A hidden threat for many ambitious people who rise to new challenges is the setting in of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome causes you to feel personally incompetent and suffer from a fear that people will “find you out” as being a fraud. This feeling persists even when your colleagues and social circle perceive you in a completely different way. And it’s not uncommon: 70% of people feel this way at some point, according to a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science.
What may be more surprising is that imposter syndrome is more prevalent among high-performers. People who, to the outside world, seem successful and have a list of achievements, but inside they feel elevated anxiety that they will be “found out” and revealed to everyone as less-than.
In fact, throughout my work as an executive coach, I have yet to work with a client that did not suffer from some form of imposter syndrome. If you also suffer from imposter syndrome, keep in mind there are others like you. The highest achievers in the world suffer from it. It can also can be a sign you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. When imposter syndrome sets in, acknowledge that every time you do that, some form of self-doubt is expected to arise (since the alternative is staying in your comfort zone and falling short of your absolute goals).
So, think of imposter syndrome as a sign that you are progressing. This mindset can motivate you to reach higher levels as you lean into it rather than resist it. Acknowledge that no amount of training, experience, and qualifications will affect how we feel once imposter syndrome rears its head.
The external manifestations of imposter syndrome can be positive or negative. On one side, if you find ways to manage and push past imposter syndrome, you will learn, develop, and become more resilient. On the flip side, where someone feels like they constantly have to hide that they are an imposter, they may be more likely to procrastinate or develop perfectionism; or the person may turn all of that anxiety and insecurity inward, meaning they achieve, but at a high price.
If you’re constantly pushing the boundaries, you may not be able to prevent imposter syndrome, but you can learn to manage it. Here are some ways to handle imposter syndrome.
Understand your triggers to feeling like an imposter
The first step to understanding imposter syndrome is to become aware of what situations trigger it in you. Is it speaking up in meetings? Is it public speaking? Is it any scenario where you are seen as the expert?
Once you are triggered, an “amygdala hijack” occurs and your fear response starts to take over. But once you are aware of the things that trigger you, you can start to understand what’s going on and, from this understanding, consciously choose to behave in a different way from usual.
Recognize that you are feeling like an imposter, and it is either preventing you from acting or making you feel bad while taking action. In some ways, this is a good sign, as true imposters don’t tend to see themselves as such.
Recognize your emotions aren’t the same as facts
It’s a helpful a reminder to say to yourself: “Just because you feel a certain way, doesn’t make it true.” In fact, many of us know more than we think we do. Moreover, any gaps you observe you can ideally fill in with new knowledge. You won’t become a master at your craft until you take some sort of action and apply your current level of skills. It’s been my observation that books and constant learning cannot substitute real action.
For example, you may spend time taking a course in public speaking, but until you start giving speeches before large audiences, you will never become a master.
Refine your confidence
The problem with being a high-achieving and goal-oriented individual is, even when you reach a goal, you never stop to celebrate or give credit due, because it wasn’t quite “good enough” or you’re already thinking about the next goal. But you may know more and have achieved more than you acknowledge; it can be helpful to wake up and see the real, objective goals you have met.
Make a list of your previous successes, for a confidence boost. Reminding yourself of every success you’ve had over the past few years, whether small or large, can reveal that you’ve done more than you think.
This particular step also includes things that didn’t work out in the end. For instance, even if a business or job or relationship didn’t “work out” in one sense, it does not mean that it didn’t serve its purpose. These can be acknowledged as their own type of positive incidents.
Courage comes before confidence. In my view, the idea of confidence, achievable at the whims of an outside force, is overrated. The fact is, you can’t be confident at something you have never done before. Confidence develops over time in a certain area when you get more experience in mastering your craft (whatever that happens to be). But inevitably, courage comes first—without courage, you will likely make safe, comfortable decisions.
Recognize exactly why taking this action is so important. What will it enable you to do? How will it increase your impact? Silence that little voice in your head by reminding yourself why it is so important that you get good at doing the thing that scares you.
Then, take gradual, small steps outside of your comfort zone. Make it a practice and a habit to do things that scare you regularly.
Sara Sabin is a coach to executive and entrepreneur leaders. She is a business owner and has been the founder of many startups over the years.