Imposter Syndrome: Overcome Fear And Doubt In The Learning Process
Imposter Syndrome is common, affecting about 70% of people at least once. Here is how to recognize it and break the cycle of self-doubt.
This article on imposter syndrome is part of a series developed by Curriculum Design to guide students through the Flatiron School program experience.
Imposter syndrome— the near-universal experience when you are skilled, credentialed, and accomplished, but have not yet internalized it. It is a negative internal belief that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. As a result, people with imposter syndrome overwork or self-sabotage to (over)compensate for the fear of being exposed as a fraud because of any mistakes or for falling short of their own expectations.
Psychologists say that high-achievers who fear failure and tend toward perfectionism are more likely to devalue and undermine their achievements.
Here’s how to recognize the signs and stop the cycle of fear and self-doubt.
Noticing The Signs
Impostor syndrome is fairly common. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience it at some point in their lives.
If you are wondering whether you are currently or might have experienced imposter syndrome in the past, you can ask yourself the following:
- Have you noticed that you agonize over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
- Do you attribute your success to luck or other outside factors?
- Is it difficult to receive constructive criticism?
- Have you ever felt like you would inevitably be found out as a phony?
- Do you downplay your own expertise, even in areas where you are genuinely more skilled than others?
If so, then you’ve likely experienced imposter syndrome before (or may be experiencing it now).
The Experience In Real-Time
Symptoms of impostor syndrome can look different for different people, and across cultures. But there are some consistent and tell-tale red flags that you can consider. The following are some common characteristics of people experiencing imposter syndrome:
- Extreme lack of self-confidence
- Distrust in one’s own talents, intuition, and abilities
- Shrugging off accolades
- Crediting your success to external factors (luck, someone else’s bad judgment, right place right time, flukes, etc.)
- Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
- Sabotaging your own success
- Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short
The Five Types
Once you’ve admitted its existence, the next step in stopping the cycle is determining exactly what type of imposter syndrome you most closely relate to.
Imposter syndrome is typically sorted into five basic types:
- The Perfectionist. This type of imposter syndrome involves believing that, unless what you created was absolutely perfect, it could have done better. The Perfectionist feels like an imposter because their perfectionistic traits cause them to believe that they are not as good as others might think they are.
- The Expert. The Expert feels like an imposter because they don’t know everything there is to know about a particular subject or topic, or because they have not yet mastered every step in a process. The Expert often does not feel as if they have reached the rank of being an expert because there is still more for them to learn.
- The Natural Genius. This type feels like a fraud simply because they don’t believe they are naturally intelligent or competent. The Natural Genius believes they should get tasks right the first time around, and if it takes them longer to master a skill, they feel like an imposter.
- The Soloist. The Soloist feels like an imposter if they have to ask for help in order to reach a certain level or status. If this type is not able to get there on their own, they question their competence or abilities, leading them to feel like an imposter.
- The Super-Person. The Super-Person strongly believes that they must be the hardest worker or need to reach the highest levels of achievement possible in any organization, work structure, or task. If they don’t, they feel that they are a fraud.
The problem with impostor syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs. The thought still nags in your head, “What gives me the right to be here?” The more you accomplish, the more you just feel like a fraud. It’s as though you can’t internalize your experiences of success.
Let’s take a young woman named Aki, for example. According to the Imposter Cycle, when Aki faces an achievement-related task, she experiences anxiety, self-doubt, and worry, which then pushes her into over-preparation or procrastination (and sometimes even both). Once Aki accomplishes a task, she often attributes her successes to something outside of herself (over preparation, luck, other’s niceties, etc., to name a few). But then she feels accomplished, with a great sense of relief, and she is likely to receive positive feedback. The cycle continues when she discounts the feedback she receives, which leads her to continue with episodes of feeling perceived fraudulence, self-doubt, depression, or anxiety.
6 Ways To Break The Imposter Cycle
Reframe The Task
When you are tasked with a project that prompts anxiety, self-doubt, and worry, try to reframe the task as an opportunity to learn. The purpose of this is to relieve yourself of the idea that you have to prove yourself (…you don’t). You have already earned your place. Now, your only task is to grow through the project you will be working on. Approach it with curiosity.
Develop A New Script
Have you noticed when your imposter feelings are triggered? Start here. Become consciously aware of the conversation going on in your head when you are in a situation that triggers your feelings of inadequacy and fraud. Welcome to your internal script.
When you have identified a few of these triggering moments, slowly start to replace your thoughts. Instead of ‘Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,’ replace it with ‘Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.’ Another great thought-replacement strategy: When you are with your team or cohort, start working on replacing the thoughts of “Oh my God everyone here is brilliant…. and I’m not” and go with ‘Wow, everyone here is brilliant – I’m really excited to learn from them.’
Feel The Relief And Take Ownership
Once you have finished a difficult task, allow yourself to feel relief, pride, and even a sense of growth. Instead of giving your successes away to luck, reflect on the work that you did to finish well. If you receive positive feedback, take it in with a delighted Thank You, even if it feels inauthentic in the beginning. Your peers/instructors/advisors are not lying to you about your accomplishments to make you feel better. You deserve to feel good about what you have done. Lean into it.
Recognize When You Should Feel Fraudulent
A sense of belonging and community fosters confidence in any environment. If you are the only or one of a few types of people in a meeting, classroom, field, or workplace (by culture or age, for example), it is natural that you may sometimes feel like you don’t fit in. If you are the first woman, person of color, or person with a unique ability to achieve something in your world (the first VP, designer, supervisor, honoree, etc.) there can be an added sense of pressure to represent your entire group. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign that you don’t deserve to feel confident in your accomplishments, recognize that it is a normal response to being on the receiving end of social stereotypes. You have worked hard toward your achievement. Allow yourself to receive it with great pride.
Seek Support When You Need It
As cliche as it may sound, you are not alone. Many people have experienced imposter syndrome at some point, even your current and future mentors. With the support of colleagues, instructors, or mentors, you can start to see your abilities, achievements, and even future progress differently. Your support can offer insight into how they have dealt with similar experiences and help you to move past feelings of imposter syndrome. This can be a tremendous help. They can help you find new strategies for overcoming.
Develop A Healthy Response To Failure
Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Instead of beating yourself up for falling short, pull whatever wisdom you can from the experience, feel the loss, and move on reminding yourself that you’ve got this.
- People with imposter syndrome believe they are not as competent as others perceive them to be.
- It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon at some point in their lives.
- There are five basic types of imposter syndrome: perfectionist, expert, natural genius, soloist, and super-person.
- Symptoms of impostor syndrome can look different for different people, but there are some common characteristics, but this feeling can be overcome with reframing, affirmations, and a great support system.
Disclaimer: The information in this blog is current as of April 3, 2023. Current policies, offerings, procedures, and programs may differ.