Let’s say you are working in your dream job, as a back-end web developer for a major tech company. You’re well paid, you have great benefits, and you like your coworkers. But you can’t shake the feeling that you don’t deserve any of it, and these feelings of inadequacy are sometimes so strong that they stop you from rising to challenges at work and cause your self-esteem to plummet.
This is imposter syndrome, the common phenomenon that can cause you to feel like a fraud who will be “found out” any moment and exposed for not having earned any of your achievements. It can range in severity from mildly irritating to bad enough that it contributes to symptoms of depression and anxiety. If you have any mental health concerns, be sure to speak to your primary care physician.
Imposter syndrome is very common, possibly affecting as much as 82% of the population. And though the experience of imposter syndrome can lead one to feel like they’ve “faked” all of their achievements, many extremely successful people have spoken publicly that they continue to experience these feelings. Even Albert Einstein wrote that he “[felt] compelled to think of [him]self as an involuntary swindler”.
But why do we experience imposter syndrome? There are several contributing factors:
Pluralistic ignorance is what we call it when each individual in a group thinks all the others are acting, thinking, or feeling in a different way than they are. For example, in a workplace, this could mean that you feel dissatisfied in your job, but you believe that everyone else loves their job, even though they all feel dissatisfied, just as you do. Our tendency to misjudge others’ experiences in this way plays into feelings of imposter syndrome. (If you want to learn more about pluralistic ignorance, click here.)
A deep need for one’s work to be perfect and praiseworthy can factor into imposter syndrome. Many hardworking, intelligent people suffer from perfectionism, and it’s true that this strive for perfection often goes hand in hand with ambition and lofty goals. But we can also think of perfectionism as a toxic, precarious mindset. Perfection is an impossible balance to find and maintain, and the constant search for perfection at work can cause stress and contribute to imposter syndrome
Discrimination or minority experience
Feelings of imposter syndrome are disproportionately high among minority groups. Psychologists are still exploring why this is the case. We already know that experiencing discrimination is a cause of psychological stress, which may be a factor.
Children who grow up in families that placed a high value on ambition and conventional success can suffer from feelings of imposter syndrome in adulthood. Growing up with a very talented or “gifted” sibling can cause similar results.
So, if so many of the causes of imposter syndrome are out of our control, what can we do to push back and restore our self-confidence?
Share your concerns with colleagues and peers
Though it’s a vulnerable step to take to be honest about feelings of inadequacy, ultimately doing so is one of the biggest steps you can take to banish these feelings. That’s because pluralistic ignorance, as discussed above, falls apart when people actually communicate honestly with each other about their insecurities and fears. Once you realize that others, even your successful colleagues and mentors you respect, also experience feelings of shame and inadequacy, you will realize that you aren’t alone.
Purge the negativity
Do an analysis of the influences in your life: your friends, your family, your social media channels, your work colleagues, your classmates. Are there people who consistently bully you, belittle you, or tear you down? Do the people you follow online make you feel ashamed of where you are in your own life? To the degree that you’re able, get some distance from the negative influences. Get in control of your algorithms. This might mean setting boundaries with a certain friend, or muting accounts on your feed. Get some space so that you can rebuild confidence in your abilities without internalizing the negativity others project onto you.0
Ditch the comparison
It can be so tempting to look at what other people are accomplishing and beat yourself up for not doing more. But the truth is, each of us is on our own unique path and timeline, with different goals, motivators, advantages, and stressors. At the end of the day, the only thing you can do is your best, whatever that means for you and your current situation. The only person you are competing against is yourself.
Give yourself time and space to grow, rather than pressuring yourself to immediately accomplish everything you dream of. Imposter syndrome often comes about while you’re experiencing significant change or a major life upheaval, like starting a new job or studying at a new school. Remember that you can’t be an expert immediately, and that most likely, the people around you won’t expect you to know everything.
Keep records of your accomplishments
Whenever you accomplish something you’re proud of or receive praise for your work, write it down and save it in a folder on your computer. Call it a “brag book.” Then, when you’re feeling inadequate and unsure, you’ll have a concrete record to look back on. Though it’s important not to let our successes and failures define us, reflecting on the obstacles you’ve overcome is healthy and can boost your mood. Use this record before a big interview or important meeting to boost your self-confidence.
Though feelings of imposter syndrome often arise due to factors out of your control, there are positive steps you can take to increase your self-confidence and banish feelings of inadequacy. Practice these tips to stay grounded in your successes and remember…