Imposter Syndrome: What It Is And How To Overcome It

Ever get that sense that you need to look over your shoulder in case someone better is coming up behind you? Ever feel that you’re somehow getting away with something, and it’s only a matter of time before you get found out? Do you have a nagging sense that what you do is never quite good enough?

If you’re nodding yes to the above then you may have what’s called imposter syndrome: an internal fear of being a fraud, no matter how successful and accomplished you appear on the outside. Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, yet it is a cluster of symptoms that add up to a life not truly lived at its fullest.

In this article we explore the impact of imposter syndrome in a work environment, which is where it generally manifests itself.

Some symptoms of imposter syndrome

Perfectionism – the inability to let things go until they are perfect. This can lead to not trying out new things for fear you just won’t be good enough. Perfectionism can galvanise you to producing great work, but it can also paralyse you into not producing any.

Overworking – sending that extra email before you switch off for the night, preparing way more than you need to for a meeting, taking on extra jobs that you don’t have time for, fretting about work you haven’t finished yet and find yourself working on weekends rather than relaxing and enjoying yourself.

Struggle with criticism – it’s incredibly difficult for someone with imposter syndrome to take criticism on board. You can become defensive, and put up a long and detailed explanation of why you did what you did – or you can take it all personally and feel you could crumple in a heap with the shame of being criticised. Instead of taking the criticism of what you’ve done, the criticism feels aimed at who you are.

Always comparing – you always feel that other people have a better life than you. They’re happier, more confident, more successful, more fulfilled. You strive to be the best at what you do, and better than everyone else.

Praise feels uncomfortable – while you love the praise, you’re not sure what to do with it as you, deep down, believe that the person praising you must be wrong and that you’re not worth the praise in the first place. You can bat away compliments, sometimes offending the person who offered them.

You feel a fraud – you’re just waiting for the tap on the shoulder to indicate you’ve been found out, and to expose and shame you in public. Imposter syndrome may hold you back from applying for promotion or for drawing too much attention to yourself. That’s why you work so hard at not revealing any chinks in your armour, as you fear being shot down.

Roots of imposter syndrome

From our experience as psychotherapists working with clients who believe they have imposter syndrome, the roots of the condition lie in the praise or attention they received – or didn’t receive – in their pre-school years. Those times when you started to do things by yourself and were perhaps scolded or mocked for not doing it according to your parents’ rigorous standards – or, worse, to have your efforts ignored.

If you don’t receive adequate praise and encouragement from caregivers, you can end up internalising a negative view of your achievements and believe you have to work super-hard and super-long to impress those around you. In essence, you believe you are not enough.

How to overcome imposter syndrome

Believing in yourself and your abilities isn’t something that happens overnight. The process was meant to have begun in childhood. If you somehow missed out on that – well, it can take some time to become your own cheerleader and feel able to celebrate your successes. Start with small things and build on them from there.

Think about completing rather than perfecting. This involves a complete reframing of everything you’ve ever achieved. But perfect is an illusion. Try putting a piece of work out there that isn’t perfect but completely does the job. Then let it go. Then tolerate the feelings that pop up as you experience letting go.

Learn to put a full stop on a piece of work. Similar to the above. Overworking can leave you feeling depleted and possibly even paranoid that you’ve never done enough. Act as if the work you’ve done today is enough. Don’t tweak or twist or worry about it. Switch off at 6pm, go home and forget about work.

Learn to take constructive criticism. Practise what phrases you can say in response, the next time someone passes comment on your work. Try: “Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll take that on board.” Or: “I hadn’t thought about that. Let me come back to you.” We’re all programmed for growth, and if you take criticism as an opportunity to grow then it might not feel so painful.

Accept that everyone is on a different path. Comparing yourself to others who you perceive to be better or brighter than you will only keep you feeling less than. If you can, tune into what’s in your heart: stay true to what you really want, and act on it, rather than working out what’s in vogue and contorting yourself to deliver what doesn’t truly fit you.

Say thank you to praise. Try to accept that your efforts may have played a part in a successful outcome. Say thank you to praise you receive for your part in it. Don’t bat away a compliment. Hold it for a second, reflect, and then say thank you.

Reverse the negativity. This can be the hard part: how to stop the voice in your head that says you’re not good enough. When a negative thought pops up, write it down and then come up with a positive alternative. Have a mantra along the lines of: “I am enough.” Have a book where you write down the achievements you’re truly proud of. These are all small steps, but over time they can build up to an alternative picture that can challenge your inner feelings of being a fraud.

If you are struggling to believe in yourself and think you could benefit from some professional support, call 020 8673 4545 to book an appointment with one of our therapists at our centres in Clapham or Tooting, south London. You can also email us on info@theawarenesscentre.com

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