Types of Imposter Syndrome
When it comes to imposter syndrome, everybody is different, of course. You have your own unique background and history, living situation and environment, challenges and goals—all of which means, no two people’s experience of imposter syndrome is going to be exactly alike.
That being said, there are common themes or patterns in imposter syndrome. And in my experience working with folks who struggle with this, there are several types or forms of imposter syndrome that are worth mentioning.
If nothing else, it’s helpful to see how certain ways of trying to cope with imposter syndrome actually become a part of the problem itself.
For many people who struggle with imposter syndrome, their primary response is to just work harder—often WAY harder—than anyone else.
Some of the beliefs that characterize this type of imposter syndrome include:
- If they see that I’m always working, they won’t notice my flaws as much.
- I need to be the hardest working person in the building.
- I’m the one who gets things done… no matter what.
- If I just work hard enough, I won’t make these kinds of mistakes anymore.
In short, the workaholic believes that the solution to being an imposter—or at least feeling like one—is more work.
But as anyone who’s been a workaholic for long enough realizes, working hard doesn’t make your imposter syndrome go away. If anything, it makes it worse because you put in even more time and effort and still feel the same way which is profoundly discouraging and frustrating.
In addition to excessive amounts of work not actually changing your feeling of being an imposter, it also comes with a long list of nasty side effects like chronic stress, burnout, fatigue, poor sleep, and often decreased quality of work.
The Perfectionist is the mirror image of The Workaholic. While The Workaholic tries to manage their imposter syndrome by producing huge quantities of effort and work, The Perfectionist uses an extreme quality of work to deal with feeling like an imposter.
Here are a few signs of perfectionism:
- Discounting very good performances because they weren’t the absolute best.
- Spending an excessive amount of time and energy getting even inconsequential aspects of your work just right.
- Precrastination, which is the tendency to procrastinate on truly important tasks because you insist on perfecting all sorts of less important ones first.
- Not being able to give yourself credit for successes or a job well done because your performance wasn’t technically perfect.
What all these symptoms of perfectionism have in common is that they can be used as a defense mechanism against the fear of being discovered as an imposter. Holding yourself to an insanely high standard, for example, temporarily makes you feel like you’re not an imposter or a fake.
Of course the trouble with perfectionism—like workaholism—is that not only does it not actually address imposter syndrome long term, but it comes with some pretty terrible side effects like chronically low self-esteem or self-worth, stress, anxiety, and even procrastination.
The Control Freak
One common way that people try to manage their imposter syndrome is by taking excessive and unproductive amounts of control over things.
This “works” in the short-term to manage imposter syndrome because being in control gives you a sense of agency, power, and influence, all of which distract from the insecurities of imposter syndrome. But in the long-run, of course, this strategy tends to do more harm than good.
Here are a few signs of being a control freak:
- Micromanaging the activities of people in your life like children, employees, or spouses.
- Having a hard time delegating tasks even though you know it would be in your best interest.
- You frequently give advice and make suggestions even though no one’s asking for it.
In addition to the added stress of trying to exert too much control, the other major downside of being a control freak is that it tends to wreak havoc on your relationships.
Whether it’s being too involved in your kid’s homework or constantly butting in with your employees’ work, exerting too much control over the people in our lives usually leads them to resent us and distance themselves from us.
As we discussed earlier, one of the common origins of imposter syndrome is extreme levels of talent or giftedness as a child. While this might seem like a blessing, for many hyper-talented kids it can also be a curse—the expectations of greatness and the ability to theoretically achieve almost anything can be a crushing burden psychologically.
Many of these children come into adulthood with a form of imposter syndrome I call the Prodigy. Basically, they’re known as being extremely gifted and talented in certain areas—and in fact, much of their identity rests on this talent. This means that they end up designing their lives around ensuring that people continue to see them as super talented in a particular area.
Unfortunately, maintaining the image of a prodigy often comes at the expense of living a full, rich life. For example, many of these people deliberately avoid situations or activities that they’re not good at in order to keep up the appearance of being supremely talented (because their whole sense of self rests on that).
One of the most tragic side-effects of this type of imposter syndrome is that people end up narrowing their lives down to only include things that make them seem talented. And worse, the anxiety and insecurity that goes along with needing to constantly maintain this image is devastating.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome: 8 Practical Strategies
Now that we’ve looked at what imposter syndrome is, where it comes from, and it’s different forms or types, it’s time to move on the main event… How to actually deal with it!
Let me start by saying that it is possible to overcome imposter syndrome. In my work as a psychologist, I work with many clients Like Janie who have struggled with feeling like an imposter for years (even decades sometimes) and I frequently see significant progress. But like anything, it takes effort and perseverance.
I believe the real key to overcoming imposter syndrome for good is to learn to identify and eliminate the habits that are maintaining it.
Because whatever may have caused your imposter syndrome initially, you can’t change your past. All you have to work with is the present.
What follows are eight ways you can learn to overcome imposter syndrome. Each of them targets a specific maintaining cause of imposter syndrome in your life and helps you to both become aware of that habit and build a better, more helpful way of managing your fears and insecurities.
Okay, let’s dive in!
1. Recognize That You Are an Imposter… Just Like Everybody Else!
The problem isn’t that you’re an imposter. It’s that you feel bad for feeling like an imposter.
Whenever I talk to clients about how they feel like an imposter, they often describe going back and forth in their mind between feeling like an utter fraud and trying to convince themselves absolutely that they’re not. But as is often the case in life, the truth actually lies in the middle.
When a client of mine says something like:
I know I’m not really an imposter or fraud, but it just feels so much like I am.
I often reply with a smile:
Oh, no… you definitely are an imposter and fraud. But don’t worry we all are.
What I mean is, we’re all works in progress. And whether other people see our “true selves” or not isn’t really under our control.
If you struggle with imposter syndrome, the first and best thing you can do is to take it easy on yourself about feeling like an imposter! Recognize that everybody feels like an imposter sometimes. And in fact, everyone is an imposter sometimes. And that this is a good thing! It’s a sign of ambition and the desire to grow that we push ourselves outside of our comfort zones.
If you weren’t willing to be an imposter you would never amount to much of anything at all because you’d never be willing to do anything you weren’t already good at.
The more I work with clients like Janie who struggle with imposter syndrome the more I’ve come to believe this:
It’s not feeling like an imposter that’s the problem. It’s feeling bad for feeling like an imposter that keeps you miserable.
So the next time you feel like an imposter, remind yourself that it’s okay to feel like an imposter sometimes. Everybody does, whether they admit it biblically or not.
The key to escaping imposter syndrome is to make peace with your inner imposter instead of trying to squash it.
2. Cultivate Self-Compassion
Many people who suffer from imposter syndrome are high achievers. This means that, among other things, they tend to be pretty hard on themselves. They set high standards, ruthlessly work toward goals, and constantly strive to improve. And while none of this is necessarily bad, these tendencies can easily become self-destructive.
In particular, the habit of being hypercritical and judgmental of yourself is often pretty toxic and contributes to imposter syndrome sticking around. When you’re constantly beating yourself up in your head with negative self-talk and judgmentalness, you’re unwittingly creating a lot of excess emotionality like anxiety, frustration, and shame. And managing all this excess emotion takes a lot of attention and energy—and that’s all attention and energy you don’t have to channel toward doing good work.
Ironically, one of the best ways to stop feeling like an imposter is to be more compassionate with yourself, especially after mistakes or setbacks.
Self-compassion is actually a very simple and straightforward concept. It just means treating yourself like you would treat a good friend who was struggling. Instead of being harsh and judgmental, you would be compassionate, empathetic, and understanding. Self-compassion just means doing the same for yourself.
So, the next time you find yourself on the other side of a mistake or failure, ask yourself this question:
If a good friend made this mistake and came to me for support, what would I say?
Then turn inwards and say that exact same thing to yourself.
If you want to feel less like an imposter and improve the quality of your work, practice being gentle and compassionate with yourself rather than harsh and critical.
3. Retrain Your Negative Self-Talk
While self-compassion is arguably the most powerful antidote to self-judgment and negative self-talk, there’s another approach to dealing with the flood of negative thoughts that many people with imposter syndrome deal with on a daily (if not hourly!) basis: you can learn to retrain your negative self-talk to be less negative and extreme and more constructive and realistic.
While the constant stream of worries flowing through our head can feel like something that’s happening to us, in reality it’s something we do to ourselves. Negative self-talk, the voice in our heads, is a habit. When we consistently talk to ourselves in a certain way, our mind takes that as its default way of operating. Which is why so many people complain about their brain’s being “against” them or “fighting” with them. In reality, even though you probably didn’t realize it, you were training your brain to be self-critical by engaging in negative self-talk.
Thankfully, like all habits, negative self-talk can be modified. Specifically, you can train your mind’s self-talk to be less harsh and critical and more realistic, balanced, and even understanding.
One of the best ways to do this is with a technique called cognitive restructuring. While it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into depth on what cognitive restructuring looks like in detail, the list of it is simple enough:
- Pay attention to your triggers for negative self-talk.
- Catch your negative self-talk in the moment and write it down.
- Notice what emotions specific forms of negative self-talk lead to.
- Practice generating alternative forms of self-talk that are more realistic and less negative and watch how your emotions change as a result.
If you think this approach to dealing with negative self-talk might be helpful, you can read more about it in a larger guide I wrote on cognitive restructuring.
4. Practice Emotional Vulnerability
At the core of imposter syndrome is a deep fear of vulnerability—a fear of being exposed and really understood in all your imperfection, and as a result, devalued or not loved.
But ultimately, this is an irrational fear. However real the experience of that fear is, most of us know that most people in our lives will continue to value and love us despite our imperfections. The trouble is, fear holds us back.
As is the case with any kind of fear, the only way out is through. You can’t get rid of fear, but you can build confidence and courage to move forward despite your fears. And the way to do it is by deliberately exposing yourself to the thing you’re afraid of and seeing that the worst doesn’t not in fact happen.
In other words, it’s only through action that we build up the courage to confront our fears and ultimately move past them.
When it comes to imposter syndrome, practicing emotional vulnerability is one of the best ways to get past the fear of being “found out” or “discovered as a fraud.”
Emotional vulnerability simply means being willing to show other people your true feelings, especially the difficult ones. This is a powerful practice to develop because it builds confidence in your ability to be known exactly how you are without the need to hide and maintain a facade of perfection.
The key is to start small. Look for tiny ways to express how you feel in an authentic way. Here are a couple small examples:
- Ask for help. If you struggle with imposter syndrome a lot, especially with, for example, your supervisor at work, try asking them for help with a very small task like where to find X file in the database. Explain that you’re a little confused (emotional vulnerability) and could use a hand.
- Use real emotional language. Most adults tend to intellectualize their emotions. They say “I’m upset” rather than “I’m sad” or “I’m bugged” rather than “I’m frustrated.” Instead, try to avoid using metaphors or overly conceptual and vague terms for how you feel and practice using basic emotional words more like “afraid,” “sad,” “ashamed,” “mad,” etc.
When you practice being emotionally vulnerable in small ways, it becomes increasingly easier to do it in big ways. And the more confident you are expressing your emotions, the less afraid you’ll be to let people see the real you. And that is a powerful way to overcome imposter syndrome.
5. Keep a Self-Gratitude Journal
You’re probably heard of the idea of keeping a gratitude journal or diary. The basic idea is that each day you write down a few things you’re grateful for. And more than a few studies have confirmed numerous benefits socially, psychologically, and physically.
Well, we can modify this exercise to make it a bit more target for imposter syndrome by specifying it as a self-gratitude journal. Here’s the basic rationale: People who struggle with imposter syndrome habitually devalue themselves; so let’s build up a competing habit of intentionally valuing yourself.
Here’s how keeping a gratitude journal might look:
- Pick a set time each day when you know you’ll have some time. First thing in the morning, or alter in the evening are often best. Doesn’t have to be a long time—a few minutes is probably fine.
- Get yourself a little pocket notebook (or create a notes file on your phone) and jot down 2-3 things about yourself that you’re grateful for.
- For example: I’m grateful that I always remember to say “I love you to my spouse” at least once a day. Or, I’m grateful that I know how to play the piano. Or I’m grateful for my beautiful auburn hair. Or I’m grateful that I have such a curious and open mind about most things. Or I’m grateful that I held my tongue instead of saying that sarcastic comment during the argument with my mother. You get the idea.
- Try to stick to this for at least a couple weeks, and then if you find it helpful, make it a regular part of your daily routine.
Just because your default tendency is to devalue yourself and your accomplishments doesn’t mean that’s any more meaningful or “true” than intentionally reminding yourself of your positive qualities and behaviors.
Make time to deliberately remind yourself of things about yourself that you’re grateful for and with time you’ll start to feel more grateful for yourself and less like an imposter.
6. Let Go of Perfectionism
While perfectionism can be a symptom of imposter syndrome, it’s also frequently a cause. More specifically, many of the habits that go along with perfectionism function as maintaining causes for imposter syndrome.
For example, the anxiety that goes along with worrying about being “discovered” as a fraud at work might lead you to obsess over your work to an unhealthy degree as a way of alleviating that anxiety temporarily. Unfortunately, by obsessing over unimportant details too much, you can end up harming the overall quality of your work and productivity and therefore feel even more like an imposter.
Of course, letting go of a tendency toward perfectionism is easier said than done. Perfectionism tends to be such a stick habit precisely because it’s such a powerful way to alleviate anxiety. This means that the key to gradually relying less on your perfectionism is to improve your ability to tolerate anxiety and not do anything about it.
It’s one of the most common misconceptions about perfectionism that it represents a need to be perfect; but in reality, perfectionism is about wanting to feel perfect (i.e. not anxious). Ultimately the only way to truly let go of the habit of perfectionism is to prove to yourself that you can tolerate anxiety without trying to fix it or run away from it.
As usual, it’s best to start small:
- Look for small things in your everyday life that cause little bits of anxiety. Seeing an email from your boss, for example.
- Then, instead of immediately taking action and doing something that would alleviate the anxiety (checking the email or distracting yourself with social media), try just sitting there with the anxiety for a minute. Then take action on it.
- Do this repeatedly until it starts to feel a little easier, then bump up your time to 2 or 3 minutes or more.
When you practice this little exercise consistently with small bursts of anxiety you’ll soon find that your tolerance for increasingly bigger bursts of anxiety is much stronger. And along with this newfound tolerance, you’ll have less need for your more perfectionistic tendencies.
7. Learn to Be More Assertive
Assertiveness is the ability to communicate your wants and needs in an honest and direct way while still being respectful of the rights of others. It’s the middle ground between excessive passivity and aggression.
The reason it’s critical to become more assertive if you struggle with imposter syndrome is that it builds confidence in your ability to simply be yourself.
Assertiveness is the only one of the four major communication styles that isn’t based on fear…
- Passive communication is based on fear of conflict and being thought poorly of by others.
- Aggressive communication is based on fear of inadequacy and the belief that it’s only by pushing others around that we can feel strong and competent.
- Passive-aggressive communication combines the worst of both those styles and attempts to get your way no matter what (aggression) but in a way that lets you avoid responsibility (passive).
- Assertiveness communication, on the other hand, is based on the belief that your rights and needs are every bit as important as those of others. This means stating your own wishes, preferences, and beliefs in an honest respectful way is perfectly valid.
The trick is, it’s only by practicing being assertive—even though you’re afraid to do so—that you become more confident in your ability to be assertive. And it’s only when you are confident in being assertive that you can begin to express your true wants and preferences despite your fear of being seen as an imposter or not good enough.
In other words, overcoming imposter syndrome requires a bit of fake it ‘till you make it. But you can only start to do this—to act confident despite not feeling that way—if you’ve built up the skill of assertive communication.
8. Clarify Your Values
One of the biggest reasons people stay stuck in a cycle of imposter syndrome is that they aren’t very clear about their values—the things that really matter most to them in their lives.
I’ve frequently noticed that people who struggle with imposter syndrome at work are often very unclear about why they are in the job or profession they are. They often have somewhat vague reasons, of course, like I want to make a good income or I was really good at engineering in college.
The problem with vague, overly general values like this is that they lack motivating force. And this matters when it comes to imposter syndrome because you’re only going to be able to build up your confidence if you’re strongly motivated to do difficult things despite feeling afraid and like an imposter.
For example, let’s say there’s a new promotion opportunity at work that you’d like to go for. But it’s competitive, and as you look at all the other candidates you think to yourself, There’s no way I’ll get this. The rest of them are way more qualified than I am. I only got to this point because people haven’t noticed that I’m not as good as they think I am.
Now, if your reasons for going for that promotion are vague and non-specific (If there’s a promotion I guess I should go for it. Or, The extra money would be nice), you’re not going to feel especially motivated. And more than likely, your insecurity will hold you back.
On the other hand, what if your motivations were clear and specific: If I got the promotion to director it would give me a lot more freedom and autonomy to set my own schedule—which would be great because then I could spend more time with my family on the weekends. Plus, I’d have the opportunity to be a lot more creative in my work, which is something I really miss from my early days.
Obviously that second one is going to have a lot more motivating pull and help you get over your fears and insecurities to do the things you know you need to do. In other words, clarifying your values boosts your motivation to act decisively and confidently, which is a key component of overcoming imposter syndrome by showing yourself that you are in fact competent.
One of the best things anyone can do to start overcoming their imposter syndrome is to get to know your values. Discover the things that really matter most to you and then work hard to clarify them and make them super clear and specific.
Summary & Conclusion
Imposter syndrome is a very real and painful struggle for many people.
In addition to the tremendous anxiety and stress that go along with it, imposter syndrome is especially tragic because it restricts your life and leads you to avoid or give up on tremendous opportunities for growth and richness in your life.
Whatever may have originally caused your imposter syndrome to take root, there are likely a number of habits operating in the present to maintain it. This is ultimately good news because it means that, with the right approach, you can identify these habits and work to modify them or build better ones that feed your confidence instead of destroying it.
If you’ve struggled with imposter syndrome for a long time, know that there is hope. It takes patience and hard work, but you can unlearn the habits of imposter syndrome.
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Keep up the good work! Your articles are always amazing. I’m a pretty new therapist and reading the materials you’ve written helps me to be a better therapist.
Thanks, Christine—that means a lot 🙂
I’ve been struggling with impostor syndrome for decades now, and this really helped open my eyes. So thanks Nick, all the way from Malaysia!
You’re very welcome, Nathan!!
Enjoy every one of your piece Nick ! Comprehensive and compassionate in equal measure. I don’t relate fully ( though there are shades of some ) to either imposter type but the base feeling of ‘ not being good enough ‘ and being ‘found out’ is strongly present .
Amazing article Nick. It clarified a lot of issues which existed in my sub conscious. Thanks from India.
You bet, Paritosh!
Very revealing as a crystal mirror every pixel of the ‘imposter’.
Timely guidance and user friendly steps to make course correction. Applicable to all achievers and successful people who are chasing their shadows of low self worth. It took me 30 yrs to say good bye to my imposter , and i wish had this sauce on my poached ego.
Thank you for the kind words 🙂
In your own experience, do you find that patients in your practice experience more change by “ignoring” their feelings and just doing it anyway, or actually doing this work (journaling, practices, etc)?
I find this hard to balance, as ignoring the feelings and just “willpowering” one’s way through some imposter’s syndrome issue can often work, but that’s intermittent and doesn’t really prepare one for the long-term ups and downs of feelings and life circumstances. On the other hand, it’s all too easy to spend too much time trying to think one’s way out of an emotional problem through endless journaling and other mental preparation to take action.
Another thing: more sleep and less caffeine can really hit the spot for a lot of this, but it’s a hard shift to make when it feels like the world is going to discover how much of a “fraud” one is at every corner.
Great questions, Sam! Short answer, I think it’s a balance of both. There’s a time and place for the jsut ignore the feeling and will your way to action and the more reflective mode. The trick, I think, is to find a way to sustain both of those…
Hello, Nick, I`ve been reading your articles for a while now and I think they are great. This one in particular gave answers to many of my problems – I`ve managed to find myself a little bit in all 4 types of imposter syndrome. Thank you for the advice, I think I`ll come back and read all this from time to time. Hugs from Romania!
Thanks Anda! And hugs back from New Mexico 🤗
Me chancing upon this article is something totally unbelievable for me. Unless you read something of this sort you keep believing that you’re the ONLY one with these thought, this vulnerability, this exclusive “imposter-ness.” Such an eye opener. It so well written that I’m in a way congratulating myself for feeling like an imposter all these years. I feel I am heard and rightly understood for the first time in life❤️
I’m so glad it was helpful, Supriya!
This sticker goes smooth like butter.. very insightful and gentle on mind! . Thanks Nick
Haha! Thanks, Rahul 🙂
This is what I call a bullseye’s shot Nick, totally relate to Imposter Syndrome. It is the first time I got to read such a detailed & precise article on Imposter Syndrome. Very insightful. Thank you so much Nick!❤
You’re very welcome, Ashfaaq!
It has gone right through my core:I have been working with myself for a long,long time ,trying to overcome fears,face fears, that a part of me knew they were only my own creation…Thankfully on the way to myself today,someone who could see clearly beyond me and who loves me deeply,woke me up…And today you “gave “me a name to explain my struggles!I am on the way to mending.Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.
Go glad it was helpful, Manuela!
Thanks for this Nick! This will be helpful throughout my life as a reference. I’ve definitely struggled with this and just having the curtain lifted over my eyes for starters is life and career-changing for me. God bless!!
You bet, Richard!
Thank you so much for this helpful article, Nick! 🙂
You’re very welcome, Karen 🙂
thank you very much Nick , your articles are always helpful ! always light up my day !
I was clearing my emails, and came across this article of yours. I hadn’t heard of Imposter syndrome before, but it certainly was an eye opener. To some degree, I’ve come to realize that I have struggled from time to time with this issue. Through my therapist I’ve learned to implement much of what you’ve suggested. Little by little, I’ve learned to start small and increase my efforts to overcome much of what you recommend. Honestly, it has all been very helpful. Knowing my triggers, replacing negative self talk with positive talk, journaling and maintaining a journal of gratitude. Although journaling about things I’m grateful for in myself is something I haven’t tried. Must add that to my list. Thank you again for your wisdom. I truly appreciate the work you do. Bless you!
Thank you so much for your articles, Nick. I’m a psychologist in Brazil, in the beggining of my Cognitive Behavioral Therapist journey, and your work enlightens me a lot. 🙂 I wish I had teachers like you in university.
what an expose into mind and its myriad ways. very helpful. kudos
I’m about to operate a change in my career and I’m in the grips of anxiety & insomnia due to my doubts and insecurity which have become overwhelming. Your article about overcoming imposter syndrome is very helpful for me at the moment. Thank you!
This fantastic blog. just keep it on, you are good.
A fantastic article again. I am a relatively young international worker, who is in line for quite a high profile promotion next year. I have my suspicion that most of my co-workers and friends would be surprised to realise that I suffer from imposter syndrome, and that it will only intensify with my current career path. But thanks to your enlightening articles, I realise that it can be contained, and that IS, if it is viewed with a healthy perspective, can actually be an effective tool for personal and professional development. Thank you.
Is it true that people with AD(H)D suffer more often from an imposter syndrome?
Thank you for such a great and insightful article! I had no idea this is what I have experienced myself. Now I will look at it completely differently. Thank you for such clear and concise answers that make things easier to understand. You have a gift of seeing and explaining things very clearly, as well as compassionately at the same time. I find this and all of your articles amazing. You are definitely meant for your job! I hope you know how much you help people like me every day!