how can I get over impostor syndrome?

A reader writes:

I was wondering if you had any advice on how to conquer impostor syndrome. I’ve been working at the same job since I graduated college (about four years ago), and have been doing really well there (promoted almost every year, raises in every performance review, nothing but praise and minor feedback on how to hone my skills, etc). Logically, I know everyone thinks I’m doing a good job, and people seem to really like and respect me. This is all awesome! Except that deep down my gut tells me I don’t deserve the praise I keep getting.

I’ve made significant strides in overcoming this. I hardly qualify anything I say with “this is probably stupid” anymore, and I am comfortable and confident giving advice in areas I have expertise in. But I still almost feel sick before performance review meetings because I’m sure this time is when they’re going to realize I’m mediocre at best and point out all the times I’ve done things wrong in the past. More importantly (and alarmingly), I’ve found myself having urges to cover up when I make mistakes, so that people don’t realize I’ve been a fraud all along. To be clear, I would never actually do this– I care way too much about my team and the quality of our work– but I hate that the thought even crosses my mind!

Do you have any suggestions on how to kick this feeling for good? I’m so tired of feeling like I’m going to be found out.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 125 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. I'll say it

    impostor syndrome is a big issue, especially for women, and it’s not just for younger folks. I’m 43 and struggle with this daily.

    Reply
    1. Super Secret Squirrel

      This sounds familiar: a case of imposter syndrome that’s edging out into deep anxiety. I especially get this after applying/interviews (when Confident Me is sure I can do all of that), and have to actually to the work in a new place.

      I think unpacking it with a therapist, esp a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, isn’t a bad idea. (It helped me – YMMV)

      When I did that, we were able to unpack some of the logical fallacies, and do the “then what” game. One of the things I do is catastrophizing – this bad thing is the worst thing ever, and my boss will think I’m a bad worker … And then?
      And fire me and won’t give a good reference… And then? And I won’t ever get a job, and I won’t be able to pay rent… And then?
      And then I’ll end up living in a cardboard box with dirty underwear, eating scavenged Mac n cheese, until I die of consumption.

      But unpacking that opens up a validity test and/or decision tree at each of those “and then” moments. Really, would that really happen? How likely is that, versus something less bad? What are some things you could do instead?

      It turns this giant ball of amorphous dread and anxiety into a giant ball of rubber bands that you can unpeel and inspect and figure out where they really go. When I know the actual potential scenarios, I can create a plan (like literally, an “Oh Shit” written plan on Google Docs, shared with my spouse), even if it’s rough — and knowing I have a plan settles my nerves.

      It also helped me create a shorthand for this catastrophizing amorphous panic – wait, is this “cardboard box by the river”? Oh right, that’s that thing I do, but it’ll be ok.

      Reply
    2. Mallory Janis Ian

      I do, too. I actually loved having a boss who was known for his very blunt, direct manner, because I actually believed him when he praised me. Anyone else, I thought they were just being nice or polite, but I knew he would never do that. I actually felt like I could relax into a job well done with a boss like that.

      Reply
      1. Mallory Janis Ian

        Actually.

        There, just thought I should say it one more time. /s (that feeling when you re-read your own comment and . . . )

        Reply
        1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego (formerly Floundering Mander)

          Actually, I seem to love actually too. As well as as well, and sometimes I have a clear preference for clearly and of course there’s also of course, of course. Sometimes.

          Reply
    1. JamieS

      I feel you. There are a plethora of topics I have no interest in. People can tell my lack of interest by searching for my comments on the topic and finding that none exist.

      Reply
    2. Turquoisecow

      Ok so why did you read this? Or feel the need to comment, instead of just going on to something else on the internet?

      I’m always intrigued by people who comment on things just to declare that they don’t care about the thing they’re commenting on. Like, I don’t really like sports. I don’t go on sports forums and tell people this. I don’t even interrupt conversations about sports to tell people. I just…move on.

      Reply
      1. Esme Squalor

        College Humor did an amusing sketch about this a few years ago, in which I-don’t-care-about-sports Bot (a guy in a robot costume) keeps interrupting other people’s sports-related conversations to loudly announce, “I DON’T CARE ABOUT SPORTS.”

        Reply
    3. Pathfinder Ryder

      Have you scanned your computer for malware recently? Your scrolling seems to have redirected you to the comment field.

      Reply
  2. Free Meerkats

    I don’t see anywhere in the letter a mention of gender.

    Alison, did you edit that out? If not, why the immediate jump to talking only about women in the answer?

    I’m a male who has been doing what I do for 35 years, am nationally known in the field, and still sometimes suffer a bit of Imposter Syndrome.

    Reply
      1. Koko

        I am weirdly proud of my ability to guess the LW’s gender with almost perfect accuracy. This letter “felt” like a woman to me, and Hacker Factor’s gender guesser also came up with a guess of female. Every now and then when it’s not specified and someone asks in the comments, I compare my guess against HF’s and then see what Alison says, and we’re nearly always in agreement!

        Reply
    1. Clairels

      This is precisely why I’ve heard enough. Having self-doubt is not new, and it’s not exclusive to women or to young people. We all suffer from it at points in our careers. I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about this as some strange phenomenon exclusive to millennial women.

      Reply
        1. LBK

          It’s great that you’ve found a well of confidence to tap into; not everyone is so lucky, so for those who haven’t yet, they’ll surely appreciate advice on how to follow in your venerable footsteps.

          Reply
      1. Kelly L.

        When did millennials come into it? I’m a Gen Xer and I have a terrible case of it too. And Alison’s examples are all older than I am.

        It is more common among women, from all I’ve gathered, though not exclusively so.

        Reply
      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        I’m not talking about it as exclusive to millennial women, so I’m not sure what you mean there. And who cares if it’s new? Problems with cover letters or salary negotiations or annoying coworkers aren’t “new” either.

        Someone is asking a question and I’m answering it. I’m not going to not answer because someone might be sick of hearing about it! No topic here will be interesting to everyone, and if this one bores you, please skip it.

        Reply
      3. neeko

        Did you even read Allison’s answer? “Sheryl Sandberg, Tina Fey, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sotomayor, and loads of other highly accomplished women have all talked about grappling with it.” How does that read like she is saying that it is a new issue that only millennial women have?

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      4. Star

        ‘Imposter syndrome’ as a term was coined specifically to refer to a phenomenon usually experienced by high-achieving women (and was coined in the 1970s, so nothing to do with ‘millenials:). Oxford Dictionaries tries to discover the first known usage of words or phrases and they say:

        “In psychological terms, it is known more accurately as the ‘impostor phenomenon’, an “internal feeling of intellectual phoniness”, and was first noted by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Clance and Imes called it the “impostor phenomenon” because they noticed that high achieving women were believing their success was down to luck, or that they had somehow fooled others and therefore felt fraudulent and unworthy of their success; i.e. they felt like an impostor.”

        Self-doubt is part of the phenomenon, and experienced by many people, but imposter syndrome is more than that.

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        1. Engineer Girl

          Back in the 70s a lot of women were being told that they were achieving because they were lucky. It’s a lot better now. But I remember being told that my good grades were because my teacher liked me. My ability to solve problems were a fluke. In short, all my success was due to something external to me and therefore not controllable by me. Which meant that I couldn’t control my success. Which meant I didn’t “earn” my success. Hence, imposter.
          It didn’t help that people were surprised when you achieved. Or they’d call you a liar if you told them what you accomplished. Or told you that you got the job because of quotas. Many of the men would explicitly tell you that you got the job because “they needed a woman on the team because of government quotas”.
          After hearing about it again and again and again you start to believe it and doubt your own reality.
          You really had to sit down and actually compare achievements one on one to bring yourself back into reality. Hard numbers help – Reduced errors by 85%. Had 7 papers published. Responsible for launching 2 satellites in 90 days. Compare those numbers with your peers. Those hard numbers can’t be argued with. That’s the path out of confusion.

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          1. WildLandLover

            Yes, I was actually told once that I got a job because I was the right gender (e.g. they needed women in positions outside of administrative support). I was told this by the male candidate who wanted the job I got.

            Reply
      5. hbc

        Self-doubt is not new and therefore not a topic for advice columns, in your opinion. Cool. I guess we can forget advice about how to get a job, get a promotion, dealing with workplace gossip, toxic bosses, etc etc.. That’s before we get to all the other advice columnists who have highly new questions like “I’m not sure if this is the person I should marry” and “How do I spend time with my lovely family member when s/he’s married to someone I hate?” Not sure if we can count Dan Savage as unique because his topics didn’t have much publicity in the past, but pretty much everything in there was done in the past.

        Is it that hard to scroll by?

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      6. Game of Scones

        I think your screen is the real imposter because you’re seeing words that aren’t there. It’s not fair to Alison or the OP to paint this in a negative light because you like complaining about certain buzzwords.

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      7. Bess

        It’s not? I’ve heard it used in reference to young high achievers, women, graduate students, faculty in academia, etc. Basically anyone who gets to a particular level of success or status and isn’t sure they “belong” there. It’s not just self-confidence, it’s a distinct feeling that you don’t deserve your title or position or some other thing because of your identity. It’s related to perfectionism and impossible standards.

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      8. Soupspoon McGee

        When I was in grad school in 1991, the most helpful thing an advisor told all of us new students, men and women both, was that imposter syndrome was a thing, that we probably all felt or would feel it, that she felt it, and that it meant we were being thoughtful about our abilities. Remembering that tidbit has helped me through times of self-doubt and frustration, especially since it came from a formidable, terrifying woman.

        Reply
      9. Miss Pantalones en Fuego (formerly Floundering Mander)

        Well good for you, Clairels. If this topic doesn’t apply to you or interest you, then why go out of your way to denigrate those of us (including at least two commentors who are not millennial women, and I don’t think anyone who writes seriously about this subject ever suggests that it a phenomenon exclusive to that demographic)?

        It’s weirdly aggressive and attention-seeking to post this, and I’m annoyed that you annoyed me enough to respond to it.

        Reply
      10. NorthernSoutherner

        Well then, hold on to your hat. Women have certain behaviors that men don’t! And vice versa. What can I say? I took biology.

        Reply
    2. Emmie

      Thank you, Free Meerkats, for telling us. It’s refreshing – for lack of a better word – that you feel it with so much experience.

      Reply
  3. Trout 'Waver

    As Alison points out, feeling impostor syndrome is a sign of competence and intelligence. Any time you feel it, remind yourself of that. Heck, get it printed on a coffee mug or bumper sticker or something.

    Reply
    1. CES

      A positive coffee mug would be a great way to be reminded everyday at work that you’re capable. I love positive thinking stuff like that!!

      Reply
    2. anon24

      yes but its that darn reverse psychology. Because then if I start to feel confident and capable, I remember how incompetent people usually feel more competent than they are and the imposter syndrome comes back. It’s a nasty cycle.

      Reply
      1. AMT

        Ah, the old “sure, I believe I’m good at my job, but Bob who leaves his toenail clippings on his desk and thinks Alaska is next to Hawaii also believes he’s good at his job” line of thought.

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      2. Marillenbaum

        Mine says “What Would Chad Do?” because Chad (aka Chadwick Chaddington III) is my archetypal mediocre dude that I use to remind myself I’m probably doing okay. Got a bad piece of feedback? What would Chad do? Probably, shrug it off, play some ski-ball with the bros, and deal with it tomorrow. Get a salary offer that’s below what I would be happy with–well, Chad would ask for more money, so I’ll do that, too.

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        1. ajaner

          I am finally de-lurking to say that this idea is flipping brilliant to me. It’s funny and motivating and useful!

          I just started grad school and am feeling wicked out of place and less smart than everyone in my cohort; this is exacerbated because my career goals are somewhat different to theirs and I’m much older than they are.

          I’m ready to adopt it by writing “What Would Chad Do?” on a million Post-It’s and sticking them everywhere in my apartment and workspace and textbooks.

          Thank you!

          Reply
          1. Birch

            As someone finishing up grad school who is *younger* than most of my colleagues, let me assure you that I have always felt less smart and capable than my older colleagues! They have so much more life experience than me! They have marriages, children, houses, AND they’re doing the same kind of work I am, when I have no excuse not to excel. And about different career goals–you have a whole set of knowledge that your colleagues don’t, and that makes you very interesting, admirable and useful to them.

            I don’t know if that makes you feel better, but I thought you should know!

            Reply
            1. ajaner

              Thank you so much for sharing that, Birch! It is very lovely to hear!

              Here’s to you kicking all kinds of butt as you finish up your program!!

              Reply
      3. Trout 'Waver

        If you’re aware enough to notice that you’re in that cycle, you’re self-aware enough to evaluate your own performance realistically. At least that’s my theory.

        Reply
  4. I get that

    But at what point is it no longer imposter syndrome and a sign of something bigger like an anxiety disorder. To feel this for four years seems a bit much. My question for OP is this something new or just the latest iteration?

    Reply
    1. Super Secret Squirrel

      It sounds like what I felt when I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder. We don’t diagnose people here, but I think it’s ok to give an OP a heads up when it’s sounds like it could be something we have experience with, that might help with the specific question being asked? A therapist may be a good route to explore that – I recommend CBT therapy.

      Reply
      1. Marillenbaum

        Seconding the recommendation for therapy! This is partly because I just started going back to deal with similar issues (feeling like THIS is the week the professor I work for will realize I’m not as smart as he thought I was in his class last year), and at a certain point I realized that my perfection was feeling maladaptive af.

        Reply
        1. Wendy Darling

          Even if you don’t have overarching mental health issues, therapy is great for figuring out coping skills to deal with issues that are messing with your life, particularly if you’ve tried to deal with the problem on your own and it’s not working. You don’t have to go forever, or even for a very long time, but maybe a therapist can take a few sessions to help you figure out a better strategy.

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          1. OP

            I know I probably should do therapy, but I always get into my head about “What if I’m taking time away from someone who has REAL issues?”… which I realize is another hurdle my brain just needs to get over. But it’s hard. :-/

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            1. attie

              OP, if it helps, I have recently read a blog entry by a therapist praising the “worried well” clients and bemoaning that they’re all running off to “life coaches” instead. This therapist specializes in heavy trauma, and she needs a certain percentage of people who are mostly fine but could use some help with some aspects of their life for two reasons:
              (1) They usually manage to hold down a job and pay full fees. Those paying clients allow her to take on pro bono cases – those people with “real” issues so bad that they can’t afford a therapist.
              (2) When you’re deep in the weeds of complex trauma every day, it’s good to occasionally have someone who isn’t affected, just to keep up the contrast so you don’t get too inured to all the terrible things and start banalizing them.
              In summary, therapists love you and you would be doing a favor to their other clients.

              Reply
    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I apologize if this is trite, but it could really depend on the field, as well. Some fields tend to support the feeling of impostor syndrome, especially among high-achieving women (and honestly, among regular achieving everypeople). Anxiety could be a factor/cause, but it’s also so so common in my field for people to feel this way their whole lives without it being a symptom or sign of an anxiety disorder.

      Reply
    3. OP

      This is a recurring thing, but I do think I’ve gotten better at it over the years. I also do have anxiety though (not enough that’s it’s classified as a disorder, but enough that my friends notice). So maybe it’s that too?

      Reply
  5. AnonAcademic

    I read somewhere that in research, you should always be operating at the edges of your competence. I don’t know if that’s why imposter syndrome is rampant in academia. I have to learn a new major skill (stats techniques, grant writing, etc.) at every phase of career transition. It is always a bit intimidating at first and I wonder if this will be the phase where I fail. I went through it in the most major way while finishing my dissertation and more recently when writing my first “big” grant. Talking to others, it doesn’t matter how fancy the degree or accomplished the career, most people feel this way until they are much later in their careers if not for their whole careers.

    Reply
    1. Ann O'Nemity

      operating at the edges of your competence

      This is simultaneously inspiring and terrifying. So I’m going to feel like this forever? And that means I’m doing it right?

      Reply
      1. 30ish

        Kind of, but I think that it should be more like mildly terrifying rather than paralyzing. If it’s the latter, I would say it enters the anxiety territory.

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      2. hbc

        Well, yes and no. You’ll forever be feeling like there’s stuff you don’t know or things on your plate that you might mess up, assuming you don’t decide to find a job you can do with your eyes closed for the next 20 years. But when you mess up and survive, or become confidant enough that you can say, “I have no idea, but my best guess is this,” it usually isn’t that terrifying anymore. It becomes your comfortable normal.

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        1. Birch

          Yes, this!! The thing that’s helped me the most is getting really comfortable with being wrong and making mistakes. I had such a painful time writing my first research paper and seeing it torn apart and rewritten by my coauthors and then torn apart again by reviewers. I used to physically cringe when finding a mistake. But I started to realize that no one REALLY knows all the answers and we all make mistakes, it’s how you deal with them and move on that defines you, especially ethically. If no one is complaining that you are incompetent, you’re probably doing fine.

          Also, my mantra: I’m doing the best I can.

          Reply
      3. Jillociraptor

        I think an important addition to this is that you aren’t just either competent or incompetent. These aren’t fixed states that are revealed or hidden. In fact, you’re constantly learning and growing, getting better at some things while taking on other new things that are more complex and harder. It’s dynamic. The question is not “Am I secretly incompetent?” but, “How do I respond when faced with a new situation or challenge?” How do you learn new things? How do you seek input from others? How do you assess your work and use the data you collected to improve how you do it next time? Learning a new skill usually requires study, applied practice, and time, whether it comes naturally to you or not.

        If you can shift to this mindset, while there is still vulnerability when doing work that is outside of your comfort zone, it begins to feel less like a referendum on your fundamental competence that you don’t know how to do something yet.

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        1. Agent Diane

          +1.

          I often feel out of my depth. How the heck did I end up here? And here, today, is literally heading to a training day for women looking at influencing skills for introverts etc. Our pre-work was watching the Amy Cuddy TED talk about faking it till you become it. So this post is very timely.

          Knowing that every day is a blend of “easy as pie” and “omg, what am I doing?”, and most people have it, is reassuring.

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      4. LQ

        I know I’m ready for a new project or job or part of my job when I start to feel like I know what I’m doing. When I feel really competent, I’m probably in a job that’s not requiring everything out of me I can be giving. Sometimes a new job or new project isn’t in the foreseeable future so I take on a personal project (writing, starting a podcast, whatever). But that feeling of I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING AND I CAN TOTALLY SCREW IT ALL UP is sort of that point of terrorcited for me. I’m terrified and excited in sort of equal measure. I’m right on the knife edge of that right now and it’s exhausting, I like to be on the slow slide toward feeling like some day I might be able to feel like I might be competent. But I do think it’s kind of the right place to be for me.

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    2. 30ish

      Yes, this. As long as you are challenging yourself in what you do, it might be difficult get over impostor syndrome entirely. Honestly, the only thing that works for me is “fake it till you make it”.

      Reply
      1. Becky

        Reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite shows:

        “Act as if ye have faith, and faith shall be given to you. In other words, fake it ’til you make it.” — Leo McGary, The West Wing

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    3. Dankar

      For a long time, I wondered why students in the course I was TA-ing hit a slump in the middle of the semester. Their papers were topically better, but there were so many glaring mistakes, and they were tripping over things they knew how to do earlier in the semester. Then, after about 3 weeks, they would recover and were suddenly miles away from where they had started at the beginning of the semester.

      I couldn’t figure it out until the professor guiding me on college instruction pointed out that they were experimenting with things we’d talked about in class, trying out new rhetorical tools and techniques and taking risks they never would have before on their papers (and sometimes lost sight of the basics in the attempt). I never had an accurate enough term for it, but “operating at the edges of their competence” really sums that slump up nicely. Thanks for that!

      Reply
      1. Marillenbaum

        Okay, that’s incredible and makes so much sense! I’ll be keeping this in mind (in my second year of my MA right now, and I feel like I’m operating at the edge of my competence a lot of the time!)

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    4. JulieBulie

      I’m not in research, but the mention of operating at the edges of my competence is ringing a bell right now. I am currently operating at the edge of my competence – learning about four huge new skills all at the same time, under deadline pressure. In a way, I’m beginning to feel a little like an imposter (or impostor). Not enough to get in my way, but enough to keep me on my toes (and have nightmares and even daymares about totally falling on my face and taking everyone else down with me).

      It’s exhilarating, actually, but only because (a) I’m already established enough to feel confident otherwise, and (b) I know that this situation and the uneasy feelings are temporary. If I thought that I would feel this way all the time forever, I’d be very discouraged.

      Reply
  6. ENFP in Texas

    I do customer events as part of my job. And I always second-guessed and doubted myself, for YEARS. Even though I got high praise and promotions, salary increases and bonuses, and people often requested me to work on their projects.

    One day, at an event that was going off wonderfully, I went back to my hotel room, looked at myself in the mirror, and said out loud, “You know, I’m pretty damned good at what I do.” I was 43, and this was after six years of doing my job.

    Every so often I still have to remind myself of that in the mirror, but the self-affirmation really helped with my self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.

    Reply
  7. Amy

    LW, Alison’s advice is great for how to function while feeling this way.

    If you are finding that long-term you continue to feel disruptively anxious about this, it might also be worth talking to a therapist about. I’m not saying it’s an anxiety disorder or anything like that–I mean, it could be, but it doesn’t need to be anywhere near that serious to potentially benefit from talking it through with someone! Sometimes working with a professional for a couple sessions can really help reset our ingrained thought patterns on a topic.

    Reply
  8. nnn

    One thing I’ve found useful for reducing my impostor syndrome is comparing myself to others, both in terms of what others think of the challenges I’m facing, and in terms of the performance issues that others struggle with.

    For example, sometimes I’m struggling with something and ask a co-worker who has more expertise in that area to take a quick look at it. The majority of the time, their response is “Whoa, that makes no sense at all! I have no idea!” or “Yeah, that’s really unclear, here’s what I think they mean.” Sometimes they say “This is how Senior Colleague taught me to handle it when I was first starting out, but there’s no way you could have figured that out independently.” So these responses tell me that I’m not appallingly bad, because even the experts think my issues are difficult. Sometimes the experts do know how to solve them, but now that I’ve asked I know how to solve them too.

    Then I look at the things my co-workers bring to me for my expertise. About half the time my response is similar – “Whoa, this is really hard, it makes no sense at all!” And about half the time I don’t think it’s really hard, and am able to use my own expertise to give them a definitive answer.

    So this shows that I can solve problems my co-workers can’t more frequently than they can solve problems that I can’t. Which means that none of us are experts at everything, but I just might be a touche better than them overall.

    Reply
    1. dr_silverware

      I like this comment, nnn. I think this can be a good short-term technique, and I think it’s easy in the long-term to translate it to an understanding of wider context. Not “I think I’m better at this than so-and-so” but “there’s a niche in the office where so-and-so is extra valuable, and I have my own expertise niche over here, and Wakeen is really weak overall frankly so no one brings him problems to solve but everyone likes him,” etc.

      It certainly can’t hurt to understand your position in a system more fully. That can be workplace metrics, for instance, or it can be the kind of observational benchmarks nnn describes.

      The other good thing it does is turn your explanatory style–your reasoning–from all internal to some external. Internal, personal reasoning: “I failed this test because I am bad at the subject. ” External: “I failed the test because the professor wrote the questions badly.”

      Or, in the case of the workplace, “I got hired because I defrauded the interviewer by interviewing well, having good references, and having a good GPA,” vs “The company hired me because they needed an employee and thought I was doing well.” The more you know about your world, the easier it is to generate appropriate and realistic explanations like this, and the more resilient you can be.

      Reply
  9. Been there

    I think a word or two of warning needs to come with the “Ask for feedback” suggestion in the response. It’s ok to ask periodically, but don’t overwhelm your boss with requests for constant feedback. That can actually backfire. I’ve had employees that were looking for constant feedback on their performance. And when I say constant I mean constant. They would ask for feedback on everything they did. Every week in our 1:1 I would be grilled on their performance. It really did start to negatively affect my perception of them.

    Also, at a certain point in your career you are probably not going to get much feedback. The higher you go the less direct information you will probably get from bosses. About 3 levels ago I stopped getting consistent verbal feedback outside of performance appraisals. I’ve learned that, generally speaking, ‘no news is good news’ and actions do speak louder than words. Are you getting opportunities to grow? Is your responsibility increasing? Are you asked by your boss to ‘cover them’ or provide backup?

    Reply
    1. Super Secret Squirrel

      Yes! Too much becomes needy, like using the manager as a security blanket. It gets exhausting at the extremes.

      Also, sometimes managers try to meet our needs, and if they think we want negative feedback they can start looking for it. I had that happen once – he seemed kind of perplexed afterwards about how the conversation had gone down that path, and it kind of colored things subtly after that.

      Reply
  10. Manager-at-Large

    Do you trust your manager and higher ups opinions? Are they good at what they do? If so – then believe them when they promote you and tell you that you are doing an excellent job. This was a lesson I learned when I was starting out – my boss gave me tasks that I had never done before but in doing so expressed confidence in me that I could accomplish them – and I trusted his judgement (more than my own?).

    Another approach. Ask yourself “what is imposter syndrome doing for me?” – what benefit or comfort are you getting from those thought patterns? Some self reflection might help here. Also, management tools. Look up Situational Leadership – and then “manage” or “lead” yourself – where do you fall on your tasks? Are you a S4 getting D4 leadership? Are you performing as D4 but in your head think you are D2 for a specific task (not all) ? You might learn interesting things about yourself.

    Reply
      1. LQ

        I’m not Manager-at-Large but I know that imposter syndrome …when I feel it, I know I’m actually in a good place. If I feel competent I’ve become complacent and …overly skilled. Which saying sounds stupid, but you can out grow jobs. Especially if you are continually learning and growing. So imposter syndrome to me is sort of the place to be. Someone mentioned working at the edges of your competence above, and imposter syndrome is how I know I’m at the edge. I can’t let it overwhelm me or stop me from moving forward, or make me be overly needy (though when I am, I often need more guidance, right now in Situational leadership I’m in …s2 if I recall correctly, coaching, but my boss is NOT a fan of task, so I’m trying to cope with that). But if I can use it as a marker, it is useful.

        Reply
    1. Birch

      THIS. This is the one thing I keep telling people. If you respect your higher-ups, then you should accept their opinions of you. They don’t say positive things and support you for their health! Their endorsements reflect on them, so they are only motivated to support people who are doing well!

      Reply
  11. SarahKay

    OP, I can sympathise with so much of this. Particularly with regards to making mistakes, I realised some time ago that I judge myself far more harshly than I judge others. What I do find helpful, if I’ve made a mistake, is to think about how I’d feel if someone else on the team came to me and said “I’ve just done [insert mistake here], I can’t believe I did something as stupid/bad as that!” Most of the time I realise that my (genuine) response to them would be “Oh, come on, everyone’s done x at some point, don’t worry about it.” In which case, I need to apply the same standards to myself, and relax. Okay, I still have to tell my manager, but (since I’m lucky to have a reasonable manager) it takes a lot of the stress out of it.

    Good luck – and if you find the solution to Imposter Syndrome, know that there are lots of us here who want it too! You are so not alone in this.

    Reply
    1. OP

      Thank you! I think part of my issue is that I’m a leadership position, and it feels like I need to be held to a higher standard than those around me. Like, “I’m supposed to guide Bob on this project. I better know the answer to every single question he asks, or else it will be apparent that I’m not good enough!”

      I’ve actually tried #4 above and it’s helped a little with this though! It feels a bit scary at first, but then you realize no one is actually judging you, and that’s one more piece of evidence in the “maybe I’m not so terrible” bucket.

      Reply
  12. Naptime Enthusiast

    Along with Alison’s advice, I highly recommend reading Valerie Young’s “The Secret Thoughts of Highly Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It”.

    Reply
  13. cherrytomato

    Along the lines of “fake it”, what worked for me is reminding myself that the statistics/research say that many men with the same competence level as me (a woman) probably don’t feel inadequate and even might be overconfident. I can’t really explain why it helps, but when I feel impostor syndrome creeping up I tell myself “Be as confident as an overconfident man” and… that helps me. idk. I know it’s silly but it really does help me.

    Reply
  14. Esme Squalor

    Oh my God, i it’s as if I went into a fugue state and wrote this letter. I’ve gotten maximum marks in every performance review for the last four years, and still every time, I’m convinced it’s the year they’ll discover I’m terrible at my job and the whole ruse will fall apart.

    Reply
  15. April Ludgate

    Imposter syndrome is particularly strong when entering a new field, I feel like. I’m in the midst of culinary school, having spent my career in marketing, and even though my professor insists I’m doing well (with grades and end products to back it up), I still feel like a total failure. I finally had a break down toward the end of this last class and my professor took me aside and reminded me that I’m probably exhausted from work and need to cut myself a break, because I’m doing better than I think (I was ready to drop out of the program!).

    Reply
  16. LBK

    Mostly unrelated, but I’m totally having a Mandela effect moment with “impostor” apparently being the preferred spelling. I would have sworn on my life it was spelled “imposter” and that I’d only ever seen it spelled that way. Weird.

    Reply
    1. Snark

      Sort of like how I would have sworn on my life that it was the Berenstein Bears, not the Berenstain Bears? I remain convinced to this day that we shunted onto The Worst Timeline about this time last year, and one of the small, curious features of that waveform collapse was that in this universe it’s spelled Berenstain. The larger features are of course obvious.

      Reply
      1. JulieBulie

        OMG, I thought you were joking. I had to look it up. Now the alternate universe I’ve been living in seems even weirder.

        (You’d think I would have remembered “Berenstain.” I mean… it’s got “stain” in it. I should have had a mental picture of bears with stains. That’s how I remember things.)

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        1. Emi.

          Holy hell, I don’t just remember that they were called “Berenstein”; I remember learning German and feeling outraged that it wasn’t pronounced “bear-en-stine.”

          So, either we used to live in the same alternate universe, or someone edited the past as part of a vast conspiracy to gaslight an entire generation.

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          1. Snark

            I’m SO GLAD I’m not the only one. But see! It was true, back in our original track in the multiverse where everything didn’t suck!

            Reply
        2. Miss Pantalones en Fuego (formerly Floundering Mander)

          I am totally convinced that this is true. ;-) It’s not just the Berenstein Bears, it’s also the fact that I was taught to spell dilemma as “dilemna”. I distinctly recall the teacher saying “die-lem-Naa!” in class to remind us to spell it with an n. It was the same teacher who danced around the room, snapping her fingers and chanting “rhy-thm, rhy-thm” to remind us how to spell that, so it’s a totally plausible memory.

          I first became aware of this about 7 or 8 years ago, when someone snarkily corrected my spelling of dilemma on a message board. I’m sure there are a few other examples of things that I remember differently. Like the “of the world” at the end of “We Are the Champions”. So I think we’ve been going off the rails for much longer than a year!

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      2. LawPancake

        Like how the movie Shazam! from the mid-90s with Sinbad in it never actually existed but somehow exists in the collective consciousness of every millennial.

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    2. SarahKay

      Thank you – I couldn’t work out why it was being flagged by the spell checker when I typed it in. Sadly, that means I didn’t correct my spelling :(

      Reply
  17. Girasol

    It helped me to watch the guy with the opposite problem: confidence without skills. Does your workplace have one of those people who doesn’t get much done for himself but criticizes others a lot and acts like the place is lucky to have someone as smart as he is? I watched such a person and saw how positively others responded. It helped me to realize that I could act a whole lot more confident than I did without making people think I had overestimated my (admittedly imperfect) skill level.

    Reply
    1. Lora

      Ha! Yes. Watching people who were textbook examples of Dunning-Kruger Syndrome pretty much cured me of thinking I was anything less than a unicorn, by this simple rubric:

      -At work, I share opinions on things only within my field. I do not attempt to have an opinion on subjects when actual experts are right there having better informed opinions than anything I could aspire to contemplate.

      -I studied hard in school and earned every grade I got, including the crummy ones. I never, ever cheated on an exam or homework. Not once. Heck, it took me a long time to learn to play poker, because I am not naturally a good liar. If I don’t remember something from sophomore Organic Chemistry, I drag out my old books to check before I attempt to express certainty on the subject.

      -I do not take credit for other people’s work. When my employees do a thing, I make sure to say, “and Mike did XYZ which has contributed in this way, and based on his performance with XYZ I think we should recognize him.” A disappointing number of my colleagues will gladly steal other people’s work and present it as their own.

      -I really do mostly remember my undergrad education, which was broader and had more frequent exams than the British or Continental European style of university. Americans tend to feel stupid when confronted with an upper-class British accent or German certainty, even if the information being presented is quite imaginative or aspirational rather than factual.

      -When I don’t know a thing, or don’t know anything about how to do a thing, I look it up, read a book, take a class, and / or have coffee with an expert to get ideas about where I can learn more. If nobody knows the answer, I do an experiment to find it out, build a model of the problem, run some computer simulations, draw decision trees. What I do NOT do is make things up as I go along. Seriously, WAY TOO MANY people just make it up as they go along and screw it all up and then act like no big deal. Perfect example: people newly promoted to management who never take any management classes, never read books on how to manage people, don’t even really learn the software properly to do reviews and goals, never take classes on adult learning or seminars on how to design a training program. There’s hundreds of books and online classes and employers offering training and all that jazz. If you look, it’s usually free or the company will pay for it. You can at least go to the library, take Harvard Extension or MIT open courses online – those are free. Even the Small Business Administration offers some training and classes. But people rarely take advantage of those things. Just by realizing, “hey, if I make a mistake it could have serious consequences – let me make sure I’ve got plenty of information to make the best decision possible” puts you head and shoulders above a LOT of people.

      Reply
  18. CL

    I don’t want to belabor the female vs. male piece of imposter syndrome but I am using it as a focus of my question because of my experience. I grapple with imposter syndrome regularly and am so relieved to hear it’s normal. As a female, how do you balance between accepting feedback and taking it personal, specifically from males? I try to be very self-aware and am usually very receptive to constructive feedback; these are integral components of leadership. As a young female in a male-dominated industry, and now in a leadership role, I sometimes take male feedback personally because it (appears) they are only providing me with corrections or disregard. I make the comment “the sky is blue” and immediately receive from some males “well, no, it’s more purple;” meanwhile, a male colleague comments “the sky is blue” and immediately receives “yes, you’re right, how accurate.” This seems to escalate my imposter syndrome anxiety, as it reduces my confidence; and it’s difficult not to be hyper-focused on the fact, that as a female, I’m receiving more of this than males. I’m fully aware that my communication style may be the impetus behind the miscommunication and I’m working on my approach but I struggle to see it as the reason for all my interactions. As a side note, my female supervisor – a senior leader at my organization and an excellent leader – has commiserated this same fact with me from her own experiences, so I know I’m not entirely crazy.

    Reply
    1. Super Secret Squirrel

      Oh yeah, that’s totally a thing.

      Great sub-question: as a woman, how to balance imposter syndrome with subtle sexism.

      Reply
    2. Lora

      Oh my. Yeah, this is the pits. Mostly I just watch the dudes who claim it’s purple and remember that they are wrong liars who should feel bad about themselves.

      I prefer to take the Internet Argument approach: “You didn’t say it (nice enough, loud enough, the way I personally think you should have said it)” is a form of Tone Trolling in real life, to which the only correct response is a raised eyebrow and “hmmm” or “thank you for your *concern*” or “huh, I’ll have to think about that”.

      It never really gets better though. Generally I write such people off as useless nowadays: They aren’t going to help you, they aren’t going to help your career unless by accident (I mean, they make you look good, so…there’s that), they’re just not worth your energy. I really, really wish their managers would have a Word with them about how douchey they are being and tell them to knock it off, but that’s mostly a pipe dream.

      Reply
  19. Mimmy

    How do you know when it’s impostor syndrome vs. legit being in the wrong kind of job? I’m having the same feelings – not feeling like I’m doing a good job despite my supervisors and some students telling me otherwise. For me, however, I have no desire to do this job long-term (it turned into something different from what I understood it to be when I first interviewed–had I known this is how it’d be, I probably wouldn’t have continued with the application).

    Reply
  20. Gloucesterina

    I have fewer impost0r feelings when I’m regularly in a context where my role is to use use my knowledge and experience to support the professional development of others. (I’m in a role right now where I frequently do this on a paid basis, but I think doing it more informally might help me, too!).

    Not sure if this idea or framing would be helpful for anyone else?

    Reply
  21. Banana in Pajamas

    “But I still almost feel sick before performance review meetings because I’m sure this time is when they’re going to realize I’m mediocre at best.”

    This is so, so me. I feel exactly the same, despite getting consistently great reviews, raises, and promotions. I’m a 24 y/o female, so that may have something to do with it. Now I’m going to go back and read all the comments to see if I, too, can get some help on this. :)

    Reply
  22. 27yearoldimposter

    I love hearing about other people’s imposter syndromes and this one is so similar to mine. I was entry level at a startup a couple years out of college and it just exploded nationally very quickly. I have no pedigree for this work but I quickly rose in the ranks and 3.5 years in I’m one step from regional VP level. It’s insane and a rare position to be in but I know I’m good at what I do and other people trust me as well or else I wouldn’t be here. But damn I feel like a fraud weekly.

    The best moment I had was when I talked to a VP about it when we were having a heart to heart one night on a work trip. She’s a few years older and somewhat of a mentor. She then told me that she has imposter syndrome too and was even surprised to hear that I have it because she thought I was the one who was so smooth and on my game. Our perceptions of the world are funny things.

    Reply
  23. Koolhand

    OP, don’t start covering up mistakes! The fact that you don’t – and the fact that you ask questions about what you don’t know – are two things that actually make you better at the job, and stand out. They’re what make you better at your job. You’re probably scared to do the opposite, but for many many people their instincts are back to front: don’t ask, don’t admit anything, avoid looking stupid, avoid getting blamed, too scary. So when you are admitting errors and asking questions, it models good behaviour, and means you learn faster and build trust faster than the average – even if you’re also only doing those things out of conscientiousness / fear. So you’re doing great! And you clearly want to keep learning and doing better, so you will keep doing greater. Pat yourself on the back, you’re awesome.
    P.S. Those good behaviours (admitting/asking) arent being punished at your current workplace, they’re being rewarded. That’s a great sign! Occasionally in your career you’ll encounter a workplace where they’re punished – so you’re lucky to know what a good one looks like, early in your career.

    Reply
    1. OP

      Thank you! Yeah, admitting mistakes or gaps in knowledge is just terrifying. Logically I know it’s the right thing to do, but that doesn’t help the pit in my stomach every time.

      And I am really lucky to be at a great company! That’s why I don’t want to let anyone down.

      Reply
  24. Quinalla

    Things I’ve done that really helped me with my Imposter Syndrome:
    1. Keeping a running list of my accomplishments that I update at least once a month.
    2. Making a point to share my accomplishments with my bosses/peers/friends (See Peggy Klaus’ Brag!: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It)
    3. Catching myself (hopefully before I say it out loud) when I’m getting into that negative self-talk, recognizing it for what it is and telling my jerk-brain to cut it out.

    Reply
  25. OP

    Thank you Allison! The phrase “Why are you giving your self-doubt more weight and more credibility than the opinions of your boss and your colleagues?” really made me think– I’ve never thought about it that way.

    I’ve been trying #4 a bit recently, and it turns out the world didn’t end when I didn’t know something! Which logically makes sense, but was somehow still surprising.

    Reply
  26. Avi

    Impostor syndrome is your brain being irrationally convinced that you are Paul Ryan – that you dont know what you’re doing, are screwing up at your job, are massively unqualified, secretly hated by your colleagues, have gotten into your position by lying, will be exposed as a fraud at any moment. Quick gutcheck – do you see dead soulless blue eyes in the mirror? Are you currently the Speaker of the House? Have you recently attempted to take away people’s health care? If not – what a relief! You’re doing fine and it is vastly more reasonable to assume that you are a qualified and competent person who has some accomplishments under her belt.

    Reply

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