In my practice as a coach and social worker, the most common confession clients share is that they think they’re a failure or a fraud. “Why are other people so self-assured while I struggle with constantly feeling inadequate?” they think.
This feeling of inadequacy followed one of my clients, Mandi, to work and was beginning to hold her back in her career. By all outward standards, Mandi is successful. She has multiple college degrees, a well-paying job, and was recently promoted to a management position.
Yet nearly every day she goes to battle with her inner critic, the voice in her head that says she’s not good enough or smart enough. She worries that someday soon she’ll finally be exposed as unqualified for her job. In an attempt to control her fear, she’ll stay up all night perfecting projects before submitting them. Even though her team praises her work, Mandi is quick to poke holes and criticize it.
What is impostor syndrome?
Does Mandi’s story mirror your own inner monologue? If so, you’re not alone! Nearly 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome, or the inability to internalize achievements particularly common among high-achievers.
At the core of impostor syndrome is a persistent belief that you’re not good enough or are incapable of facing challenges life throws at you — despite evidence that proves you’re skilled, such as degrees, promotions, positive relationships, and praise. You feel like a phony, a fake, or a fraud.
While it’s true that these pitfalls can interfere with your happiness, it’s important to realize that self-doubt is a normal, healthy emotion. Even best-selling authors, award-winning actors, and world leaders who seem to have it all together battle their own inner critics.
That’s because, contrary to popular belief, confidence isn’t something you’re born with. It’s a skill that takes deliberate practice. Luckily, though, it’s one you can acquire. It starts by using self-awareness to manage feelings of insecurity. That way, when impostor syndrome inevitably comes rushing in, you can act despite any fear.
Quieting your inner critic
To help you get started, here are some tips to fight off fraudy feelings associated with impostor syndrome so you can start feeling more self-assured today.
- Know your stress style – Impostor syndrome typically shows itself in one of two ways: the diligence camp and the avoidance camp.
Those in the diligence camp will respond to anxiety by trying to control the outcome through perfectionism and overworking. Avoiders, on the other hand, fear being exposed and do things to keep themselves safe like, procrastinate, rarely speak up, or stay at a job they hate way too long.
Sound familiar? Once you identify your stress style, start dismantling defense mechanisms put in place by impostor syndrome and free up your mind to focus on new solutions.
If you want to start voicing your opinion more, for example, make a promise to yourself to speak up in the first 15 minutes of a conversation so that you short-circuit your natural tendency to hold back.
- Put words to your emotions – No one likes to feel bad, but learning to cope with difficult emotions like self-doubt is exactly how you increase your mental strength. In fact, studies show that people who ignore negative emotions experience more distress and engage in behaviors like aggression and over-eating significantly more than people who put their feelings into context with words.
Being able to accurately identify and label feelings is also incredibly useful for combatting stressful feelings that arise with impostor syndrome. Start to expand your emotional vocabulary so that you can better deal with anxiety and worry when it arises. This skill, known as emotional literacy, is associated with an increased resilience and greater self-esteem.
For example, when clients tell me they feel overwhelmed by changing priorities at work, we explore it more. Do they feel disappointment as a result of their false self-perception of being ill-equipped to deliver results? Embarrassment because they feel like they let down their team? Simply labeling your inner experience is a powerful way to keep insecurity from ruling you.
- Tweak your self-talk – When it comes to impostor syndrome, we are often are own worst critic, dismissing our accomplishments or criticizing our capabilities.
For one week write down your thoughts. Start to note the dialogue going on in your head. What do you notice about how you judge yourself? If your inner dialogue needs a dose of self-compassion, try using positive-yet-realistic phrases like, “I’m a work in progress and that’s okay” or “I’m doing my best” to stop the cycle of insecurity you’re keeping yourself in.
It’s not easy to admit out loud that you feel insecure. But something I know from working with and studying high-achievers is that self-doubt is completely normal. If you’re going through impostor syndrome, realize that it doesn’t mean you’re broken. In fact, it’s a sign you’re growing and challenging yourself.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others.