A Beginner’s Guide to Imposter Syndrome
As I was getting my small business ramped up in 2015, I came across a podcast featuring Carl Richards, a well-respected financial advisor, author, and thought leader on the intersection of finances and human behavior. He’s known as the “Sketch Guy” because he creates simple, easy-to-understand sketches on the backs of napkins. During the podcast, Richards shared how he ended up with a weekly column in The New York Times. It was simple. A reporter emailed, “Hey, I love these [sketches]. Will you do them for us?”
But Richards’ reaction wasn’t what I expected. He said he worried about people’s opinions and wondered how he could consistently generate good content. He explained his paralyzing fear, adding, “I could feel how close I was to not doing it.” But he said yes and decided to figure out the “how” later.
Let’s put that into context. He was already a well-known columnist and the author of two books. Yet still, he had self-doubt. “I don’t know that I can take much credit for [being chosen], to be honest,” he said. He described his fears around success: “the fear of rejection, fear of failure, and the fear of laughter—like people are going to look at it and judge it.”
I was floored. Here was a man who snagged more than $25,000 for keynote speeches talking about how he still struggles with imposter syndrome. I thought to myself, “You mean, men feel this way too? Highly successful, well-respected men get the feelings that, despite their success and achievements, they might not deserve it?”
I had never heard a man in my own industry talk about struggles like this—struggles I quietly dealt with all the time. I wanted to know why imposter syndrome strikes and how to deal with it.
Imposter syndrome—feeling doubts about myself despite outward success or achievement—typically hits me immediately after or leading up to a big career achievement. I also have trouble accepting compliments from others about my work. I am quick to dismiss or diminish the good things people say about me.
Because I’m afraid people will see it as a weakness or prove I don’t know what I’m talking about, I have been reticent to share too many personal details or struggles from my life publicly. Imposter syndrome has even struck while writing my book, The Resiliency Effect. I have thoughts like, “Haven’t others already written about this? What do I have to offer that’s any different? What makes me so special?”
How Could SHE Feel Like an Imposter?
But get this: even the most successful people feel this way. Michelle Obama. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. The Sketch Guy. Even you, I bet.
While giving a 2018 speech in the UK during her book tour for Becoming, Michelle Obama said, “I still have a little bit of imposter syndrome that goes on. It never goes away . . . that feeling of, ‘I don’t know if you should take me that seriously . . . What do I know?’” She said she sometimes wondered, “Am I good enough to have all this? Am I good enough to be the first lady of the United States?”
Obama acknowledged that sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves that we all have doubts in our abilities, or about our power and what that power is, and that’s okay. It’s normal.
“I still feel like I have something to prove because of the color of my skin, because of the shape of my body, because who knows how people are judging me,” she said.
Having the courage to share her fear of letting her guard down allowed me, and I’m sure all those who have heard her speak, to realize we’re not alone in this.
Another example, Elizabeth Gilbert, had worldwide success after the publication of Eat, Pray, Love, which was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts. But in a 2014 TED Talk, Gilbert discussed the dread she felt trying to work on a second novel, saying that the thought of not being accepted was debilitating. (The book later bombed).
“How in the world was I ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody? I knew well in advance that all those people who had adored Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat, Pray, Love. And all those people who hated [the book] were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it would provide evidence that I still lived,” she said.
Gilbert theorized that it’s hard for the brain to distinguish between the good experiences (i.e. success) versus the bad (i.e. failure). She said she believes our brains only measure how far from the normal we’ve veered. And the sooner we can get back to the normal, the better we feel. For her, the “normal” was to continue writing no matter what, even if some books fail and others succeed.
Feeling Self-Doubt is a Human Condition
It turns out there is data backing up how prevalent imposter syndrome is. Research by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Gail Matthews showed that up to 70 percent of people experience imposter syndrome during their lives. It’s not a rare state of mind by any stretch.
They found there was a common theme among many who experienced imposter syndrome: messages left over from childhood were often a factor in whether someone experienced it.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t just hearing frequent criticism that led to imposter syndrome. Being raised to highly value your intelligence and your accomplishments can also inadvertently set you up to be overly concerned about “measuring up.”
These experiences provide a subtle message that can lead us to believe it’s not OK to make mistakes, have doubts, or not know how to do something.
Researcher and entrepreneur Lou Solomon says, “You can recognize [people with imposter syndrome] by the way they shun compliments. People with the imposter mindset don’t attribute their success to their own capabilities, so they squirm a bit when they’re recognized.”They often chalk up their success or accomplishments as luck.
While imposter feelings can often be rooted in family life, according to Solomon, there are also an array of situations that can bring on these feelings. They include doing something new or novel, like getting a new job or a public speaking opportunity, or having a big transition in work or life.
The solution is to find ways of silencing the self-judgment voice and unlearning our limiting beliefs. I think we all must figure out the best ways to do that for ourselves, and there will be many suggestions throughout this book you can try. Without taking this step, we will continue focusing on overpreparing and perfection and potentially miss out on opportunities due to fear.
Carl Richards, the “Sketch Guy,” had a few final bits of wisdom to share after writing about his experiences with imposter syndrome in his column in The New York Times. He said, “I think part of the impostor syndrome comes from a natural sense of humility about our work . . .When we have a skill or talent that has come naturally, we tend to discount its value.”
In other words, if it’s easy, then why would it be valuable to the world? Having things come easy, though, is usually a result of integrating our experiences and fine-tuning our abilities. Once you put in the work, “Isn’t it sort of the point for our skill to look and feel natural?” he said.
The bottom line is imposter syndrome is something almost everyone experiences. It’s not one of those gut feelings you should blindly trust. The research shows it’s an indicator something exciting has happened or is about to happen. While we may never be cured from it, we can work to lessen its effect on our lives. Don’t let it be a dream-killer.
Recap: How to Recognize and Combat Imposter Syndrome
- Take heart that imposter syndrome is extremely normal
- You’re more likely to feel it the more success you experience
- You’re more likely to feel it when you’re “the first” or “the only” one to achieve something
- You’re likely to be uncomfortable with compliments and easily brush them off when you’re feeling like an imposter
- Recognize and focus on “unlearning” limiting beliefs when you’re feeling like an imposter
- Sometimes self-talk such as, “even though I’m feeling like an imposter, I can do this,” is helpful.
- Recognize that the brain is just alerting you that something exciting or out of the ordinary has happened when you’re feeling like an imposter.
- Tell yourself “I’m excited,” when you’re feeling like an imposter
- Recognize that something may come easy for you because you worked hard and you’re inherently good at it.
- Remind yourself that you’re normal if you have doubt, fear or feel uncertain. These are human feelings.
- Remind yourself it’s ok to make mistakes or change your mind.
This is an excerpt from The Resiliency Effect. To download another chapter, click this link.