Many high-achievers share a dirty little secret: Deep down they feel like complete frauds.
They worry that they’ll be exposed as untalented fakers and say their accomplishments have been due to luck.
This psychological phenomenon, known as impostor syndrome, reflects is the core belief that you are an inadequate, incompetent, and a failure — despite evidence that indicates you’re skilled and successful.
Impostor syndrome makes people feel like an intellectual fraud, rendering them unable to internalize — let alone celebrate — their achievements. Studies have shown this lack of self-belief is correlated with anxiety, low confidence, and self-sabotage.
From a psychological standpoint, impostor syndrome may be influenced by certain factors early in life, particularly the development of certain beliefs and attitude towards success and one’s self-worth.
Let’s take a look at exactly what thoughts run through the minds of people with impostor syndrome.
Do any of these apply to you?
1. “I’m a fake and I’m going to be found out.”
People with impostor syndrome believe they don’t deserve success.
They may believe about themselves, “I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am” or “I’m afraid my colleagues will discover how little I really know.” They fear being unmasked and having their perceived phoniness revealed.
Feeling as if they just narrowly escaped professional catastrophe time and time again creates a constant feeling of stress and anxiety that can color all of their work and relationships in a damaging way.
2. “I lucked out.”
Those who believe themselves to be impostors often attribute their accomplishments to luck. They may think, “I was in the right place at the right time” or “That was a fluke.”
These thoughts signal a fear that they won’t be able to repeat the success in the future, and speaks to a deep-seated belief that their achievement has nothing to do with their actual ability.
3. “If I can do it, anyone can.”
People with impostor syndrome think they’re nothing special. Whatever they’ve achieved, others can too.
They’ll think to themselves, “Oh, that was nothing. I’m sure my teammate could have done the same thing” or “I don’t offer anything special to the company that no one else could.”
The irony is that studies have shown that people who feel the effects of impostor syndrome most acutely have multiple advanced degrees and demonstrated track records.
4. “I had a lot of help.”
“Impostors” aren’t able to internalize their wins and find themselves deeply uncomfortable with praise.
As such, they often credit others for helping them. They may think back to when they had a hand in editing a presentation or coordinating a launch.
They may think, “This was really a team project. It wasn’t all me” or “Since I didn’t do this completely by myself, it doesn’t really count as a success.” They grasp on to any evidence that will confirm their unworthiness.
5. “I had connections.”
Networking is the best way to land new opportunities, no matter what your industry or goal.
But “impostors” believe that whenever they’ve gotten an assist through a professional connection, that discounts their achievement.
They’ll think, “This was entirely thanks to my investor’s hook-up” or “Since I wouldn’t have gotten my foot in the door without my uncle’s connection, it doesn’t really count.”
6. “They’re just being nice.”
Many “impostors” can’t accept praise at face value. They assume that the flatterer is just being nice.
They might believe, “They have to say that. It would be impolite not to” or “The only reason he’s congratulating me is because he’s a nice guy — not because I deserve it.”
7. “Failure is not an option.”
There can be a huge amount of internal pressure on “impostors” to avoid failure so they won’t be exposed as a fake.
Paradoxically, the more success “impostors” experience, the more pressure they feel because of the increased responsibility and visibility.
They think, “I have to give 300% to live up to this” or “I’ve got to work even harder than everyone else to prevent them from discovering who I really am.”
This becomes an escalating cycle in which they feel more frantic about proving themselves.
8. “I’m pretty sure” or “I kind of think”
“Impostors” use a lot of minimizing language because they don’t feel fully confident.
They might say out loud or think to themselves, “I’m not sure if this might work” or “I’m just checking in,” instead of nixing such belittling words as “might”, “just,” and “kind of.”
9. “I made it up as I went”
People with impostor syndrome often discredit their achievements by thinking or saying things like, “I totally BS-ed my way through that” because they feel their expertise isn’t justified.
Even if they accomplish something huge, they’ll write it off as not a big deal.
What to do if you struggle with impostor syndrome
Some of these thoughts may play on a loop in your head and contribute to the self-doubt that fuels impostor syndrome. They may be unconscious or you may be aware of the. You may identify with some of the above thoughts and feelings, but not others.
A great first step in overcoming impostor syndrome is to acknowledge the thoughts to yourself and even to other people. You can also take this free course on managing self-doubt and developing unstoppable confidence.
Remember to also share your experiences with trusted friends, family, and colleagues. You’ll be surprised how many can relate.