What Is Imposter Syndrome? And How You Can Beat It!

Success! You landed your dream freelance client, created a beautiful site for them, and were showered with praise for your work. So, why do you feel like hiding under the covers instead of popping a bottle of bubbly to celebrate?

Two words: imposter syndrome. If you feel more stressed after achieving a goal than you did before you started, you might be a victim of this destructive way of thinking.

But don’t worry, you’re not alone! The majority of us, and especially us women, have experienced this feeling, including superstars like Michelle Obama. And, while you’ll need to tweak your thinking a bit, you can get past this confidence-crushing habit.

Read on to get answers to your most pressing questions about imposter syndrome and learn 9 practical tips on how to recover from it:

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What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the phenomena of doubting your abilities and feeling afraid that other people will think you’re not as competent as you should be. It’s a pattern of thinking where you believe you don’t deserve what you’ve achieved. You feel like you’ve only been successful because of good luck or because you’ve been able to trick people into believing you’re more capable than you really are. And, on top of all that, you’re sure you’re soon to be exposed as a fake by those around you.

These feelings can come up for you in any situation, but the term—which has been around since the late 70’s when researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes found that high-achieving women often feel like a fraud and are afraid of being found out—is most often used when referring to professional situations. And imposter syndrome has been an especially hot topic lately in discussions around underrepresented groups in STEM fields, like women in tech.

How do you know if you have imposter syndrome?

The main symptoms that show you’re falling into the trap of shameful feelings include:

  • You either over-prepare or procrastinate when you get a new task or project.
  • You want to be the best compared to others in your office, on your team, or even in your whole profession.
  • You’re a perfectionist and can’t tolerate making any mistakes or having any shortcomings.
  • You’re afraid of failing and terrified of not reaching your goals.
  • You deny that you’re skilled, and tend to reject any praise you’re given.
  • You’re afraid of and feel guilty about being successful because you feel like you don’t deserve it.

You might not have all of these symptoms but, with only a few of them, you can still be suffering from this phenomena.

What causes imposter syndrome?

Like many mental habits, it’s difficult to know where imposter syndrome gets its start. Some psychologists point to it as a trait of certain personality types, while others claim it’s connected to upbringing or early life experiences. As an adult, a change in your profession, role, or responsibilities can trigger sudden feelings of inadequacy.

Women are more susceptible to imposter syndrome because society still doesn’t depict women in positions of expertise or authority to the same degree as men. And our culture tends to encourage women to internalize failure by blaming themselves for it but to externalize success by writing it off as luck.

Why is imposter syndrome dangerous?

Navigating the working world can feel like a battle in the best case but, if you’re dealing with imposter syndrome, it can also:

  • Cause you to doubt the good work you’re doing, making it more time-consuming and stressful to get things done.
  • Prevent you from doing your job, which can hurt your career, your team, your company, and the world for that matter!
  • Convince you to not reach for goals that are both meaningful and attainable.
  • Keep you from asking for the pay or the position you deserve.
  • Damage your confidence and lead to mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
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How can you beat imposter syndrome?

First and foremost, just becoming more aware about imposter syndrome can help you keep it at bay. But there are also practical steps you can take to stop it from holding you back in your career:

  1. Talk about your feelings. With your peers, your supervisors, and your mentors. Opening up can help, and you’re also sure to hear that almost everyone suffers from imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. This can be comforting to know, but you can also work together with colleagues to figure out ways to best support each other, get a realistic assessment of your skills from your manager so you know where you stand and what you need to work toward, or get help building your confidence from a coach or other trained professional.
  2. Write out your history. By putting on paper—or in a digital doc—the details of your education and skills, you’ll realize you have truly worked hard to get to where you are. In other words, it ain’t all dumb luck or good timing!
  3. Keep track of your accomplishments. (It wouldn’t hurt to add them to your LinkedIn or resume while you’re at it!) Like the first tip, seeing what you’ve achieved in black and white will remind you that you’re successful. But what if, after making your list, you wish it was longer? Find a project to flex your professional expertise or volunteer to teach some of your skills to teammates (your boss will love you for making everyone smarter!) or people looking to get into your field #payitforward.
  4. Quit comparing yourself to others. There will always be someone who is more experienced or knows something you don’t. But nobody is the best in everything, and nobody knows everything. So you don’t have to either. Focus on your own strengths and don’t let what others are doing discourage you.
  5. Figure out your gaps and fill them in. Sometimes the nagging feeling that you’re not good enough is a sign there’s an area where you could be stronger. Instead of letting that feeling spread into all parts of your life, focus on what you want to change, make a realistic plan to get help or learn more skills, and go for it!
  6. Realize there are many ways to success. If you don’t have the degree or years of experience, that doesn’t mean you can’t be great at what you do. Even the most qualified experts struggle with imposter syndrome now and then. Try to internalize the reality that we all have different career paths, but that diversity of backgrounds is an incredible asset for both you and the people you share it with.
  7. Learn to learn from your mistakes. No matter how hard you try, you’ll still screw up sometimes—and that’s OK! As awesome as you are, you really are “only human.” So forget the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism and instead embrace the truth that every time something doesn’t go right is an opportunity to learn something.
  8. Accept and collect praise. Stop qualifying and downplaying yourself when someone gives you a compliment. Instead, develop the wonderfully graceful habit of simply smiling and saying “thank you,” and you’ll soon find yourself actually hearing the good things people have to say about you instead of fumbling to tell them why they’re wrong. And, in case you’re still in doubt, start saving emails or notes from meetings where positive things are said about you and your work. (I call mine my “Happy Folder.”) Again, seeing is believing!
  9. Fake it til you make it! Because we can’t ever be prepared for every situation, sometimes the best thing to do is just the best you can in that moment. Looking back, you’ll find that most of the time you outshine your expectations, and that you were ready before you knew it.
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Kelli Smith

Kelli Smith is Senior Operations Manager at Skillcrush. She has covered tech skills, careers, and productivity for Skillcrush and The Muse, and her work has appeared in Inc. and Business Insider. She has an MBA in international business and has worked for over twenty years in education. Kelli is a huge fan of dancing, podcasts, and to-do list apps.