Sheryl Sandberg has an impressive resume: COO of Facebook, founder of LeanIn.org, former Googler, former chief of staff to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. She is one of the most successful women in modern society, and yet she has famously gone on record as saying that she often has felt one day everyone will realize that she isn't worthy of her accomplishments and achievements, and that she's gotten "lucky" to have achieved all that she has.
You might read that and scoff, thinking it sounds absolutely ridiculous for someone who is such a high achiever to have anxiety and to doubt themselves that way; but the truth is, almost all of us do at some time or another.
These feelings have been dubbed imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon — and you've probably been a victim of it at one point or another.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
There are several signs of imposter syndrome:
- Feeling like you're a fraud — you're pretending to know what you're doing at work.
- Lack of self-confidence in your position
- Doubts about your abilities and achievments
- Negative self-talk — "I'm not good enough," or "I'm not worthy"
- Dwelling on mistakes and/or assuming no one makes the same mistakes as you (or at all)
A lack of self-confidence, anxiety, doubts about your thoughts, abilities, achievements and accomplishments, negative self-talk, feelings of inadequacy, dwelling on past mistakes and not feeling good enough — these are all signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome. These thoughts and feelings plague all people, successful people, men and women of all ages, races, and orientations. This pervasive negativity can grow if you don't get it under control, though.
I struggled to get imposter syndrome under control. I married young and had my son by 25. Having a family took center stage, and I wasn't as focused on my career. I felt for a long time like I hadn't found my passion.
Now, all of that has changed. I have been focused and intentional about what I want out of life, especially in my job and professional experience. In the process, I became hyper-focused on all the things I worried I should already have or have been doing while I was a twenty-something — my mistakes, my experience, and my lack of self-confidence that had me feeling like a fraud at times.
Some regret is normal, but other thoughts are harder to drown out — like maybe you're not good enough to be doing that thing you're doing or trying to do and maybe everything you’ve accomplished so far can be a result of plain luck. In times of doubt, and in listening to that voice, it certainly seems easier to put your dreams on hold — or even retire them altogether due to an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy.
Imposter phenomenon feeds on your deepest fears, and hears your doubts that you tuck away from others. If you don't know the signs, it can negatively impact your professional and personal life. It can keep you from connection with other professional people in your field and growing your strengths. It can drive a wedge between you and the successful people you emulate and how to be one day. It can make you feel like a complete and total fraud.
But you don’t have to let it win. You can fight back.
Here are five lessons I learned about identifying imposter syndrome, distinguishing it from failure and stopping negative self-talk:
1. Failing doesn't mean you're a failure.
In fact, failing is normal. Many equate failure with not being up to par; they believe that they should just quit while they're ahead — this is a major aspect of impostor syndrome. The truth is, there is no such thing as an overnight success. Thomas Edison was famous for having said that he never failed, he just found 10,000 ways that didn't work. Failing will teach you far more in the process than you imagined possible, including the value of hard work, resilience, and resolve. It can also sometimes lead you to the path you were truly meant to land on.
2. Don't compare yourself to others.
Have you ever stalked someone's Instagram and been envious of their seemingly perfect life, as told by the bright, colorful pictures that present only a snippet of their reality? Well, the same goes for someone's job or their LinkedIn profile. The truth is, you only know as much as you see on the surface. You aren't privy to all the details about the hard work it took to get to where they are and all the sacrifices they've made. No two journeys are the same!
As Theodore Roosevelt said, "comparison is the thief of joy."
Don't beat yourself up and assume you should be anywhere other than where you are. Focus your energy on your goals and what you CAN accomplish, and let the negativity go.
3. The definition of success is subjective.
Before I knew better about ignoring the rule of comparison, I began unconsciously chasing the success I had seen someone else achieve; one day I took a step back and asked myself what I was hoping to find. I was chasing a dream that wasn't even mine, and sadly I didn't even realize it for quite some time. I had gotten so caught up in the idea of "succeeding" that I had lost the definition of what success really meant to me. This definition is personal, and only you can decide what it means to you and your happiness — make sure what you're chasing after is yours and yours alone, not someone else's ideal.
4. Those afflicted are ambitious, high achievers.
The fact that you are on Fairygodboss right now shows a dedication to your professional development. If you didn't care about your career or about succeeding, you wouldn't have any fears or doubts, and that is just as scary. Mediocrity has no place in your life, and that can be terrifying. You might be a work in progress, but aren't we all? Of course, there are things we can all improve on. There are weaknesses that we can strengthen. There are strengths that can be even stronger. There are skills we can learn and get better at. But this is an all too common thought. Doubting yourself is not so much a syndrome as it is a totally normal part of experiencing success.
5. Fear can be great fuel.
If harnessed and utilized properly, fear can motivate us and push us out of our comfort zones. Great things happen outside of comfort zones — use that energy to make positive changes in your life!
If you're afraid to try something for fear of failure or rejection, try and see what happens. My motto is simple, and has served me incredibly well: "What's the worst that can happen?" If you fail or get rejected, you won't be in any different position than if you hadn't tried. And you can always try again. There truly is nothing holding you back but yourself. We all have our moments of doubt, but the key is not letting them paralyze us and stunt our professional growth. If we let that happen, then we’ve truly lost.
Impostor syndrome doesn’t have to be the death of your career or the final nail in your professional coffin. Many people suffer from these negative thoughts, you just need to learn how to compartmentalize and push past the thoughts and feelings that are bringing you down and making you doubt your abilities, achievements, and accomplishments. you need to focus on the positives.
You need to focus on being the successful woman that you are. And by making it a point to learn these four powerful lessons, you can make sure the negative self-talk doesn’t win out.
How do you deal with impostor syndrome?
To deal with imposter syndrome, you should first acknowledge that you have it. Then, you can work on self-confidence and awareness. Try out these five approaches:
1. Stop comparing yourself to others.
2. Focus on your own success.
Focus on you. While it's easy to get wrapped up in what other people are doing or not doing, at the end of the day, you're all you have. Toot your own horn. Be your own best advocate. Be a supporter and a cheerleader and a right-hand woman to yourself. Because if it feels like no one else is pushing for you, you have to at least do it for yourself. Besides, no one else is going to want to if you wouldn't do it for yourself.
3. Always try to better yourself anyway.
With imposter syndrome, you might feel like you're not good enough. While you shouldn't get yourself down with self-limiting beliefs, you should try to better yourself at all times anyway. Never settle for contentment. You can always do more and be a better version of you.
4. Remember that imposter syndrome is only real in your own head.
Remember that your thoughts and concerns are only real inside your own head. You have the power to change how you think. You have the power to manifest your own reality simply by changing the narrative within your own mind. Chances are that your "truth" isn't other people's experiences.
5. Use hard facts to analyze your performances.
When in doubt, use hard facts and numbers to remind yourself of how far you've come. It's easy to get down on yourself if you assume you're not doing so well. But if you look at the undeniable, objective truths, you can prove to yourself that you're doing just fine. And, science says that, when you believe in yourself, you'll do even better!
How do you know if you have imposter syndrome?
You can tell if you're coping with imposter syndrome if you find yourself constantly doubting your accomplishments, despite your obvious successes. For example, if you don't feel worthy of your job promotion, even though you made clear progress in the last year with quantifiable successes under your belt, you might be dealing with imposter syndrome.
How do you beat imposter syndrome?
You may never actually beat imposter syndrome, and that's OK! Realizing that almost everyone else is contending with the same feelings can help you feel less alone and help you move past fear. Acknowledge what you're feeling, and then keep doing what you're doing (it's a cliche, but faking it until you make it really is a thing).
Is imposter syndrome in the DSM?
Impostor phenomenon is not recognized in the DSM, though the classification system does recognize low self-esteem and sense of failure as two associated symptoms of depression.
Karen Schneider works for bareMinerals in Global Packaging + Creative Services and has worked in a variety of industries over the span of her career, including digital media, fashion & apparel, and wine & spirits. She contributes writing to The Muse and Career Contessa and her career advice has been featured on Business Insider and Harvard Business Review. She is obsessed with learning, life, and career/self-improvement.