5 Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

  Photo by  Allef Vinicius

I spent most of my career feeling like an imposter.

Everyone around me seemed so confident and together. On the outside, I did my best to appear confident, too, but in the inside, I was suffering terribly. I obsessed over every mistake, strived for unhealthy levels of perfection and lived in constant fear of being found out. Worse, I was deeply ashamed of these feelings, sure I was the only one who felt this way.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that it wasn’t just me. Everyone, from CEOs to interns to working parents, feels like an imposter at some point in their lives. And we all believe we’re the only ones! I was blown away that something so common was causing so much unnecessary suffering and shame for so many millions of people.

Enough is enough, don’t you think? Rather than treat Imposter Syndrome as a shameful secret, let’s recognize it as a nearly universal experience that’s just part of being human. Once you realize that, it’s far easier to lessen its hold.

So how does one begin to overcome Imposter Syndrome? Here are five of my favorite coping strategies:

1. Talk about Imposter Syndrome.

It sounds counterintuitive, but talking about Imposter Syndrome is one of the most effective steps you can take to lessen its power. By sharing your experience with others, you will immediately realize you aren’t alone. This is a tremendous help in itself. It also helps to normalize the experience and reduce the feelings of shame and inadequacy we associate with Imposter Syndrome.

2. Personify the imposter’s voice.

You know that voice you hear inside your head, the one that’s telling you all the ways you don’t measure up? That’s the imposter’s voice. If you’ve been listening to the imposter for a very long time, it might feel like you’re one and the same.

But the imposter doesn’t have to be a fundamental part of who you are. Its words are just thoughts like any other, and you are not your thoughts. To separate themselves from the imposter’s voice, many people find it helpful to give the imposter a name and a persona. This is also known as the “gremlin technique,” and you can read more about it here.

3. Ask, “How can I serve?”

When we’re caught up listening to the imposter, we constantly feel like we don’t know what to do. It puts all the focus on us and the ways we believe we’re flawed, incompetent and not good enough, which keeps us frozen and stuck in a self-reinforcing feedback loop of “What should I do?”

A far more powerful question is, “How can I serve?” When we ask how we can serve (as opposed to what we should do), we take the focus off of ourselves and put it back out into the world. Without the pressure to find a right answer, we’re actually in a better position to see how we can use our talents and skills to deal with the problems in front of us.

4. Adopt a beginner’s mind.

The imposter demands we be an expert in all things. The moment we don’t know the answer to something, the imposter holds it up as proof of our inadequacy. Try adopting a beginner’s mind instead. Beginner’s mind is a simple yet profound concept in Zen Buddism, described by Zen Habits as “dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner.”

When we view the world like an expert, we’re under constant pressure to know what we’re doing. When we adopt a beginner’s mind, we’re free to learn, experiment, even admit when we don’t know the answer. This doesn’t just help us feel better; it helps us think more creatively, overcome blind spots and solve problems more effectively.

5. Welcome the imposter as a sign that you’re growing.

Think about the times when you hear the imposter’s voice. Probably not when you’re safely ensconced in your comfort zone. But when you’re learning a new skill or facing a new challenge? Then the imposter speaks loud and clear! That’s because--in its own counterproductive way--all the imposter really wants is to keep you safe. It wants to protect you at all costs from being shunned by the tribe because, for most of human history, our survival was literally at stake. No wonder the imposter feels so strong!

In the 21st century, though, our individual and collective success depends on our ability to step out of our comfort zones and continuously challenge ourselves and others to adopt new ways of thinking and doing. This terrifies our imposter, so it makes perfect sense that every time we make a bold move, alarm bells go ringing.

In a weird way, this means it’s actually a good sign when we feel Imposter Syndrome. It’s a sign that we’re learning, growing and getting better, which is exactly what the world needs us to do.