Decompression Session: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Stressed student in front of laptop.

You know the feeling. That little voice in your head that tells you that you’re not enough, that you don’t deserve your success, that you’re an imposter—and it’s only a matter of time until everyone figures it out.

Sound familiar? Most of us will suffer a crisis of confidence at one time or another, but periods of self-doubt take many forms and have many causes. One of them is “imposter syndrome.”

What is imposter syndrome? It’s that nagging feeling that our successes are unearned and despite our achievements, we’re not actually the “real deal.” It’s not a good feeling, and it can get in the way of your ability to enjoy your victories, and even keep you from pursuing new one.

Ironically, imposter syndrome is often triggered by recognition of an ability or accomplishment such as getting a promotion or an award, and it’s particularly common among high achievers. It’s an intruder, coming to steal your moment—don’t let it!

We have some tips on how to overcome imposter syndrome (in college, at work, in relationships, or anywhere) and embrace your confidence. But first, let’s look at a few interesting facts about imposter syndrome, including some high-profile syndrome-sufferers, and some actual imposters from history.

Celebrities with Imposter Syndrome

Maybe finding out some of your heroes and some of our national treasures have confessed to imposter syndrome will help you understand it’s the syndrome, not you, that’s the fraud. Below is just a short list of impressive creators and entrepreneurs who thought they weren’t enough:

  • Serena Williams
  • David Bowie
  • Maya Angelou
  • Sonia Sotomayor
  • Tom Hanks
  • Lady Gaga

Do a little of your own research and you’ll find the list goes on and on. Most of us will find at least one (if not all) of those listed above is anything but an imposter. So next time you feel like you’ve succeeded in spite of yourself, remember that you’re in good company—some of the most prolific and innovative individuals among us have felt the same and continued to do great things anyway.

Famous Frauds: Real-Life Imposters

In contrast, let’s think about what a true imposter is, because they do exist. The bona fide con men and con women, frauds and hucksters, notorious pretenders with stolen identities. (We think you’ll find you identify more with the list above than this one.)

  • Anna Delvey: Also known as Anna Sorokin, Delvey posed as a wealthy heiress and socialite and conned hotels, banks, and friends out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Her story inspired the Netflix series “Inventing Anna.”
  • Frank Abagnale Jr.: This trickster successfully pretended to be a doctor, lawyer, and airline pilot before he was finally caught by the FBI. His autobiography was the inspiration for the Steven Spielberg film “Catch Me If You Can.”
  • Anna Anderson: This imposter claimed to be Anastasia, the daughter of the assassinated Tzar Nicholas, after the Russian Revolution. DNA testing proved otherwise after her death.
  • Cassie Chadwick: A deft impersonator, Chadwick adopted many false identities in her lifetime, including claiming to be Andrew Carnegie’s daughter, to swindle banks for money.

There are many more fascinating imposters throughout history. As you can see, there’s a big difference between dishonesty and self-doubt.

4 Tips to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Now that you know more about the history of imposter syndrome, and have a few names to attach to the concept, let’s talk a little about how you can conquer your own self-doubt and reclaim the confidence you’ve so rightly earned. We’ve compiled four tactics to get you there:

1. Talk About Yourself… to Yourself

Talking to yourself and referring to yourself in the third person aren’t typically conversation techniques to aspire to, but it turns out both can help you talk down some unwanted imposter syndrome.

You’ve probably seen a character in a movie or TV show look in the mirror and say something along the lines of: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!” While this might play well for laughs, it turns out it actually works. Research shows that delivering a positive affirmation to yourself, and in the third person (instead of “I’m good enough,” try “Amy is good enough”) is an effective way to regulate your own thoughts about yourself.

Tell yourself what you need to hear! And while you’re at it, let yourself know your hair looks great today, too.

2. List Your Good Qualities (or Qualifications)

Much like speaking aloud to yourself, writing the reasons you deserve or have earned your success is a proven model for reframing your self-assessment.

Take the example of a job offer. You want the job, and they want you, and suddenly you’re filled with fear that you’re not up to it. Put all those nagging feelings about being underqualified to the side for a moment and write down 10 reasons you are qualified (maybe even overqualified) for the position. Feel free to stray from the greatest hits of your resume here, though they’ll probably make an appearance. “I’m always thinking two steps ahead” can go right alongside “Three years’ experience.”

You can also make other kinds of lists as an exercise in self-confidence. Keep a running list of your achievements, large and small. Keep a journal and write down one thing you’ve accomplished that day. Go back and read it often.

3. See Yourself Through Someone Else’s Eyes

Instead of doubting yourself from the inside, appreciate yourself from someone else’s point of view. Think about it: If you have imposter syndrome, that means you think you’ve fooled everyone else into thinking something you’re not.

Consider it. Do you think the people around you are so easily hoodwinked? That recruiter, who has interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of people—do you think they don’t have a keen eye for talent? Your mentor who served as your reference—do you think they’re a terrible judge of character? What about your professor who gave you that A on your latest essay—do you think they’re also a fraud?

Think about the people whom you respect, who respect you in return… and respect their opinion of you. If they think you’re worthy, you probably are.

4. Turn Your Self-Doubt Into Self-Drive

Want truly get a handle on imposter syndrome? Turn it on its head and make it your inner motivational speaker. Instead of hearing, “I’m not good enough,” hear “I can do even better.” Turn self-doubt into self-improvement.

Worried you’re not qualified for the job? Become overqualified by seeking out the latest research or developments in your line of work. Concerned that you aren’t as smart as people think you are? Get even smarter by committing to read a book each month. Feel like you didn’t deserve that grade on your exam? Put that knowledge to work in the real world and prove you know your stuff.

Conquer Your Inner Imposter and Go Forth and Prosper!

Instead of letting the syndrome hold you back, use it to push you forward. Outwit it, beat it at its own game, and then watch yourself achieve even more.

In the meantime, congratulations on all you’ve achieved! Your successes are hard-earned and your talents will take you far.

You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And gosh darn it, people like you.

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.