7 ways to overcome imposter syndrome, no matter what level you're at in your career
The first time I heard the phrase “Imposter Syndrome” was from an ex-boyfriend. He had just gotten an impressive new job at his dream company after six months of unemployment, and was tentative in approaching the new role. Though my ex (seemingly) got over this mental hurdle fairly quickly, the phrase entered into my vernacular, and I began dissecting it as one might do with a pimple—with careful, but assertive curiosity.
I didn’t think imposter syndrome could ever apply to me, specifically because I didn’t think my career could warrant it. I’m a writer, an editor, and often a freelancer. My career didn’t seem as serious, and at times, as important as my ex-boyfriend’s; I didn’t have the word “executive” in front of my title. But little did I know was that feeling “not good enough,” was in of itself, a form of the phenomenon.
“Imposter Syndrome is a misalignment of your sense of achievement or aptitude with reality,” says Liza Katzman, founder of Lantern Advising. “Essentially, a feeling that we’ll somehow be caught or exposed ‘cheating the system’ if reaching or trying to reach a certain level of success, as we do not feel that we’re actually qualified.”
Katzman says that anyone, regardless of age or place in their career, can suffer from imposter syndrome and that it’s different from low-self esteem, or actually being unqualified, (i.e. doctor who suddenly decides to be a lawyer and freaks out isn’t suffering from imposter syndrome—they’re likely just not qualified).
It gets confusing when a person who is qualified begins to doubt their skills, or creates reasons why their qualifications are null and void. After a few years of selling my articles, I was amazed I was being offered high rates at prestigious publications—certain that the editors had somehow been mislead as to who I was, and that I couldn’t produce the caliber of work they were expecting. Later in life, I hesitated telling freelance clients that I wanted to raise my rate because I felt as though I wasn’t worth the numbers that were typical for someone with my experience level. It was hard to discern if I was unqualified, or actually dealing with imposter syndrome. And because I tend to lean toward perfectionism, I typically assumed the former.
But when we lay out the facts, much of the time we’ll see that we are more than capable of doing the job at hand, and that we deserve to be the level where we’re at. While tackling imposter syndrome isn’t a cut-and-dry journey, there are some tips that you can explore in order to have a bit more faith in your abilities.
How to overcome imposter syndrome:
1. Start by shifting your inner dialogue.
Imposter syndrome can develop from how we talk to ourselves on a regular basis. By practicing mindfulness (i.e. meditation, breathwork, yoga), we can start to identify which thoughts are serving us and which are holding us back. If you notice yourself getting into the habit of reciting self-limiting beliefs (i.e. I’m not good enough, I’m not experienced enough, that won’t happen for me, this shouldn’t be happening for me), then take a moment to press the pause button. Where might that thought come from? It’s good to recognize these feelings, but you don’t need to take them to heart.
“You need to acknowledge and own your feelings but not equate them with your actions,” says Joshua Klapow, PhD and clinical psychologist. “You may feel like you are faking it, or like you’re an imposter, but it’s critical that you also look at what you are actually doing versus feeling. Ask yourself this: ‘I don’t feel like I should be able to do this but did I get the work done?’” Often times, the answer is yes.
Remember: thoughts are not facts. You can work to decide which ones you want to let dictate your life.
2. Take inventory of your qualifications.
Regardless of your background, you’ve likely accomplished something that makes you unique and experienced. If it’s hard for you to see those things, be extra intentional about recognizing your strengths and qualifications—even if that means writing them down. “Do a functional analysis,” Klapow notes. “You may ‘feel’ like you got lucky but look at what you did and ask yourself, ‘Do I have the training to have done this? What concrete actions did I take that contributed to this success?”
Katsman advises folks to take stock of all their skills, whether they’re work-related or interpersonal. Add them to your resume, website, or even just write out a thoughtful letter to yourself. “Put them on sticky notes,” Katsman suggests. “Begin playing with and mapping those skills to build a holistic view of your qualifications for a certain position or career shift.”
3. Change your attitude toward failure.
Failure is a natural part of existence, but imposter syndrome leads us to see failure as a death sentence. Like I mentioned earlier, many people suffering from imposter syndrome also exhibit tendencies of perfectionism, which tends to exacerbate this fear. In moments when we do experience a failure (even a minor), it feels like a major setback, making our imposter syndrome even worse.
But even people who are totally qualified for their positions, even the most successful of human beings, experience failure from time to time. Once we learn to accept failure and mistake-making as an inevitable part of success, the less we’ll let it determine our worth or qualifications.
4. Look at the bigger picture.
“Take yourself out of your own situation and consider it on a macro level,” says Karen Jaw-Madson, management consultant and author of Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @ Work. “Think of all the imposters who get the opportunities when they shouldn’t. Now think of all the others who should shine, but don’t get to. Life isn’t fair, but if the real you gets that moment, take it.”
Looking at the bigger picture enables us to get out of our heads and see ourselves and our opportunities from a more objective perspective. We’ll feel more deserving (and be less afraid of) new positions or exciting endeavors, leading us to move forward with confidence.
5. Honor your brand.
There’s only one you—and while that might seem like a cliché, it’s actually quite true. No one has had your breadth of experiences or your specific skill set. “Focus on your strengths. What makes you special?” says Jaw-Madson. “Your unique combination of personal strengths validates that you are for real, not an imposter.”
Once you hone in on what makes you unique, you realize that you’re your own brand of qualified. Capitalizing on your brand isn’t just strategic, but it’s also a great tool in developing increased self-worth and a stronger sense of self.
6. Talk about it.
This is one of those times when it’s okay to ask for a bit of validation. Klapow encourages those facing imposter syndrome to elicit feedback from others, or ask specifically what others thought about your work and contributions.
“The goal here is to get out of your head, which is screaming imposter and look at and listen to others around you who can comment on your behavior,” Klapow notes.
“When imposter syndrome makes us our own worst enemies, those that truly know us can provide the lift we need to overcome it,” Jaw-Madson adds. “ There will be times when they in turn will need the same encouragement, so give freely.”
Noticing that others struggle with imposter syndrome also makes it easier to step outside any negative thoughts. When you feel less alone, it might help your feelings of inadequacy and begin to recognize them as a phenomenon, not fact.
7. Remember that your feelings won’t go away overnight—and that’s okay.
Don’t expect your imposter syndrome to disappear overnight, and know that’s it’s totally normal if and when it comes back. The goal is for you to have the tools to work with your imposter syndrome, rather than against it.
“For many people, imposter syndrome never fully goes away, but rather moves to the background of their thinking versus dominates their thoughts,” Klapow adds. “In many cases, it serves to keep us alert, dedicated and on our game.” Katsman also notes the value of therapy, meditative practices, and coaching in some cases, as these modalities can help a person tackle the root of their impostor syndrome (perfectionism, trauma, low self-worth).
At the end of the day, coming to terms with the notion that I was worthy of confidence was one of the best things I could do to tackle my imposter syndrome. Look at the facts—you deserve it.