Have Imposter Syndrome? Here Are 4 Ways to Beat It

In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes published a paper about highly successful and well-educated women who considered themselves “imposters.” The women whom the psychologists spoke to believed that they weren’t intelligent and didn’t deserve their high-ranking roles and that anyone who said otherwise had been fooled.

Imposter syndrome can happen to anyone in any situation, though it’s commonly associated with high achievers in work and school settings. They doubt their abilities, feel as if they don’t belong or think they are unworthy of their accomplishments.

You might have experienced imposter syndrome, too, if you’ve ever believed you didn’t deserve praise for a successful project at work or a well-graded paper at school or wondered whether you’ll be exposed as lucky rather than talented.

There are ways to overcome the feeling of being an imposter. For tips, we talked to Daniel Moseley, PhD, a research instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and a research assistant professor in the Department of Social Medicine at UNC’s School of Medicine.

1. Stop calling it imposter syndrome.

The first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is to acknowledge that the name isn’t useful.

“Ironically, imposter syndrome is not a syndrome. It is not a clinical condition that is causing symptoms,” Dr. Moseley says. “The feelings associated with imposter syndrome may be ordinary human emotions.”

If you vent to friends about a work situation, for example, they might say it sounds like you’re experiencing imposter syndrome in an effort to help you and boost your confidence. Hearing the word imposter, however, may reinforce feelings of fraudulence, and hearing syndrome can cause you to conclude that there’s something wrong with you.

“It may be unhelpful to tell people that they have it,” Dr. Moseley says. “Instead of trying to ‘diagnose’ their feelings, it may be more helpful to focus on the specific insecurities, anxieties and fears.”

Using the term imposter syndrome may also blame individuals instead of attending to the situation or environment they are facing.

“Gender and racial disparities are very relevant here,” Dr. Moseley says. “There are often structural and systemic inequities in work or educational environments. People face explicit biases and microaggressions. These could be why there are feelings of insecurity in the workplace.”

2. Recognize that feelings might come and go.

It is common to be insecure in new situations, so you might notice it most when you do something you haven’t done before.

“When I started graduate school, I worried that I was not going to do well, that I wouldn’t be as smart as my peers,” Dr. Moseley says. “There were a lot of anxieties early on. Eventually, I got good grades, made friends and felt more connected. The imposter fears may go away, though they’ll often wax and wane.”

Some amount of stress is expected at work and school. These may be the first settings in which high-achieving people have to learn new skills or realize they don’t have all the answers, which can add apprehension to the typical learning process.

“Some of these feelings are a normal part of a demanding job,” Dr. Moseley says. “It can help to have a certain level of acceptance that some of these feelings will come and go in the course of professional development, and they can sometimes provide motivation.”

These thoughts can become problematic, however, when they’re paralyzing, when they affect your performance or when they make you think you need to put in long hours of work or study.

3. Rely on evidence.

Even a good performance review or a glowing report card can be difficult for some people to accept when self-doubt creeps in. If you fear you aren’t good enough, look for the evidence that supports your assessment. It can be helpful to keep track of positive feedback or accomplishments, as a physical record can counteract a dismissive mindset.

“We receive feedback about our performance in the workplace and in school,” Dr. Moseley says. “If a person is receiving praise from colleagues, or a promotion or a raise, that is evidence that may reduce the worries about being an imposter.”

Dr. Moseley recommends taking constructive feedback for what it is, not as a sign that you’re about to be fired or failed in a class.

“If you’re being given constructive feedback, it’s important to listen to what is actually said. You can be asked to improve on a specific thing, but it’s not evidence of overall poor performance,” he says.

4. Talk to someone.

People experiencing doubts and concerns tend to isolate themselves so that others won’t find out they feel this way. If you’re having a hard time believing the evidence and overcoming a sense of unworthiness, Dr. Moseley says it’s vital to talk to somebody.

For example, “if these are persistent, ongoing feelings, then it’s a good idea to talk with a therapist,” Dr. Moseley says. “A mental health professional can help you get at the root of what’s going on. These feelings may be related to an underlying mental disorder, or there may be something in your background that’s relevant to explore.”

Former teachers, mentors, colleagues and friends can also be helpful at providing a more realistic view of your accomplishments. Plus, as you talk to other people, you might realize that doubts and insecurity are common.

Dr. Moseley notes that overwork and burnout may be other sources of imposter concerns, and he says to prioritize physical health in conjunction with mental health. Regular exercise, healthy meals and adequate sleep can improve emotional wellness.

If you have concerns about your mental health, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.