Over the last few months, people have confided in me that they didn’t feel up to whatever they were doing or were aiming for. Several even used the term “imposter syndrome,” recognizing that this is what was happening to them.
They were wondering if they belonged where they were, doing what was expected of them. Beset by doubt, a subliminal voice was saying, “Who are you kidding? What was I thinking? Surely it’s obvious to everyone that I can’t pull it off.”
I am no stranger to these feelings. Several times in my life I have stepped into a new role, but my mind and heart have stayed behind and had to catch up.
High-achieving people with imposter syndrome haven’t internalized their successes. On the contrary, they fear being exposed as a fraud. Setbacks are viewed as evidence they don’t really have what it takes. Each success is attributed to luck or help from others.1 They compare themselves with others, and think those others find them lacking. An estimated 70% of the population feels like imposters at some point in their careers.2
Imposter syndrome is particularly prevalent among people of color and women who enter the workplace, wondering if people think they belong there and carrying the weight of stereotypes. In fact, a recent review of studies on imposter syndrome found that it was a greater predictor of mental health issues than even the stress from having a minority status.1
You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t seeking to grow. Those of us who are committed to social change and social justice must learn to remove our internal barriers and negative self-talk so that we don’t get in our own way.
The danger of imposter syndrome is that it is often associated with depression and anxiety and affects job performance, job satisfaction, and burnout. It can become a vicious cycle: the person self-sabotages by choking when presenting publicly or by avoiding social gatherings with people they admire. Or maybe they decide against applying for new positions or facing new challenges. Fearing failure, the person avoids risks, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.2 Their worst fears are confirmed when they fail to meet their own and others’ expectations.
When I first joined the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work as an assistant professor, I would prepare for a class, gather my nerve, and teach. At the time, college faculty were expected to know how to teach, so it was trial by fire.
After each class, I would ruminate over every little thing or how I could have answered a question better. I have always been highly sensitive. The weekly torture of classes by day and anguished nights throughout the week kept my nerves on edge.
About my second or third year, I overheard a student commenting about how tough my classes were. That gave me an idea. If the students were talking about me behind my back, it would benefit me to know what they were saying. I believe in the transformative power of feedback, and thought that if people would just seek out and listen to others, they could identify small tweaks that could make a huge difference in their effectiveness. For me, information is power.
After that, I integrated feedback to me as part of the course work. Once or twice a semester in each class, I would put students in small groups to form suggestions on how to improve the class.
As sensitive as I was, it was actually a relief to hear what they had to say. Their critiques were far milder than what I imagined. Because I could listen to what they had to say, week by week, class by class, year by year, I improved.
When we are anxious and doubting ourselves, it’s because we’re embarking on work that truly matters.
Step 1: Seek feedback, even if it hurts. Then use the feedback to improve.
Imposter syndrome occurs among people who cannot own their successes and end up feeling like a fraud. One obvious antidote is accurate data you can trust. If you feel like an imposter, you are likely doing something important to you without getting sufficient feedback on how well you’re doing, so your imagination fills in the blanks.
Some people avoid seeking out feedback because they fear it will be painful.
What I learned from eliciting feedback from my classes year after year was how to move past those hurt feelings and learn from what the students wanted me to know. They wanted the classes to be better and were grateful to be asked their opinions.
I extended seeking feedback to other parts of my job. Through learning and mastering one skill at a time – how to teach statistics, how to write a paper for publication, how to conduct small group exercises in classes – the criticisms about my professional ability slowed down to a manageable trickle.
James Clear refers to this as the art of continuous improvement. Small gains daily add up to big improvements over time.3
Step by step, mastering skills, working through hurt feelings, and accumulating successes – this is how to work your way out of imposter syndrome. Had I avoided criticism – even unfair criticism – it would have never happened.
Step 2. Learn a process to get over your hurt feelings more quickly.
People retain imposter feelings because they are too afraid to seek feedback and obtain real data about their performance. They know some of the information will probably hurt.
They are right. Most people don’t know how to give good feedback in a way that’s respectful and kind. If you ask, they will just lay it on you. Some of it may hurt.
If you want to be effective, then learn to ask and get over your hurt quickly. The faster you can get over hurt, the sooner you can move on to acting on the feedback to improve.
What I eventually found was that slowing my thoughts and requiring myself to feel worked best. This includes journaling, visualizations, forgiveness exercises, listing pros and cons of what I was confronting, and any of the emotional clearing exercises we teach in Leading Consciously. The key is to feel rather than avoid.
Step 3. Allow yourself to feel good about your successes while also giving yourself room and the grace to grow.
If you do decide to seek feedback, some of it will be positive! Allow it to come in. Some people achieve a success, then beat themselves up that it wasn’t greater. Some will start thinking they were just lucky and downplay the success. Some are afraid to enjoy the praise for fear they will lose their humility or that the person didn’t really mean it since they had to ask for it.
One person I know never lets it in – he simply says he can’t feel good about this thing because that thing hasn’t yet happened. Success after success is downplayed.
Don’t do that to yourself. When you get positive feedback, celebrate it. Believe it.
Step 4. Take comfort that there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Some people will excel at things you cannot. You will excel at things they cannot. They are better dancers than you. You are better a singer than they. Don’t get hung up on dancing if your strengths lie with singing. Instead continuously improve your singing until your skills are undeniable, even to yourself.
I looked at my peers, the other faculty members, recognizing that all had strengths in some areas and flaws in others. Some excelled beyond my wildest dreams in certain aspects, but all had places in which they could improve. As I learned to clear my emotions, I also slowed down comparing myself with others.
In moments of high anxiety, I recited the Desiderata to myself:
GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence… Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story…
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself…. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
Step 5. Actively align your identity with the new challenge you are seeking.
Each new step in my life required a change in who I thought I was, and a reappearance of imposter syndrome. Once I learned the logical levels model, the imposter syndrome never came back with the same force.
In the beginning of my career, I worked strictly at the level of behavior. So when I overheard that student talking about me, I went into class and faked it until I made it. I did the things that a teacher does: I lectured, answered questions, and devised a system to get direct feedback from students.
Beyond the classroom, I participated in committee meetings, became involved with the community, and worked on manuscripts for publication. I engaged in the behavior required of faculty until eventually I got comfortable and no longer felt like an imposter.
That’s the long way.
I now take a shorter route by beginning at the level of identity. If I can believe that I am the type of person who can do whatever it is I want to do, then the behavior comes naturally. I don’t have to force it or push past any imposter syndrome. I am that person who can do those things.
I already have the value base of that person or I wouldn’t have wanted the role in the first place. I have the competencies – or if I don’t have them now, I can figure out what’s needed. The challenge is to acquire the identity to fit my new goal.
I learned to work at the level of identity in a chance phone conversation. When I first started teaching at the University of Houston, research was my known area of expertise. The word spread to the community and I was hired to do several program evaluations of nonprofits. Yet it wasn’t “me.” What kept tugging at me was my true interest in organization development, teams, and leadership. I felt like a displaced body.
One day when I was feeling down about it, I called my sister. The dream was so remote that she had to wheedle it out of me. Finally, I confessed that I really wanted to do organization development work.
What she said next rocked my world, cracked my head open (I could swear I heard thunder), and tilted the planet on its axis.
She said, “Jean, you could have been doing that. You’ve been talking about OD for years. Why aren't you doing it? What’s stopping you? Just do it!”
What was stopping me? No one was asking me to do it. Why not? Because the dream was so remote that I had never told anyone I wanted it even though that was my specialty in my doctoral program. No one knew, so my job and community work and consultantships were organized around program evaluation.
At the end of that conversation, I emerged with a new identity: I was an OD consultant.
A few days later I drafted the outline of a new course to teach OD. Two weeks later, I was in the dean's office saying, I'd like to teach this course. She said, “Good idea. We could use a course like this.”
A month later, I joined the local professional group on organization development. A year later, I was hired as an organization development consultant. From there I moved into my current focus on leadership.
Not everyone has a compassionate loving sister to tell them to go do their heart’s desire. I’ve since learned how to make those transformations through visualization. I have an active imagination, so it works for me. If you don’t, there are other methods.
Briefly, here’s what I do now. Let’s take the membership course we are planning to launch soon. Every day without fail, I spend 10 minutes visualizing everything running smoothly and people in the membership group fully investing themselves in learning, sharing with each other, helping us shape the course so they can gain maximum benefit.
I push away any intrusion from obstacles and imagine the enthusiasm and learning and transformation of the members. When I finally feel myself settling into it, I hold it for at least 2 minutes. That’s a long time to hold unremitting joy, learning, and enthusiasm without any negativity creeping in. And then when I can feel myself beaming inside and out, I let it go.
Try it. Place yourself successfully accomplishing whatever it is you have doubts about. Be that person in your imagination and you will be that person in real life. It won’t be easy. It’s a learned skill. Once you know how to do it, you will save yourself years of anguish and wondering if you have what it takes.
I imagine that anyone who's read this far is seeking your own transformation. And you wonder, is this great big dream really possible for me? Do I dare even say it aloud, much less think it? If you are having these thoughts, you are in the midst of imposter syndrome.
My message to you is begin with working on the belief that it's possible for you at the level of identity. Figure out how to make your identity fit your dream, the role that you're seeking. Otherwise, you might miss cues for that challenge. If you don’t feel worthy, you won't recognize them as opportunities.
Then do the next right thing – act on the tiniest step toward your dream.
In the comments below, tell us about your dream. Or tell us that you have one and what you think are the obstacles in your way.
I recognize that these steps are much easier to say than to implement. Look again at the Logical Levels Chart and notice that Environment is a key criterion for success. This means forming an environment of support for yourself in the transformation process you are seeking.
Find a mentor who believes in you. Partner with a colleague who is seeking what you are. If you don’t have this type of support, consider joining our private membership group when it begins in a few weeks. We will be announcing it soon.
 Aparna, K., & Preetha, M. (2020). Impostor syndrome: An integrative framework of its antecedents, consequences and moderating factors on sustainable leader behaviors. European journal of training and development, (ahead-of-print).