Feeling like an imposter or a fraud is actually very common among high achievers. In fact, studies show that nearly 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. While feeling like an imposter can be uncomfortable, it does not mean you are undeserving of your success or incapable of doing good work. With some self-compassion, positive thinking, and reframing, these feelings of self-doubt can be overcome.
Why It's Okay to Feel Like an Imposter
Here are some things to consider when you are feeling like an imposter at work:
Expectations Lead to Imposter Syndrome: Often, imposter syndrome is the result of unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves combined with the downplaying of our own abilities and achievements. High achievers tend to be perfectionists and have very high standards for what they should be capable of. When perfection is the goal, anything less feels like failure, leading to feelings of being a fraud. The truth is mistakes, failures, and challenges are a normal part of life. No one succeeds at everything all the time. Cut yourself some slack.
Everyone Struggles with Self-Doubt: Even the most successful, accomplished people struggle with confidence and self-doubt sometimes. Recognize that it's normal to question yourself or feel unsure at times. Asking questions and second-guessing is human nature and part of how we learn and grow. Feeling like you don't know what you're doing does not negate all the times you did know what you were doing. Give yourself credit for what you have accomplished rather than obsessing over shortcomings.
You Are Qualified and Deserving: If you've achieved milestones like degrees, promotions, publications, or other honors, you are qualified for your role. These external validations did not come by accident. You have the knowledge, skills, talent, and work ethic to earn the opportunities you've been given. Even if you feel like you slipped through the cracks somehow, you have clearly continued to prove yourself. Have faith that you deserve your success.
How to Make Your Self-Talk More Positive
When you find yourself stuck in negative imposter ruminations, consider the following strategies:
Notice Negative Thoughts: The first step is to notice when that internal critic pipes up with worries, fears, or doubts. Become aware of the constant hum of negative self-talk in your mind. Common themes include fretting over mistakes, comparing yourself to others, feeling like you are faking it, or worrying that you'll be exposed as not good enough.
Examine Thoughts Objectively: Rather than accepting negative thoughts as absolute truth, take a step back to examine them objectively. Ask yourself: Is this worry valid and truthful or exaggerated and unlikely? Could I view this situation in a more positive light? What advice would I give a friend feeling this way? Putting some objective distance between you and your thoughts helps reality-test them.
Challenge and Rewrite Thoughts: Once you identify a negative thought pattern, challenge it with evidence to the contrary. Keep a folder of positive feedback, thank you notes, or compliments you've received. Recall past successes that prove you are qualified and capable. Then rewrite the negative thought into a positive affirmation. For example, change "I'm going to embarrass myself giving this speech" into "I've given great speeches before, and I'm going to do great on this one as well."
Reframe Setbacks: Setbacks and mistakes happen; don't let them shake your self-confidence. Instead of thinking "I'm terrible at this," reframe the experience as a learning opportunity that will help you improve. Adopt a growth mindset. Being bad at something is not a reflection of your worth or potential. Your abilities are not fixed, and more experience will lead to more competence.
Let Go of Perfectionism: Striving for flawlessness is unrealistic and only feeds the imposter syndrome. Give yourself permission to be a work-in-progress. Focus on growth over achieving perfection. Excellence comes through iteration, not getting everything right the first time. Progress includes missteps along the way, and you are not expected to be perfect.
Keep Perspective: Zoom out to see the bigger picture when you're feeling plagued by self-doubt. Remember all you have going for you: your skills, relationships, values and experiences. Consider all the good things in your life besides status and achievement. Connect with your sense of purpose. What matters most at the end of the day extends far beyond doing everything flawlessly.
It's natural to sometimes feel overwhelmed by expectations, standards we impose on ourselves, and the inability to predict the future. However, with mindful awareness, objective thought-challenging, and growth-oriented reframing, we can curtail the noisy doubts that exacerbate imposter syndrome. Give yourself permission to be a perfectly imperfect work-in-progress. Focus on learning, perspective and purpose rather than the need to prove yourself. Accept that you deserve your success, and have faith that you'll find your way through challenges. By developing self-compassion and optimism, you can quiet your inner critic and overcome self-doubt.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.