“Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”
W. H. Auden (Author and Poet,; “The Unknown Citizen”)
“Don’t fake it until you make it. Fake it until you become it.”
Amy Cuddy (Social Psychologist; Harvard Business School)
“Success and failure are the same impostor.”
Rudyard Kipling (Author; The Jungle Book)
Everyone is almost a better version of themselves.
In graduate school I kept waiting for someone to tap on my shoulder and say, “Dude, you don’t belong here.” I imagined coming back to my desk one day to find an ominous note that read, “We know. – signed Everyone.”
For some reason I had this weird sense that sooner or later people were going to find out that I had no idea what I was doing. They were going to find out that I had slipped through the cracks to get into graduate school. But this feeling wasn’t new to me. I felt the same way my first few years of college too. I remember looking around at the other students in my pre-med classes and thinking, please don’t notice that I’m stupid. And when the professor would pause to ask a question I would stare down at my notebook and start writing furiously thinking please don’t call on me because I don’t know the answer and everyone else does.
I got a job offer a few months before getting my Ph.D. and started preparing for it part-time while I was finishing my thesis. The job required me to travel all over the world and give presentations to doctors and scientists about a complicated field of technology that I knew very little about at the time. So, I studied and read everything I could about it and gave a bunch of mock presentations in front of a mirror in my underwear. Studying helped me feel more confident but I still had this sense of dread that people in the audience would roll their eyes, smirk, and whisper once I started presenting. They did. But just once or twice. And it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it helped me learn faster. It made me more confident too. Why?
Fighting Your Inner Phony
Research shows that up to 70% of the population has suffered from Impostor Syndrome at some point. This is a pretty big deal when you consider what it means to have Impostor Syndrome. According to the California Institute of Technology, people suffering from this Syndrome persistently see themselves as inadequate or as failures despite information indicating that they are adequate or successful. These people chronically experience feelings of self-doubt and intellectual fraudulence. One study found that people who frequently suffer from Imposture Syndrome, labeled as impostors, perform less well and are more anxious in general than those who suffer infrequently, labeled as nonimpostors. Impostors also feel worse and suffer a greater loss in self-esteem than nonimposters after a perceived failure. Other studies show that Imposture Syndrome is strongly correlated with self-sabotage and feelings of shame.
12 Ways To Cure Impostor Syndrome
The fastest way to get over feeling like an impostor is to accept that you are one. People feel like impostors in their own lives because they’re constantly trying to improve themselves and reach new, higher destinations. The problem is that once they’ve reached a new destination, they’ve already set their sites on other new destinations. So, they never really arrive anywhere. They just keep climbing. But that’s okay. Life’s a journey and everyone is a work in progress. Understanding this and articulating it in your own head will help you during times of self-doubt or when feelings of inadequacy start to creep up.
Intelligent people are constantly trying to be better versions of themselves. Acting better or more qualified than you are is an important step to actually becoming better. Pretending is a teaching tool. The only way to improve your life is to put yourself out in the world as something you’re not first. The key is to stay strong and centered during this process. You have actively protect yourself against the pitfalls of faking it before you make it. Here are 12 tricks you can use to avoid Imposture Syndrome:
1. Own their victories.
Confident people own their accomplishments. The root cause of Imposture Syndrome is an inability to internalize success. Instead, people suffering from this syndrome think they got lucky, slipped by, or had an unusual amount of help.
How many times have you said “good job!” to somebody for something just to hear them respond by saying, “thanks, I got lucky” or “it wasn’t me, it was my team?” And how many times have you responded this way when other people have congratulated you?
It takes integrity to own a victory. Sure, you may have been lucky and you may have had help, but you did your part. Even if you were just in the right place at the right time, YOU were still there. Without you, your personal victory wouldn’t exist. Stop feeling guilty and start owning your victories. Internalize them. Meditate on them. Be them.
2. Despise external validation.
In graduate school I used to get a winning high when my advisor or my committee said something even remotely positive to me like, “your research isn’t ALL bad.” And when I started working after graduate school, I’d feel a similar rush of excitement after getting a raise or when my boss would compliment my performance.
But these moments were few and far between and after the rush wore off I’d feel guilty, and pathetic, and twisted for feeling some kind of high off of other people telling me I’m good enough. Why should they get to have so much power over my emotions? Who gave them control over how good I feel about myself? Oh …I did.
External validation is a crutch. No one should have more power to make you feel better about yourself than you do. Sure, it’s okay to feel good when other people compliment you and you should always except external praise(see #1), but you should never rely on it.
3. Add pressure.
You can’t fight self-doubt with more self-doubt.
Too many people make the mistake of combating Impostor Syndrome by purposefully lowering the bar for themselves. You know these types. They’re the ones who say things like, “oh, I’m not that good” or “I’ll probably mess up” before taking a particular action. Some will even go as far as sabotaging their own performance in order to meet these lower expectations.
The problem is that trying to take pressure off of yourself by pretending to be more of a failure than you are will actually make you more of a failure. It’s a pitiful cycle. You’ll have to set the bar lower and lower each time until what you do doesn’t matter at all.
A better strategy is to raise the bar and add pressure to your situation. Make it do or die so that you either fall flat on your face or succeed against all odds. If you fail, it won’t empower your inner-impostor because you were striving for something great. If you succeed, you’ll be forced to internalize the victory (see #1) because you did it against the odds.
4. Act before they are ready.
Many people feel like impostors because they wait and wait to take action. They want to write a book or start a business or change the direction of their current business but they never have the guts to act. They just think about it.
Thinking without acting is what makes people feel like impostors in their own lives. People like this know what they want and who they want to be but they never move towards it, which creates a divide.
You’re never going to be ready. Act anyway. Acting before you are ready is like a penicillin shot for Impostor Syndrome. It helps you build up immunity against the Syndrome. The more you act before you’re ready, the more you’ll realize that you’re never really ready for anything. But neither is anyone else (see #12).
Acting before you are ready will help you start seeing yourself as a process, as someone who is continually improving and moving forward, instead of as a stationary and permanent poser.
5. Fail first-hand.
Reading books is great. I read lots of books. But books don’t show you anything. Not really. They teach you things but they don’t show you. The only way to really see something is to do it. You have to experience it. Reading about other people’s failures and successes only goes so far. Sooner or later you have to start succeeding and failing first-first hand.
People who read and critique but never live and fail are the real impostors. Don’t be a real impostor. Get up out of your chair and hunt down failure. Drive it into a corner and make it do tricks for you.
Failure is fun. Think of it that way. If you’re failing, you’re doing it. You’re real. You can’t be fake and fail at the same time. And failure will eventually lead to victory. Failure is the only way to get to victory and it’s the only way to enjoy it because you can only enjoy something once you’ve tasted the opposite.
6. Expose themselves.
Bleed out who you really are, not who you want other people to see you as.
Put yourself out there. Risk everything. The only way to destroy Imposture Syndrome forever is by being exactly who you are to everyone all the time. This means aligning your thoughts, words, and actions as much as possible. It means being authentic. There’s real freedom in this but it’s very hard. It takes a lot of practice.
Practice exposing yourself to others until it doesn’t hurt anymore. It will hurt at first. You’ll say or write about how you really feel and other people won’t care. Or they will laugh at you or hate on you. But that’s all. And it will stop hurting after a while. Then you’ll be immune. Then you’ll be the powerful one. Because now you can be yourself and you’ll be able to take the hits. Most other people will never be able to be themselves though. They’ll never be able to take the hits.
Of course, you’ll want to highlight certain parts of yourself or your business at times. You’ll still want to position yourself for success, but you should always be your true self. Otherwise, you’ll end up living someone else’s life. And that’s no fun at all. What good is success if it’s not your success or if you can’t enjoy it as yourself?
7. Laugh at themselves
The more you expose yourself (see #6), the more you’ll be able to laugh at yourself. And laughing at yourself is a great way to fight Impostor Syndrome.
In graduate school my advisor used to yell at us when he was mad and he would say things like “I’m the boss!” which is funny because if you have to tell people you’re the boss, you’re not really the boss. It’s like telling someone “I’m powerful!” If you have to say you are, you’re not. Looking back, I can see that he probably felt like people weren’t taking him seriously. Which made him feel like an impostor. Which made him mad. Which made him try harder to be taken seriously. Which made him feel more like an impostor. And so on. This is speculation but the truth is that serious people often feel fake. They feel fake because they’re trying so hard to be taken seriously.
Don’t be so serious. Stop protecting some perfect image of yourself. Break free from perfectionism. Instead, have fun. Laugh at yourself. People will like you more. And, ironically, you’ll be taken more seriously. In fact, studies show that self-deprecating humor by high-status people increases their attractiveness.
8. Plan all the way to the end.
Winging it will make you feel like a phony. Failing to plan all the way to the end is another technique that people mistakenly use to try to relieve pressure from a stressful situation (see #3). They think that winging it, or making things up as they go, will prevent them from being held accountable if they fail. This is not true.
The ending is everything. It’s not enough to have a great start, you have to finish what you start. Too many people are great at starting things — books, businesses, hobbies — but very few people are great at following through.
People who don’t follow through feel like phonies. It’s these people that suffer most from Impostor Syndrome, because they never take the time to master anything. You can’t own a success (see #1), fail first-hand (see #5), or laugh at yourself (see #7), if you don’t finish anything.
Of course, no plan survives contact with reality. Things happen. Plans change. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to foresee and prepare for possible obstacles that may come up.
Commit to a plan but be willing to veer from the plan once reality hits.
9. Stop at the end.
At the beginning of my junior year of college we had two big wrestling tournaments back to back. I had worked really hard over the summer and it paid off because I was the only one from our team who placed at the first tournament. I felt great about it afterwards, maybe even a little cocky. So, I kind of coasted the following week in practice. But then, at the second tournament, I lost my very first match. I spent the rest of the tournament in my head, feeling like a phony and thinking that my performance at the last tournament was just a fluke.
After you succeed, stop. At least for a little while. Take time to own your victory (see #1) before extending your reach further. Stopping at the end, at least momentarily, does two things: first, it prevents you from rushing past your wins, and second, it keeps you from overindulging in your winning high.
Rushing past your wins, or not taking time to own your victories, is the main cause of Impostor Syndrome. But another, equally powerful cause is overconfidence, especially when it results in a quick fall. Failing right after a big win has a way of negating the win and making you feel like an impostor. How could this happen right when things were so good? Things must have never been that good. I must not really be that good. I hope no one finds out.
Don’t rush past your wins and don’t overindulge in your winning high. Soak up your win. Own it. But don’t rest on it and don’t revel in it.
10. Ask for help.
One of the quickest ways to stop feeling like a phony is to tell people that you’re a phony.
This is what I did when I started writing my first book and networking with people in the publishing industry. I’d meet someone new or important and within the first 10 minutes of talking tell them that I had no idea what I was doing. It was true. I was learning as I went. I wasn’t real at the time. I was fake. But eventually I became real. Kind of. A little.
You’re only hurting yourself by putting on a facade. Take off the mask and tell people what you’re after and what you need. If you don’t know how to do something, ask. Of course, you don’t want to be that annoying person who is constantly tapping people on thee shoulder asking for advice and favors. But, you shouldn’t let your fear of being annoying or looking stupid keep you from asking questions. Just try to give back to the people you ask in any way you can. Send them nice notes, or small gifts, or pay for their services, or write them a testimonial. You have value. Use it. And don’t be afraid to ask for value in return.
11. Wait for help.
On the morning of June 25, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer and the 7th Cavalry charged into battle against Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians. Custer had requested reinforcements at the mouth of the Little Big Horn River but Chief Sitting Bull had been spotted nearby and Custer was impatient to attack.
Custer’s troops charged from the North but were quickly encircled by the Indians. In less than an hour, Custer and 265 of his soldiers were killed.
Asking for help is pointless if you don’t wait for it. Consistently acting before you are ready (see #4) is an important part of overcoming Impostor Syndrome, but you shouldn’t be so hungry to act that you make hasty and stupid decisions.
12. Knock down pedestals.
The only thing that separates you from anyone else in the world is time and effort. Anything that anyone else can do, you can do.
It’s impossible to feel like an impostor once you accept that everyone else is an impostor too. If everyone is an impostor, then the word “impostor” loses it’s meaning. Now everyone is just normal. They’re human.
Too many people see great individuals or greatness in general as some kind of special thing that has to be bestowed upon you. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people that you or society has placed on pedestals are just like you. So don’t respect them too much. Don’t hate on them for no reason but don’t respect them too much. Start seeing other people without their pedestals. Realize that you can do what they do or and you can have what they have. All you have to do is act.
Chances are, the people you’re holding up on pedestals are also trying to be better versions of themselves. They’re not special. They’re impostors too. Remember that.
Have you ever felt like an impostor? If so, what did you do to make those feeling go away?
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