You’ve probably experienced imposter syndrome, even if you didn’t realize it. Imagine this scenario: you arrive at one of those forced mingling networking events because you’ve decided to force yourself to get out and meet potential clients in person. You’re dressed sharp. You’ve got a stack of business cards to give away. And you’re ready to show everybody you’re amazing at what you do.
But then, you’re not.
As you meet other people at the event and hear about their work, yours can seem, well, lacking in comparison. This is one situation where you shouldn’t trust your gut. Your work doesn’t suck, that’s imposter syndrome talking.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is an inability to internalize your achievements. And it manifests itself as a feeling that you don’t actually have the skills to be at the level you’re at with your stuff—your work, your hobby, your education or even your social prowess.
It looks like this: a successful person believes their success is because they lucked out, rather than because they worked hard to get there. When someone feels like their success is built on luck instead of hard work, it’s a wobbly foundation that feels like it can collapse at any time. That collapse means being found out as a fraud.
“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” —Sheryl Sandberg
Does this sound like you? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Everybody doubts their abilities sometimes, even big-name stars and rock stars of the business and tech worlds.
Research says 70 percent of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their life. If you’re a millennial, you’re especially at risk. Our whole working lives, we’ve been subjected to the comparison culture and constant scrutiny of social media.
People that take risks and challenge themselves—like entrepreneurs, for example—also have a higher incidence of imposter syndrome than the general population.
What kind of imposter are you?
If you figure out which type of achiever you are, you can discover what triggers you. According to imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young, there are five types of achievers, and they each experience imposter syndrome in a unique way.
This is somebody who has a very specific vision of what they want and a very specific plan to reach it. There’s no room anywhere for a detour or different outcome. These are the people who set unrealistically high goals for themselves, creating a cycle where their best effort is never good enough, even when they hit 99 percent of a goal.
When you hear the word “workaholic,” this is who comes to mind. The superperson pushes themselves hard and won’t give themselves a break. They feel validation from the process of working, rather than its result.
The natural genius
If you were the kind of kid who was told they were smart, got by in school without studying, but gave up at the first sign of a challenge you couldn’t totally dominate, you’re probably a “natural genius.” Their imposter comes out when they can’t get something right on the first try or take too long (by their own judgment) to master a new skill.
The rugged individualist
Another personality trait that often leads to feelings of imposter syndrome is the rugged individualist, the personality that feels asking for help is a sign of weakness. Independence is valued over everything else for the rugged individualist, including their own needs.
The expert needs to know it all. When they don’t know the answer to every single question or don’t fit every single requirement in a job description, they blame themselves for being incompetent instead of acknowledging their skill gaps and working to fill them.
Once you discover when and where the imposter and its toxic words take over, you can learn ways to give yourself with the internal validation that vaccinates against self doubt.
“Even though I had sold 70 million albums, there I was feeling like ‘I’m no good at this.’” —Jennifer Lopez
For some people, writing down past successes and the actions that directly led to them is a way to banish the imposter. For others, looking at other successful peoples’ mistakes can be cathartic and validating. Everybody’s got them. You’re not seeing them as failures, but to remind yourself that nobody’s perfect.
The most successful among us are the ones who own their mistakes, learn from them, but also own the successes that come from using what they’ve learned.
How can I overcome imposter syndrome?
Overcoming imposter syndrome can take some work, but it’s something anybody can do. As a creative thinker, you’re a “doer.” For a doer, the best way to overcome imposter syndrome is to take tangible, goal-oriented actions that give your work the opportunity to shine on its own merit.
When you’re feeling like you don’t belong in that room full of successful artists and entrepreneurs, here are some things you can do to get your perception of yourself and your work up to where it needs to be.
Get constructive feedback
The thought of having somebody older, wiser, and more experienced rip your work apart can be terrifying, but it’s something we all need. Feedback from a respected, experienced person is one of your greatest assets.
- You’ll get validation from somebody who can recognize what you did behind the scenes to get them right
- You’ll get a nuanced critique that sets you up to fix your mistakes and be better at what you do than ever.
Overcoming imposter syndrome doesn’t mean you’ll stop making mistakes. It means you’ll be able to accurately give credit where it’s due—to yourself—for your successes and your failures.
Get in touch with somebody you respect in your field and see if they’d be willing to meet up for a coffee or lunch to chat. Hearing somebody else tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong can give you a new perspective on your progress and help you develop realistic goals for yourself.
For an over-thinker, putting this kind of frame around your thoughts is an effective way to keep them corralled instead of letting them run wild and get into trouble.
Be a mentor
Mentors and learners are a circle, not a straight line. The expert you ask for advice has an expert they ask for advice, and that expert has a mentor or a role model of their own. Imposter syndrome can make you feel like you’re at the bottom of the totem pole or worse, like you’re the grass at its base.
“I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I’m a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need for me to be.” —Lady Gaga.
But you’re not the grass. You’re on that totem pole. And even if you’re new to what you do, you’re still in a position to help others by giving advice.
Think about who you were when you were just getting started in your field. What advice would current you give to n00b you (that’s nerd-talk for an inexperienced person)? Now think about when you were trying to figure out whether this gig was for you. What would you tell that version of yourself? What kinds of questions did they ask and how would you answer them now? Here are two ways you can share what you know now.
1. Answer questions online
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of those earlier versions of you out there, looking for guidance from somebody who knows what they’re doing. They want answers to their questions on YouTube, Reddit, Quora, forums and every social media platform.
So, answer them! Give the kind of detailed, helpful answers and anecdotes you sought. Seeing your answers help people can be a very rewarding way to gauge how far you’ve come since you started your journey, whether that was an entrepreneurship journey, a new career, or developing one or more of your skills.
2. Teach others through workshops and videos
Another way to prove to the toughest critic (that’s you!) that you do great work is to go beyond answering questions online and be the type of resource people cite when they give those kinds of answers. Look for ways to share your skills by teaching others.
Consider teaching a class. Or running a workshop in your community. Or starting a blog or vlog where you discuss what you do, how you do it, what you’ve learned along the way, and what you plan to do in the future. Hopes and dreams can inspire plans, but remember to keep measurable success at the focal point. It’s a lot harder to cut yourself down when you’ve got data that shows otherwise.
You can’t always be perfect, so be nice to yourself
You’re always going to be your own harshest critic. You might have to learn how to be your own biggest fan. For a lot of us, being kind to ourselves is not as easy as it sounds. You’re going to meet people who are more successful than you and people who got to where you are or where you want to be a lot faster than you could. None of that is a reflection on you and the value of your work.
Cut the comparisons and focus on yourself. Successful entrepreneurship isn’t like football, where the team that scores the most points wins. It’s like weight lifting, where success is measured by breaking your own personal records.
We’ve all felt like an imposter at one point or another. Talking about imposter syndrome and how it makes us hold ourselves back is a way to see it for what it really is and take ownership of our hard work.