Five Ways to Stop Feeling like an Imposter


Following on from my last post on how to build your self-confidence, it seemed apt that my next article focus on perhaps the ultimate form of low self-confidence — the feeling that you’re a complete fraud. Over the years, I have heard so many successful, high-achieving clients say that they lack confidence and belief in their achievements, writing them off as pure fluke, or not that hard to have achieved. Positive feedback is dismissed as the evaluator mistakenly over-estimating the person’s performance and worth, leaving the feedback meaningless and impossible to believe.

According to psychological research, two out of five highly successful people consider themselves frauds, and 70% of the population feel like impostors at one time or another. So, if you’ve ever found yourself in a meeting thinking, “I have no idea what I’m talking about. Soon everyone will realise that too, and they’ll figure out I’m a total fraud” then you’re certainly not alone.

You may not know but feeling like this has a formal name – Imposter Syndrome. Coined by Psychologists Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes in 1978, this mindset has become more and more recognised due to the speaking up of celebrities who, despite their fame and evident success, identify with these feelings. From Kate Winslet to Tom Hanks, it would seem we’re not alone in feeling like we’ve deceived everyone in to thinking we’re far more competent that we really are, and very soon they’ll figure out just how useless we really are.

Feeling like a fraud is something I experience almost every day. Although I have little grounds to feel like this when it comes to my work (I have two relevant degrees, a Masters in Coaching, hundreds of highly satisfied clients with hardly any negative feedback in the six years I’ve been in practice, and a high-profile media presence to back-up my competencies), I still find myself secretly thinking, “I’ve deceived them all. They’ll soon figure out that I have no idea what I’m doing and that I’m not the right person for this. Why on earth did they choose me for this in the first place?” What a way to put myself down! No wonder my self-confidence is often left in tatters.

What I’ve learnt about Imposter Syndrome is that you’re the only one that can help yourself overcome it. Because a downfall of feeling like this is that you often discredit your positive cheerleaders, the onus is on you to dispute the sabotaging way you’re thinking and feeling.

So, here are five tips to help you stop feeling like a fraud, and overcome the constraints of Imposter Syndrome:

1. Give your cheerleaders more credit: Your colleagues and peers are not gullible, nor are they easily fooled. They have years of experience and know a talented employee and a good piece of work when they see it. Give those that praise you more credit and recognise the accuracy of their positive feedback. And no, they aren’t just saying you’re great to be polite or out of kindness. They’re busy people and I really doubt they’d waste their valuable time praising you if it wasn’t genuinely true. Listen to what they say, say thank you, and let it sink in.

2. Give yourself more credit: Remember that everyone is different — different upbringings, different backgrounds, different opinions, different personalities, different perspectives. As a result, we’re all a little unique, and that means that our own opinion is interesting, valuable, and worth sharing. Remember this when you want to share something in a meeting; whatever you say brings value and diversity to the conversation. You’re not a fraud; you’re simply sharing your opinion, which no doubt is underpinned by a wealth of experience and knowledge.

3. Dispute your fraudulent thinking: When your worries are in overdrive, write down five answers to this question to get your thinking back on a more rational track – What’s the factual evidence that contradicts your belief that you’re a fraud? To help build a bank of such evidence so it’s easier to draw on in times of need, keep a file of your daily highlights e.g. what people said you did well, what they liked about you, how you helped them, what knowledge you shared and the value it brought. Revisit this bank of evidence every time you feel like a fraud, and in time you’ll start to realise it’s simply not true.

4. Accept that you won’t get it right every single time and that’s OK: When we get something wrong, this often feeds our belief that we’re a fraud with no right to be doing what we’re doing. However, we need to get used to making mistakes. When we get immunised against a disease, we’re subjected to a little bit of it in order to build up our immune system and resilience against it. Dealing with mistakes and failure is the same — you need to experience getting things wrong to realise that it’s perfectly acceptable, the world will not end, and everyone won’t hate you for it. We’re only human, and as a result there will be good and bad in everything that we do. It’s unrealistic to believe you must get everything 100% right all of the time. Think about the last time you witnessed someone get something wrong or not know the answer to something — the chances are you can’t even think of an example that easily because, low and behold, no one ever really remembers. Reminding yourself of this can help keep things in perspective.

5. What is your thinking helping you avoid? The way I see it, Imposter Syndrome is a form of self-sabotage, which secretly helps us avoid what we’re scared of doing. Start to examine what you’re holding yourself back from. What specifically are you avoiding or giving yourself permission not to do by telling yourself you’re not good enough/don’t know enough/someone would be better than you? Work on overcoming that specific hurdle first. Perhaps it’s public speaking, sharing your opinion in a meeting, or passing on advice. Slowly start to subject yourself to these situations, building up your resilience and belief in your competence step by step.

Lastly, remember that you’re doing your best. Very few people set out to do a mediocre job and I doubt you’re one of them. You owe it to yourself to trust in your knowledge and experience, and let that guide how you perform at work. You can only do your best, and, if you are, then it really doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks of you. If you’re being yourself, then it’s impossible to be a fraud.

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.