Imposter Syndrome: When Your Best Is Never Enough

You’ve finally landed that dream internship or received praise from your professor on that project you poured your heart and soul into over the last month when, just as you’re about to celebrate and breathe a sigh of relief, that feeling hits you. You know the one—the feeling that at any minute, someone is going to realize the truth. The truth that you’ve known all along and have just been hoping others wouldn’t find out, that you are aren’t qualified enough, talented enough, experienced enough or whatever enough to deserve the praise or opportunities being showered upon you.  

Suddenly, you begin to panic and count down the moments until everyone realizes you’re a fraud. You really don’t have what it takes, and you never did. Is this just a wave of reality washing over you as you finally understand what others have suspected all along? Not at all. It’s imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head, and although everyone else around you might seem cool, collected, and confident, Psychology Today reports that around 25 to 30 percent of high achievers may suffer from imposter syndrome and around 70 percent of adults may experience this at least once in their lifetime (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).  

What does it look like? 

Think you might have imposter syndrome? While it can look different to everyone, here are 10 signs you might be dealing with imposter syndrome:  

1) You’re a perfectionist Whether you proudly declare it yourself or others have brought it to your attention, you hold yourself to stands that are impossibly high.  

2) For you, failure is not an option You avoid doing things you might fail at because even the thought of failure paralyzes you with fear.  

3) You keep your confidence under wraps It isn’t just that you feel inadequate on the inside, it’s that you believe showing it on the outside might seem like overcompensation. 

4) Success scares you What could be more terrifying than the prospect of success and all the opportunities for failure that it brings? 

5) You think people praise you because of your charm, not your talent It isn’t that you aren’t getting good feedback. It’s just that you’re pretty sure people are only being nice to you.  

6) You. Must. Be. The Best. It’s a compulsion. It always has been, and it will be every time you encounter others who are high achievers like yourself.  

7) You focus on what you haven’t done instead of what you have Got a promotion at work? Got the highest grade in your class? That’s nice, but…here’s a long list of things you haven’t accomplished yet. 

8) You don’t feel like you’re enough Ever. Period. 

9) You’re convinced your success is just luck Even though you have the awards, accolades, and experiences to prove your worthy of praise or success, you still think it was all accidental, not earned. 

10) You’re afraid of being found out Not only that, but you’ve also got a back-up plan for the inevitable day when you they all realize you’re a fake. 

Where does this come from? 

For many, imposter syndrome seems to show up when attention is called to your success. This can be in the form of verbal praise, written recognition, an award, an opportunity offer, or any other situation in which others are made aware of your achievements. There are even certain personality traits such as self-efficacy (your own judgement of how you’re able to cope with a given situation based on the skills you have and the circumstances you face), perfectionism (the desire to avoid failure or harsh judgement), and neuroticism (a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings) that can contribute to feelings of being an imposter. Your environment can play into feeling like you’re a fraud as well. If you work in a highly competitive office or face intense pressure about academic achievement, you may find yourself doubting that your success is a direct result of the hard work you’ve done and begin to wonder if you only are where you are today because someone along the way made a giant mistake by believing in you.  

What can you do about it? 

 The good news is that there is plenty you can do about imposter syndrome. Here are a few tips to help you get started.  

1) Praise effort over outcome Regardless of how that job interview or scholarship application turns out, take some time to celebrate how incredibly hard you worked to give it your all.  

2) Create an accomplishments or confidence box What could be more fun and inspiring than peeking into a box of recommendation letters, awards, thank you cards and other things that remind you of what an awesome person you are from time to time? 

3) Talk about it with others It feels so nice to know you aren’t alone—and I guarantee the person you reach out to will be just as relieved to hear that they aren’t the only one who feel like an imposter too.  

4) Learn to expect and even embrace failures, setbacks, and rejections When we fool ourselves into believing we’re immune to failure, it hurts that much harder when it comes along. Instead, remember that we all fail and encounter setbacks and rejections from time to time. It’s normal, and sometimes a a truly effective way for us to learn.  

5) Check in with reality Practice setting realistic goals and, if it helps you, reach out to a trusted friend or colleague who can help you asses these goals 

6) Redefine success Where did you first learn what success looks like? Are you using an outdated model? Take some time to sit down and think about what success looks like to you (and leave getting praise from others out of it).  

7) Steer clear of toxic competitive environmentHealthy competition is about elevating yourself and seeing the value in the process. Unhealthy competition weighs you down and puts everything into the product—which you don’t have control over.  

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