How to get over your impostor syndrome

Five steps to ace that job interview
Five steps to ace that job interview

Ever feel like you're faking it at work? Pretending to be smarter than you are?

You could have what's known as "impostor syndrome" -- a feeling of inadequacy at work or in life, perpetuated by a groundless fear that you've somehow lucked out or conned your way to success.

"You're looking at a blank screen and you think 'What if people find out I'm not as good as they think I am?'" said Jessica Caldwell a 35-year-old retail designer in Washington, DC, who was once paralyzed by impostor syndrome. "You think, 'This is the last project and everybody will figure it out.'"

Even famous figures like Maya Angelou, Sheryl Sandberg and Tina Fey have admitted to feeling like impostors. But embedded in their stories -- and in the millions of think pieces dotting the Internet -- is the idea that impostor syndrome provided these workaholics with some motivation, driving them toward success.

But for many other people struggling with impostor syndrome, Caldwell's experience is much more familiar -- the paralysis, the fear of starting, the guilt of never finishing and the self-perpetuating cycle of "am I good enough?" to "I never do anything right."

The American Psychological Association points to both procrastination and overpreparation as two symptoms of impostor syndrome. People feeling like "impostors" may put off a task or spend too much time preparing -- tanking their overall productivity as a result, which then feeds back into their feelings of inadequacy or failure.

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Valerie Young, a speaker who specializes in impostor syndrome coaching, says people with these feelings are much more likely to procrastinate or underperform at work -- all to avoid being "found out."

"We have ways we protect ourselves, largely unconscious," Young says. "Things like flying under the radar. You don't go after promotions or ask questions in meetings or share your ideas or grow your business. Then no one can judge you or find out that you're an impostor."

What to do about it

In the 40 years since two psychologists coined the term "impostor syndrome," there's a greater awareness of the feelings, and support available to those who want to move past them.

If you search "impostor syndrome cures," you'll find life coach sessions, conferences, yoga retreats, Facebook groups and even hypnosis. Young teaches impostor syndrome-targeted seminars for big corporations and college campuses.

Young remembers talking to one young woman who intentionally sabotaged her own application for a prestigious internship by putting off the essay until the night before the deadline. "Then she can say, 'Well I'm disappointed, but I'm hardly surprised,'" Young says.

The most important step in reclaiming your productivity, Young says, is differentiating self-doubt from authentic experience. She calls this "reframing" -- separating "fraud" thoughts from reality helps so-called impostors overcome their fear and paralysis.

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To get over her imposter syndrome, Caldwell eventually turned to guided meditation to help her "quiet the voices." She commits to five- to 20-minute sessions every day. Without this practice, she says she wouldn't be in her current job.

"[Meditation] trains you to quiet those anxiety-ridden moments you experience every day," she says. "So when they pop up in the middle of a project or you're getting ready to do something you're afraid to do, you can say, 'That's my anxiety from my impostor complex, so I am not listening to it.'"

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