This blog post was written by Liadan Gunter, Life Coach at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.
Have you ever felt unsure of yourself? Or, perhaps, questioned whether or not the work you’re doing, or your performance in a role you’re assuming, is good enough? Now, from time to time, doubts can be normal. We’re humans after all, not robots. In fact, questioning ourselves is healthy and can help us improve–but like with anything, there must be balance. There’s a point where we can fall off of the edge into the abyss of self-doubt if we’re not careful, and that’s when the benefits we get from questioning ourselves turn into confidence-crippling roadblocks.
Are you performing well, accomplishing what you set out to do, but yet find yourself plagued by feelings of unworthiness? Do statements like “I don’t belong here,” or “I just got lucky,” or “I’m a fraud, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone finds out,” plague you often?
If so, you may have imposter syndrome. It can impact your life if not taken care of. The common feeling among those who suffer from imposter syndrome is that they feel like frauds or imposters (where the name comes from), despite being completely capable and deserving of their accomplishments.
Imposter syndrome is often spoken about in regard to work, but it can appear and manifest in all areas of life. This article will discuss how to overcome imposter syndrome at work, but these are tips you can apply to any areas of life where imposter syndrome is at play.
Those with imposter syndrome at work may feel that they aren’t as competent as others may think they are, and that they somehow tricked people into believing they are better than they truly are. Ultimately, they live in fear of being exposed or found out. Interestingly, one of the triggers of imposter syndrome can actually be success such as winning an award, or being promoted, or rising to some kind of fame.
Where Does Imposter Syndrome Come From?
Likely, negative thinking patterns become a habit, and people suffering from imposter’s syndrome let negative narratives about themselves run rampant. The National Science Foundation has found that, in general, the average person has about 12,000-60,000 thoughts per day. Of those thoughts, 80% are negative, and 95% are repetitive. In fact, research shows that negative information tends to weigh more heavily on the brain; our losses tend to impact us 2.5 times more than our gains.
In all, we could say that our brains tend to have a negativity bias. What's interesting, though, is that research has found that 85% of what we worry about doesn't happen, and with the 15% that does happen, 79% of people discover they are able to handle the difficult better than expected, or that the difficulty was worth it due to what it taught them.
Additionally, certain personality traits have been found to drive imposter syndrome. Those higher in traits like perfectionism or neuroticism tend to experience it more. There is a model of personality known as the “Big 5” Model, which poses that there are five basic dimensions to personality: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. If you’re interested to see what traits you embody, you can take a quiz here, and it may help shed light on an aspect of your personality that may be giving rise to the imposter syndrome you’re experiencing.
I am Struggling with Imposter Syndrome – What Now?
Don’t worry if you’re experiencing negative thought loops and have personality traits like perfectionism and neuroticism – the things fueling your imposter syndrome at work.
There’s some good news: our personality traits aren’t set in stone, which means we can change for the better. And just as dwelling on negative thoughts strengthens them, focusing on positive thoughts and self-talk at work can strengthen positive narratives so that they can become your baseline thoughts. In fact, studies show that positive self-talk is the greatest predictor of success.
10 Steps for overcoming Imposter Syndrome
1. Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.
Tom Hanks, for example, was quoted saying, "No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'” Even a famous and talented Hollywood actor has felt that way. You see, it doesn’t matter how successful and deserving you actually are, these thoughts and feelings can pop up. If you feel alone in your thoughts, I urge you to do a quick Google search and look up just how prevalent it is, and who feels that way.
Lady Gaga, for example, mentioned that she still sometimes feels like “a loser kid in high school, and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I’m a superstar every morning so that I can get through the day.” Oftentimes, these feelings from imposter syndrome are deep-rooted and manifest in particular phrases or narratives that we hold, or held in the past, to be true. This brings us to the following point…
2. Identify narratives that are playing out.
Discover and try to be aware of the thoughts and narratives that are playing out in your head. Are they something like Lady Gaga’s “I’m a loser kid in high school,” or is it something like “they’re going to find out that I’m really not that smart or capable”? Whatever your narratives are, try to identify them.
3. Write down the thoughts that are playing out in your head.
Remember how I mentioned that 95% of our negative thoughts are repetitive? Wel,l the good news about this is that you can find the patterns in those thoughts. Write them down. Seeing them on paper, or in your note section on your device, or wherever you write or type them, brings them out of your head and into a tangible space where you can now confront and work with them. I recommend starting by writing them all down, and then looking for patterns and themes. For example, do you have thoughts like “I’m so bad at piano” or “I’m going to fail my test”? You may notice that these thoughts are similar in the sense that they highlight an underlying belief you have about yourself. In this case it may be something like “I’m not good at the things I do” or “I’m not good enough”.
What you want to do, then, is to group together your thoughts that follow a similar pattern for further examination.
4. Write down what beliefs you have about yourself that these thoughts are perpetuating.
Going off of the above example, the pattern you identified shows that you may have a belief that you’re not good enough. Write this belief down. This is what we call a narrative. Since ancient times, our species evolved telling stories. It’s no different today: We tell stories or come up with narratives about everything, including ourselves, to explain how things work or to understand cause and effect. They serve as a sort of framework, if you will, that we build off of. However, our narratives are often deeply flawed and not necessarily accurate. Our brain may have drawn a conclusion about something, but our brains can be incredibly biased, so these narratives are not always reliable. This exercise is you identifying the narratives about yourself that you have come up with over the years, and examining whether or not they are in fact true or serving you. Writing them down makes it easier to manage and conceptualize the type of beliefs you’re holding about yourself.
5. Explore their origin.
Now that you know what beliefs you have, I want you to explore where they may have come from. Oftentimes, our beliefs are formed during our development. The problem is, our brains are not fully developed when we’re children or adolescents, in fact our brains don’t fully develop until we’re about 25 years old. This means that a lot of the narratives we’re saying to ourselves were concluded by a brain that wasn’t even fully developed. It’s like we’re taking advice from our afraid 8-year-old selves.
This is why exploring the origin of our narratives is extremely important–because it can provide more context to these beliefs.
6. Challenge the thoughts.
Question the validity of the thought or narrative. Ask yourself questions like: How might this not be true? What context does this come from?
7. Write down other positive scenarios or narratives that could be true.
Here, I want you to think about and write down these other possibilities that challenge your negative narratives. Is it possible you were passed over for a promotion NOT because you’re incapable, but because that person had been there longer, and it was their turn? Or is it possible that you didn’t crash and burn during your presentation, and that you simply felt nervous and have a hard time seeing yourself accurately?
Do you see how in these examples, we’ve come up with some more positive alternative scenarios?
8. Rewire your brain for positive thoughts.
I want you to spend some time actively thinking about these positive thoughts and narratives. It may be difficult, especially at first, since the neural pathways for the negative thoughts are so strong. Doing so will strengthen the network of neurons associated with the positive thoughts, making it so that they become your default setting…over time.
9. Keep your expectations realistic and kind.
Throughout all of this, remember to be realistic and kind to yourself. If you’re trying something new for example, remember you don’t have to be perfect at it right away. No one is. Things take time to become good at. Remember, it’s also ok to not know the answer to something. No one can know the answer to everything. It’s just not possible. Remind yourself of that.
10. Get the support of a therapist or coach.
Finally, get some help and support from a therapist or coach who can help you in this process as you challenge your thoughts and feelings about your abilities. Remember, you’re not alone, and this is more common than you may realize.
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