Imposter Syndrome – or feelings of being a fraud – is associated with a range of thought patterns and behaviours, and each person will experience it differently.
In order to work past imposter syndrome, it is important to understand and recognise how certain thoughts and behaviours are keeping you stuck there. Below are some common examples of these attitudes.
Thought Patterns when you have Imposter Syndrome
Perfectionism: Perfectionism is closely associated with imposter syndrome because it involves setting unrealistic standards. Someone who feels like they have to perform perfectly and is afraid of making mistakes will find themselves regularly falling short or ‘failing’.
Faced with regular examples of not meeting our own high expectations is it any surprise that we begin to experience self-doubt about our ability to do a job well?
Fixed Mindset: A fixed mindset means that a person believes that the qualities that they have, such as intelligence or creativity, are fixed.
This mindset is often associated with ideas such as natural talent, where someone has a certain amount of innate talent that determines whether they do well at something or not. A key part of this concept is that people with a fixed mindset often associate success with this innate quality rather than the amount of effort that goes into something, and often believe that if you have to put effort into doing something you mustn’t be good at it.
Therefore, when starting a new job or faced with new challenges, a person with a fixed mindset feels like they’ve failed if they can’t get it right straight away. Similarly, they may feel like they’re never going to be good at that task or job, because clearly the don’t have ‘a talent’ for it. It’s easy to see how this type of attitude can then lead to imposter syndrome.
Rigid Expectations: Both perfectionism and a fixed mindset can be examples of rigid expectations, but they are only two of many.
Having rigid expectations about how things will go, what we think we would do, how we think we should be, what we think a workplace should be like, etc, often leaves us in a position where reality doesn’t live up to our standards and we’re left unsatisfied.
Perfectionism can be thought of as a rigid expectation about what an acceptable level of performance is, while the natural talent problem described above is a rigid expectation of what you should be able to achieve.
Externalising Success: People experiencing imposter syndrome often attribute success to outside sources, and mistakes to internal sources.
What this means is that when they achieve good things, they give the credit to somebody/something else (eg a good team, a lucky break etc.), while blaming themselves for the failures (eg I’m not smart enough, I’m not qualified enough etc).
By externalising success and internalising failure in this way it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling fraudulent when you get feedback or compliments on your success.
Comparing to others: The grass is always greener on the other side.
It’s natural for us to compare ourselves to the people around us. Comparison is not always bad, because comparing ourselves to others can be a way of learning things like social etiquette. Are our actions, dress, manner appropriate for the situation?
But when we engage in comparisons to others that typically result in us deciding we don’t measure up, we run into problems.
One of the problems with comparing ourselves to others is that we don’t often get the full picture. When we see someone else doing well at work we assume that it’s because they’re good at their job or ‘naturally talented.’
What we don’t usually see is the part where they were up until 2 in the morning finishing the project, or when they ducked outside for a cigarette break when really they were calling their partner because they were panicking and need to talk to someone. This is a phenomenon called the attribution bias.
It’s entirely possible that the person you’re comparing yourself to and thinking ‘I will never be that good’, is looking back at you wondering if you’re going to figure out that they feel like a fraud.
Over-achieving: Another attitude that reinforces imposter syndrome is what motivates people. Often when someone feels like they are not suited to or good enough for a position they are motivated to work hard, to demonstrate to others (and to reassure themselves) that they are doing their job properly, instead of for their own personal development and growth, or other typical motivations, such as promotion.
This can lead to people staying later than they need to, taking on extra jobs and other forms of ‘over-achieving’. These behaviours not only give them more opportunities to feel like a fraud, they can also lead to other issues, such as burnout.
However there are ways to overcome imposter syndrome, with the help of a psychologist and useful strategies such as the ones outlined below.
Strategies to help you Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Talk to Someone
- If you have a mentor or person you trust, speak to them about your self-doubt and concerns. Often they will be able to share with you stories of themselves or other people they know, who have also experienced imposter syndrome.
- Others can also be a useful tool for helping you to identify your strengths, and how you might use them to help you feel more in control of the situation.
- Examine your expectations and ask yourself how rigid or realistic they are.
- If you’re not sure what is realistic or what’s expected of you, ask for feedback from trusted sources. When asking for feedback it can be helpful to provide the person with some of your own thoughts/expectations. Discussing your own ideas and asking for feedback on them is more likely to elicit a response that helps you to determine whether your initial thoughts were realistic or not, while also demonstrating that you have thought it through and aren’t simply expecting your co-worker to tell you what to do.
Develop a Growth Mindset
- A growth mindset is often considered the opposite the opposite of the fixed mindset. Where a fixed mindset assumes that you have a rigid or fixed amount of skill, the growth mindset is about recognising that we are able to continuously grow and learn new skills that allow us to adapt and develop within a situation. An important part of developing a growth mindset is beginning to treat failures and mistakes as learning opportunities.
- Notice how you talk to yourself and ask yourself this: “If a stranger was following me around saying these things to me, how long would it take before I told them to get lost?”
- When you notice yourself thinking negatively about yourself or your performance, take a minute to examine how true those thoughts actually are. For example, if you catch yourself thinking ‘I never get anything right!’ challenge that thought by finding examples of when you did get something right.
Be Accountable for your Successes
- Practice accepting compliments and positive feedback. If you catch yourself trying to explain away your successes, stop. It is important to give credit where it is due (eg a co-operative and productive team), but don’t dismiss your own role in the success that you’re being recognised for.
- Celebrate your own successes, no matter how small. People won’t always be around to see and compliment your successes and some achievements may be more personal and internal so it’s important to give yourself permission to take a moment and acknowledge your achievements.
- Celebrating successes doesn’t have to mean going out and drinking champagne, or parading around the office tooting your own horn (although, sometimes this is appropriate). More often than not it can be as simple as acknowledging to yourself that you’ve done well, or calling a friend or partner to let them know.
Remind Yourself of Past Achievements
- Write out a list of things like your previous successes, and current strengths.
- It’s often difficult to remember what we’re good at when we’re feeling down on ourselves, so having it written down and kept somewhere where you can find it easily helps to remind you of what you’ve achieved so far – even if it doesn’t feel like it.
- Alternatively, take a moment to think about all the things that you used to think were hard (or even impossible) that you now do so often that you don’t give them a second thought.
If you would like help to tackle a case of imposter syndrome, please make an appointment to see me.
Author: Nikki Crossman, B Psych Science (Hons).
Nikki Crossman is a Master of Psychology (sport and exercise) candidate at the University of Queensland, passionate about the benefits of sport and exercise for mental health. She takes a holistic approach to wellbeing that recognises the strong connection between our body and our mind, and draws on evidence-based therapies such as CBT and Interpersonal therapy.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
- Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241.