Understanding and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Im·pos·ter Syn·drome (noun)

1. The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.

What is Imposter Syndrome? 

Imposter Syndrome is the belief that you are not as good as what other people think you are. Common “red flags” are the incessant belief that you are faking it and living with fear and anxiety and that you will be discovered as a fraud. Common symptoms include anxiety, self-confidence issues, depression, and an inability to ever relax and enjoy the fruits of your success. You simply can never do enough or achieve enough or meet your own standards. 

Imposter Syndrome in Women

It is a syndrome that affects both men and women. However, women are more much likely to be affected because of societal messages and constructs that define female roles and because of the inherent bias against women in our society. This is complicated by the fact women often have an inherent bias against themselves that they are completely unaware of. Because you can’t address something you are unaware of, the bias and patterns that go with it continue.

Those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome often report thoughts such as: “I’m in over my head,” “I don’t have the skills needed to do this,” “I’m not that intelligent,” or “I’m not qualified.” They often have low confidence and struggle with their sense of self. Sufferers don’t get to enjoy their success because they are overwhelmed with the fear of being discovered and having it all taken away. They tend to believe that their success is temporary or fleeting, a stroke of good fortune, or that it was simply hard work.

Average and underachievers are never affected. The good news is, that the very fact that you suffer from Imposter Syndrome means you are successful.  

When I work with Imposter Syndrome clients, I help them to understand that their thoughts and feelings are actually in conflict with reality. Let me share a recent example.

I’m doing leadership coaching with a client, Rachel, who in two years started a business that has expanded to 17 employees, numerous subcontractors, and 4 locations. In the first year, her profits exceeded her husband’s salary by 50% and he left his well-paid position, as an engineer, and her family had recently moved into a larger, nicer home because of her success.

During our first session, she commented, “I’m really not good at business, I just got lucky with my idea.” I ask her to explain. She proceeded to walk me through her business from concept nearly two years ago to her current-day situation and I was blown away not only as someone who holds an MBA but as a businesswoman of 17 years myself. What Rachel had done was nothing short of genius, but here she was letting me know right up front, “I’m not that good at business.”

The rest of the session was taken up with my helping Rachel to understand that what she was saying and how she saw herself were actually in direct opposition to reality and that if anyone who understood business or finances would hear her say that, they would probably recommend her for a psychiatric evaluation…it just isn’t true!

Imposter Syndrome Only Affects the Successful

I would like to say that Rachel’s struggle with reality is uncommon, but unfortunately, it is not. It’s believed that as many as 70% of us have suffered from some form of Imposter Syndrome during our lives.

Most people who suffer from Imposter Syndrome have deeply held beliefs that are not only pervasive but also stand the test of time despite all evidence to the contrary. I have worked with clients who have struggled their entire lives and throughout very successful careers where they have reached the pinnacles of success in their fields, grown hugely successful businesses, and amassed fortunes all while deeply suffering despite their success.