Haven’t we all had it?
It’s that feeling that we have misled others about our abilities and don’t deserve to be here. Perhaps it’s not so much what we said about our degree of talent but what we didn’t.
Imposter syndrome is linked to feelings of self-doubt and intellectual fraud and can lead to failure (Villwock, Sobin, Koester, & Harris, 2016). It is also associated with introversion and trait anxiety and is made worse by overly harsh criticism (Langford & Clance, 1993; Murugesu, 2020).
So, what can we do about it? This article explores techniques and worksheets to help identify and overcome imposter syndrome directly and indirectly by confronting what prevents us from believing in ourselves.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Strengths Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help your clients realize their unique potential and create a life that feels energizing and authentic.
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6 Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
While we may intuitively feel we understand the idea of imposter syndrome, a recent review of research from 1966 onward suggests otherwise. Not only is there little clarity regarding its definition, but there is also limited clinical guidance on either diagnosis or treatment (Bravata et al., 2019).
So, before we explore ways to overcome it, let’s briefly consider what we mean when talking about imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
According to psychologists Joe Langford and Pauline Clance (1993), imposter syndrome is the idea that our “accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky.”
The media broadly sees the syndrome as tied to behavioral health, limiting professional performance and contributing to burnout (Bravata et al., 2019).
From their research, Bravata and colleagues (2019) concluded that while not recognized as a psychiatric disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, it is very real. Bravata et al. suggest that imposter syndrome describes high achievers who “despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter.”
But while research focuses on high-achieving individuals, what about the rest of us? Aren’t we all plagued by questions such as:
- Am I good enough?
- Why should anyone listen to me?
- Doesn’t everyone know more than I do?
Put simply, we think we are fake.
Those of us facing imposter syndrome (sometimes referred to as the imposter phenomenon) find it difficult to attribute positive performance to our skills and competence. And bizarrely, it can feel worse when we are doing something really well.
Back in 1985, in her book The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like a Fake, Pauline Clance began by associating the condition with successful, professional women. But it has since become clear that feelings of inadequacy appear equally across gender, profession, and ethnic and racial group (Clance, 1985; Bravata et al., 2019).
While its clinical diagnosis remains uncertain, and there are no agreed-upon clinical interventions, we know some of the traits that people with the syndrome share. After studying 284 research projects, including over 14,000 participants from various backgrounds, Bravata and colleagues were able to conclude:
- Men and women are equally affected
- Some evidence suggests the perception of imposter syndrome reduces with age
- An association with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and social dysfunction
Early research by Gail Matthews and Pauline Clance (1985) suggested treating imposter syndrome by validating patients’ doubts and fears and providing group therapy to overcome associated feelings of isolation.
Langford and Clance (1993) suggested that the phenomenon may be in response to insecurity, self-doubt, and attempting to live up to an idealized self-image. The study recommended building self-worth, strengthening the client’s acceptance of who they are and exploring fears of catastrophic failure.
Imposter syndrome is a problem for perfectionists setting themselves impossible goals and risking failure. After all, an expert may be used to feelings of control, and they may hold off applying for a job unless they meet all the criteria, fearing they never know quite enough. And soloists (most comfortable working on their own) may be inhibited from seeking help, believing it to be a sign of failure (Bravata et al., 2019).
Indeed, we may feel that success is an all-or-nothing endeavor and experience stress when we do not live up to our overly harsh expectations. We need to let go of such self-criticism and ask ourselves, does that thought help me or make matters worse?
Instead, we must learn to think like a non-imposter, value constructive criticism, seek help when needed, and share uncertainty with our peers.
So, how do we overcome imposter syndrome?
Success in addressing, or at least reducing, imposter syndrome most likely results from supporting our internal constructs and can be helped through a focus on:
- Growing positivity
- Adopting a growth mindset
- Practicing visualization
- Use of positive self-talk
- Utilizing mindfulness
- Adopting positive coping mechanisms
Assessing Imposter Syndrome: 2 Tests and Questions
Mak, Kleitman, and Abbott (2019) identified several tools that can help identify imposter syndrome, two of the most effective ones are mentioned here.
Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale
The Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale contains 20 statements assessed on a scale between 1 (not at all true) and 5 (very true).
- I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am.
- When people praise me for something I’ve accomplished, I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future.
- I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.
- Sometimes I feel or believe that my success in life or my job has resulted from some kind of error.
- I often worry about not succeeding with a project or examination, even though others around me have considerable confidence that I will do well.
Scores of 40 or less indicate few imposter characteristics, while those over 80 suggest intense experiences.
Harvey Imposter Scale (HIPS)
HIPS is a 14-item questionnaire, scored between 1 and 7, where a high score indicates a high level of imposter feelings (Bravata et al., 2019; Edwards, Zeichner, Lawler, & Kowalski, 1987).
Items on the questionnaire include:
- People tend to believe I am more competent than I really am.
- Sometimes I am afraid I will be discovered for who I really am.
- I have often felt I am in my present position or academic program through some kind of mistake.
- I tend to feel like a phony.
- I often feel I am concealing secrets about myself from others.
Research suggests that both scales are legitimate and valid ways of measuring imposter feelings and useful additions to any therapist’s toolkit.
9 Helpful Worksheets
While there is some uncertainty regarding clinical diagnosis and treatment of imposter syndrome, there are several constructs that, if promoted, are likely to offer support either directly or indirectly.
The following worksheets help improve our mental environment and encourage feelings of self-worth and self-belief. The aim is to enable clients to move forward rather than let a sense of being an imposter restrict performance.
We have the power to reshape our lives for the better, writes Barbara Fredrickson in Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive (2010). The magic ingredient is positivity. It grows as we experience positive emotions such as gratitude, joy, interest, and inspiration and reject negative thinking.
1. Dispute negative thinking
Increasing positivity over time reshapes our life by changing how we view ourselves while promoting self-confidence.
Use the Dispute Negative Thinking worksheet to capture negative statements and practice disputing them. As you work through each one, become surer of yourself and more confident in what you can achieve.
2. Build positive emotions
Fredrickson (2010) also suggests building a portfolio of positive emotions.
Use the Build an Emotions Portfolio worksheet.
Write notes for positive emotions (joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, inspiration, awe, love, etc.) based on memories, images, and even songs that come to mind.
Ask yourself a series of questions for each emotion to prompt your thinking, for example, hope:
- When have you felt full of optimism and hope?
- When have you feared the worst but still believed something good would happen?
- When have you found an inventive way to try to create a better future?
Keep the portfolios up to date and create one for each emotion. Engage with them at regular intervals to think “more expansively and compassionately” (Fredrickson, 2010).
3. Adopt a growth mindset
When we adopt a fixed mindset, we don’t handle change well and are less equipped to deal with challenges and criticism. We also tend to stick to what we have been doing even if it isn’t working.
Adopting a growth mindset means we not only cope better but actively look for opportunities for learning and growth (Dweck, 2017). We are less likely to feel like an imposter when we consider ourselves to be a work in progress rather than a finished article.
Move to a growth mindset by completing the Adopt a Growth Mindset worksheet, replacing fixed mindset thinking with growth mindset thinking.
Avoiding challenge becomes embracing challenge, and being defensive and giving up transforms into persisting despite setbacks.
4. Visualize success
We cannot underestimate the importance of being able to bounce back. When we are criticized, we need to consider others’ thoughts as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Visualizing successful performance can help us become more resilient in the workplace to both criticism and change. Indeed, one of the best ways to rehearse a task, feel more confident, and believe in what we are about to do is to mentally play it through (Clough & Strycharczyk, 2015).
Athletes often visualize what it feels like to step up on to the podium and receive a medal at the end of a successful race.
Try out the Visualize Success worksheet.
The more real the visualization, the better. See yourself as the actor in the scene – not passive but engaged and relaxed.
5. Replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk
Words are powerful. They can bring up images of success or failure and significantly affect how we approach tasks and overcome obstacles and challenges (Clough & Strycharczyk, 2015).
Use the Replace Negative Self-Talk worksheet to identify negative self-talk examples and replace them with their positive equivalent.
When faced with difficult situations, repeat the positive self-talk equivalent to change your mental outlook, for example:
I’m feeling overwhelmed versus I know how to control these feelings; I need to focus on relaxing myself.
6. Track and measure success
We are much better at remembering what went wrong rather than what went well.
And when you feel like an imposter, one of the most difficult things to grasp is the role you have had in your own or others’ successes.
Whether keeping a digital or a handwritten copy, use the Track and Measure Success worksheet to complete a record of all that has gone well, and then review regularly or before a forthcoming challenge.
7. Dealing with anxiety: Reverse the Rabbit Hole
When we are anxious, the words what if can bring to mind a series of negative images. Use the Reverse the Rabbit Hole Worksheet to identify a plausible positive outcome for every possible negative one.
8. The “What If?” Bias
The “What If?” Bias worksheet is an excellent companion to the above worksheet and helps us to regain a balanced perspective by listing both positive and negative “what ifs.”
9. Breath awareness
Sometimes a simple breath awareness activity is all it takes to ground ourselves and see our situation in context. Try this breathing exercise to reduce stress and anxiety and regain composure when imposter syndrome symptoms begin to derail us.
Combating Imposter Syndrome at Work: 4 Tips
Confidence in what you say, especially at work, can come from the posture you adopt.
Amy Cuddy wrote Presence – Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenge (2018), following her incredible success with her TEDx Talk. Based on her research, Cuddy (2018) claims that tweaking our body language can help change our mindset and bring our best selves to our biggest challenges.
She differentiates between powerless poses (slouching, arms tightly crossed, head held low) with powerful ones (standing up straight with arms beside our body like Wonder Woman or Superman, arms open or up high).
Assertive body language – confirmed by her research – is linked to high assertiveness and low anxiety. Both of which can be negatively affected by imposter syndrome.
“Expansive postures also reduce anxiety and help us deal with stress,” says Cuddy. People using such postures tend to use fewer negative words, report less fear, and speak more positively (Cuddy, 2018).
Try out some expansive rather than contractive poses (modified from Cuddy, 2018).
- Adopt a power pose and hold it to gain confidence before a meeting, presentation, or difficult conversation:
- Hold a confident Wonder Woman or Superman pose (hands on hips) for 60 seconds.
- Raise your arms like a starfish or victory pose and hold.
- When presenting, be sure to:
- Stand up straight
- Keep your shoulders back and chest open
- Maintain a slow and deep breath
- Keep your chin up and level
- Move around to energize yourself
- Adopt open gestures with your hands and arms
- Harness the power of the pause
- Relax the muscles in your throat
- Imagine a power pose. Even if it’s not possible to take up a positive physical stance, picturing it can help.
- Visualize being comfortably confident, grounded, strong, and poised.
- Visualize being comfortably confident, grounded, strong, and poised.
- Sit erect with shoulders back (rather than slumped)
- Avoid the iPosture (i.e., hunched over a phone, tablet, etc).
When repeated and combined, even small changes to how we speak, stand, and behave can significantly improve our confidence and degree of self-belief.
3 Interesting podcasts
- Imposter syndrome and self-doubt – Listen to clinical psychologist Dr. Jessamy Hibberd on Deliciously Ella for some fascinating insights into imposter syndrome and how to create a mindset to celebrate achievements.
- The Imposter Syndrome – Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, explores imposter syndrome and its links with overachieving.
- Imposter Syndrome – This fascinating BBC podcast, presented by Afua Hirsch, explores what it’s like to feel like an imposter and why it affects so many of us.
The PositivePsychology.com Toolkit contains over 370 science-based tools and exercises. Here is a selection of three tools that can assist with overcoming imposter syndrome:
Strength Spotting by Exception Finding is a tool used for solution-focused therapy where a client is invited to consider exceptional times when a problem was absent. In that scenario, clients become aware of their strengths.
Positive Reminiscence invites clients to relive and enjoy a positive event from the past, savoring these positive emotions. Reflecting on past experiences is useful for improving the mental environment.
Developing a growth mindset is a constructive way to overcome imposter syndrome. This writing exercise – Increasing a Growth Mindset Through Writing – is a powerful way not only to address imposter syndrome, but also to guide a client to greatness.
Lastly, our Maximizing Strengths Masterclass© is the ultimate tool in helping yourself and others identify and develop strengths. This coaching package is just what you need to become a strengths-based practitioner and help clients reach their potential.
For further reading, these articles are highly relevant to applying positive psychology in the workplace and can be instrumental in negating feelings of low self-worth and improving communication and teamwork.
- The Psychology of Teamwork: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teams
- Flow at Work: The Science of Engagement and Optimal Performance
- Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace (90+ Examples & Reward Ideas)
- What Is Job Crafting? (Incl. 5 Examples and Exercises)
- 15 Communication Exercises and Games for the Workplace
17 Strength-Finding Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop their strengths, this collection contains 17 strength-finding tools for practitioners. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.
A Take-Home Message
When Amy Cuddy gave her career-defining TED Talk, she said she had spent much of her life believing she didn’t deserve to be there.
We have all felt the same way, unable to shake off the feeling we are not good enough and will be found out.
It is perhaps okay, or even useful, to have some such moments as they confirm that we must be pushing our limits, so long as it doesn’t become an imposter life.
Seth Godin (2020) writes that when faced with imposter syndrome, we must embrace it as “proof we are innovating, leading, and creating.”
If feelings of being an imposter are limiting you or your clients, reduce its impact by adopting a growth mindset – relishing the opportunity to learn and grow – and turn the negativity into something positive. Encourage them to use the worksheets to handle their inner critic, turning doubts into opportunities.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you want to improve your growth mindset, a great way to start is by knowing your strengths. Download these three Strengths Exercises for free.
- Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., … Hagg, H. K. (2019). Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: A systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35, 1252–1275.
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- Clough, P., & Strycharczyk, D. (2015). Developing mental toughness: Coaching strategies to improve performance, resilience and wellbeing. Kogan Page.
- Cuddy, A. J. (2018). Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges. Little, Brown Spark.
- Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential. Robinson.
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- Murugesu, J. (2020). Harsh peer reviewer comments disproportionately affect minorities. New Scientist. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2231559-harsh-peer-reviewer-comments-disproportionately-affect-minorities/
- Villwock, J. A., Sobin, L. B., Koester, L. A., & Harris, T. M. (2016). Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: A pilot study. International Journal of Medical Education, 7, 364–369.