6 Ways You Can Cure Your Imposter Syndrome
Jessamy Hibberd, B.Sc., M.Sc., D.Clin.Psy, Pg.Dip., is a highly respected chartered clinical psychologist, author, and commentator. She has 14 years' experience working in mental health (within the NHS and in her own practice), and is passionate about psychology and the benefits it can bring.
At the core of imposter syndrome is a fear of not being good enough. This might not be there all the time, but when it occurs, you seriously doubt yourself and your capabilities and feel incredibly insecure. To keep this fear in check, you believe you should always appear capable, competent, and successful. This means you constantly feel you need to prove yourself.
If you don't look and feel these things, you conclude that you must be an imposter and doubt your own worth, wrongly presuming that non-imposters never experience self-doubt or insecurity. In your mind everyone else is managing—they're capable, but you're not.
Self-doubt might drive these fears, but the thought that no one else feels like this is a big part of the problem. And this is where you're completely wrong.
Who doesn't feel insecure at times or worry what others think? If you could read the minds of the people around you, you'd be likely to encounter waves of insecurity. We compare, evaluate, and judge ourselves with great scrutiny. It's not something to pathologize but something we should be aware that we're all susceptible to. In fact, I'm more suspicious and concerned about a person who thinks they know everything. I'd consider those who claim never to experience self-doubt to be more of a problem!
Self-doubt affects everyone. None of us really knows what we're doing! How do I know this? Because self-doubt is hard-wired into us as an evolutionary protection mechanism.
1. Understand the evolutionary origins of insecurity and self-doubt.
From an evolutionary perspective, insecurity and doubt are part of the "better safe than sorry" approach that early humans adopted for survival (and a bit like its sibling, fear). An overactive threat detector was a great help in avoiding an early death, so the advantages of self-doubt outweighed the disadvantages, and it has stayed with us. Self-doubt and insecurity helped us to be more self-aware, so we could anticipate and overcome potential problems or threats and get on better in our relationships.
It worked to alert us to danger–we scanned the environment for potential threats so we could anticipate problems and avoid accident and injury–and made us cautious when faced with new people, places, or events. Self-doubt also helped us judge what we could and couldn't do–if humans had been completely fearless, we'd have been an evolutionary quirk rather than the dominant species.
Insecurity is also good for human relationships. We're highly social beings, and early humans needed to live together and get on in a group to ensure survival. Being cut off from the group would have resulted in death. This means we have a deep need for social inclusion–we feel rewarded by positive social interactions and hurt by negative interactions. Positive interactions with the same individuals within a framework of long-term and stable care is a fundamental human need and, in addition, the need to belong is integral to self-development.
Our drive to belong meant that understanding others was a necessary life skill. To allow us to do this, the human brain, particularly the neocortex, is much larger in humans than in other primates and mammals. The neocortex is the area of the brain involved in higher social cognition, such as conscious thoughts, language, behavioral and emotion regulation, as well as empathy and theory of mind. This area allows us to understand the feelings and intentions of others, and when we have the ability to do this, it makes sense that we might at times feel insecure.
As we've evolved, humans have had to be self-aware to succeed. We had to avoid enemies, form useful alliances, and find suitable mates, so flawed judgments could be fatal. A bit of insecurity allowed us to get along with others and stay safely in the group.
That need for a sense of belonging is still part of us now, and relationships are still key to our health and happiness. Research shows that a lack of social support is as bad for you as smoking. Social isolation is associated with a heightened risk of disease and early death, whereas warm and supportive relationships have long-term benefits for health and longevity. Connection is key—relationships are what give meaning and purpose to our lives.
2. Remember that no one feels good all the time.
Our level of self-doubt varies throughout our lives, and it is normal for it to rise and fall depending on the situation, the people you are with, and your mood. It's connected to what we're doing and to the beliefs we hold about ourselves. When you feel confident, insecurity fades into the background, but as soon as you feel unsure, it rears its head again.
The imposter imagines that they should always be in their best form, working extra hard and performing in every area to be accepted or to feel they're doing well enough. But no one feels great in every area of their life all the time. We all have our ups and downs. It would be strange to be permanently happy or to always feel confident. Thanks to my work, I know all the strategies and techniques to use to help me feel my best, but I still don't wake up every morning and jump out of bed with a smile on my face!
Much as we may want to feel good all of the time, life isn't straightforward. I think sometimes we forget that all emotions are normal. Our mood naturally fluctuates, and we all go through periods of feeling stressed, anxious, irritable, or upset. It's completely normal to feel the full range of emotions. We experience the full spectrum because they are all necessary and useful to us.
So-called negative emotions are just as crucial as the positive ones in acknowledging what's happened and making sense of it. No one is capable of breezing through life unaffected, no matter how positive they are.
It's also helpful to remember that everyone else might be smiling and giving the impression they are confident, but they may not be as confident as they seem.
Insecurity is exacerbated by the idea that everyone else knows what they're doing, which leads you to imagine that they do not have the same worries, insecurities, or fears. Yet in truth, everyone is not as different from you as you think. Even people you are sure must be confident feel insecure at times.
They've just perfected the ability to give the impression of confidence; just like a swan gliding along, you don't see them furiously paddling underneath the water.
When you think about it, this is what others see in you too: someone who looks outwardly calm and confident, who has achieved many successes, and who can do anything they put their mind to. So next time you're worrying, remind yourself that how you feel is not what others see–you're like that swan too.
3. Keep in mind that there are no grown-ups.
When you're a child, you imagine that when you've grown up, you'll know what you're doing and will understand how life works. I think these expectations filter into our beliefs that as adults we should have everything sorted and never feel self-doubt. This idea that we should be competent and capable at all times can pose another problem.
When you think of all the different roles you fulfill—worker, parent, sibling, friend—it can be difficult to keep them in balance. You may have a senior role in your company but can't keep up with the admin from your children's school. You may be the chairperson of a local charity but neglect to check in with your elderly parents. This can make you question whether you really are what others see. When you feel that you're barely staying on top of everything, you can't help think that if people really knew you, they'd have a very different view.
This ignores the fact that it's normal to act differently in different situations or present a public self that is slightly different from our private self in order to meet social expectations.
We do have to put on a bit of a front sometimes; a certain amount of fitting in is necessary, and we are expected to conceal our weaknesses, particularly with people we know less well. This doesn't mean we're a fraud or putting on an act.
Everyone sees different parts of us, depending on the capacity in which we know them. I'm a mother, a wife, a clinical psychologist, an author, a friend, a sister, a daughter. How I am at work is a more polished version of myself than how I am at home, with only my children and my husband getting a full view. With good friends I'm very open, but with new friends I filter what I say slightly more. My children's teachers see one side of me, and the running club I'm part of see something else. It's normal to modify yourself a bit to fit in with people. Just keep an eye on how much you're doing it, and keep hold of an inner measure of who you are, so you know yourself.
No one has all areas covered. Just because you can't keep on top of the school admin doesn't mean you're not a good CEO. You can be many different things, and the various parts of you can coexist together. You can feel disorganized and out of control at times and still be an excellent employee and a good son or daughter. You can be tired and short-tempered at times and still be a good partner or friend. You can put your daughter in the bath with her socks still on (like me!) and still be a good parent. Not feeling good or on top of everything at all times doesn't make you incompetent; it just means you're human.
I'm now nearing 40, an age that was defined as old when I was younger, and yet I don't feel terribly different from when I was 20. There's no great "ta-da!" moment when suddenly you realize you're an adult. My life is very different, but the change is so gradual, you hardly notice it. It creeps up on you instead of announcing itself. You soon realize that adults still feel vulnerable and insecure, but in time you also grow to understand that this is not a weakness but a strength.
Showing vulnerability is not something to fear but something to embrace. It's only by accepting all of yourself that you can become comfortable with who you are. Think about the people you feel closest to—do they share their insecurities and fears with you? When they do, what do you think of them?
To me, sharing life challenges and admitting that life can be tough sometimes are the characteristics that make us more relatable, more likable. Besides, everyone is wary of the person who seems to have everything sorted. They seem a bit intimidating, and it's hard to feel close to someone when they project an image of being strong and invulnerable. Throughout evolution our relationships have been hugely important to us because feeling connected and close to others makes life more meaningful. Don't hide away parts of yourself and create distance from the people who care about you.
You need to put together the many parts of you and see that they all have space to belong together. No one is awarded 10 out of 10 for every attribute; we all have areas we feel insecure about. You don't have to be a set way to be accepted by others; it's incredibly freeing when you truly believe this. We need to recognize that our idiosyncrasies and flaws make us alive and human. Sometimes our imperfections are the elements that give us our strengths.
If you open up to others, you have a chance to see a different view. We're all winging it, and accepting this can be scary in itself. Many of us would prefer to believe that there are grown-ups in control, especially when it comes to running the country, hospitals, or law courts!
4. Understand the upside of insecurity and self-doubt.
It's clear that we all benefit from a bit of self-doubt. Humans wouldn't have lasted long without some degree of insecurity. It's easy to see that an element of fear or hesitation is healthy and enhances self-awareness. When you recognize doubt as the questioning part of your brain and ask yourself whether you are OK to do something, you can see that in small doses, self-doubt can be helpful. It can offer a way to check and consider what you're doing. A little self-doubt prompts us to operate with caution, to look out for potential problems that might derail us and plan how to overcome them. And the alternative–overconfidence or a lack of humility–can come at a cost to our work and our relationships.
When we think about our evolutionary history, it makes sense that we care so much about our relationships and spend time questioning what others think of us. This acts as a gentle reminder that our relationships need our attention, affection, and consideration and helps us to monitor our interactions and identify how to get along better in our relationships. Empathy is easier when you recognize your own vulnerabilities, and without insecurity you risk alienating others. It encourages us to be humble, grateful, and to value what we have.
Insecurity and confidence are not separate but intertwined. It's normal to go from the high of seeing you can do something to the low of thinking that you're going to fail. Confidence and insecurity are more like a circle, feeding into and leading on to each other.
Self-doubt promotes self-improvement and often comes with conscientiousness, high standards, and a strong work ethic. The person who knows it all doesn't see that need and misses out. Uncertainty—another part of self-doubt—means that you acknowledge that you still have things to learn. This drives you to grow and change, which is hugely important for maintaining good mental health and improving self-esteem.
In the right quantities, self-doubt is part of personal growth and achievement. Overcoming your insecurities and working things out increases confidence, and when you reflect and hold on to what you've done, you can use this as reassurance the next time you feel the same way. The insecurity that drives you may diminish as you succeed, but it never truly goes away. When you see it as part of confidence and finding the right way forward, it's easier to make peace with it and channel it so it works for you rather than against you.
When you feel insecurity or self-doubt raising the volume, find your compassionate voice. It's time to get past the scared child in grown-up's clothes and accept your abilities. Reassure yourself that feeling uncomfortable is something to get used to and that you need to learn to navigate it. Hold on to the idea that others also feel insecure and that no one knows it all; you can use this to challenge the imposter belief.
5. Self-awareness is key.
There is a fine line between feeling sufficiently insecure to allow you to maintain good mental health and insecurity causing you problems. Become self-aware to avoid this; self-awareness allows you to be aware of insecurity rather than being insecure. Self-awareness means knowing yourself and your strengths and limits, so you feel more confident about what you can and cannot do. There are lots of strategies throughout the book to help you increase self-awareness, identify your strengths, and get to know yourself better. But the simplest place to begin is with a daily reflective practice—if you haven't already, it's time to buy that notebook or start making notes on your phone.
6. And reflection is essential.
There's no doubting the importance of reflection. It's a way to understand yourself better, improve mood, learn from your experiences, and foster personal growth. Its benefits have been recognized throughout history by philosophers and spiritual leaders, and it's the cornerstone of many psychological approaches to improving well-being.
Whether you take time to think about the good stuff that's happening, or the parts of life that are more difficult, or take five minutes to collect your thoughts and put them down in words, it is important to reflect on your life. It's good to look at where you are and where you're headed. This allows you to tackle areas of difficulty and the changes you wish to make, as well as helping you to recognize what's going well and your part in it so you get to know yourself better and increase self-awareness.
We might prefer to avoid the negative emotions such as upset, anger, or worry, but you should not be afraid of them. When you try to ignore difficult experiences and feelings, they don't go away. It's like putting them into a big sack; you might not see them so easily, but you're carrying them around with you wherever you go. The more you put in, the heavier your burden becomes, weighing you down and ultimately keeping the feelings with you for longer.
This might seem counterintuitive, but looking at difficult feelings is the best way to allow them to pass. Reflection helps you unpack the sack and increase your coping capacity. It's not just the act of writing that makes people feel better; it's expressing emotional experiences and learning from what you have done.
Reflection is also very helpful when things do work out. Ensure that you take some time to reflect on the good stuff, too, rather than immediately moving on to the next thing—this will help you to feel better connected to what you're doing, and it's a great way to build confidence in your ability to succeed.
- If you don't feel 100% confident all the time, this doesn't make you an imposter.
- Be careful about what you expect of yourself in order to judge yourself "good enough."
- Embrace your self-doubt, and see it as a welcome reminder of your limits.
- Overconfidence is a problem.
Overall, you need to become used to sometimes feeling uncomfortable and to learn to navigate through the feeling. It's normal not to know everything and to sometimes feel insecure.
Excerpted from The Imposter Cure. Text © 2019 Jessamy Hibberd, M.Sc. Reprinted with permission from Aster, an imprint of Octopus Publishing Group, Ltd.
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