How to beat imposter syndrome

Don't think you're up to your job? Can't take praise? Read on.

by Karen Meager and John McLachlan
Last Updated: 23 Feb 2018

The term imposter syndrome may not be familiar to you, but you are highly likely to have either felt its symptoms yourself at some point, or to have observed it in someone else. It describes people who are good achievers, but who feel and express doubt or outright denial about their own talents and success. They feel that they are a fraud in what they do and that it is only a matter of time before those around them expose this.

When achievement makes a person feel like an imposter, they pull out all the stops to deny their successes – they consider it accidental, put it down to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, or having the help of others. Whatever they do, they simply cannot feel comfortable accepting praise from others or giving it to themselves.

Perhaps surprisingly, research has found that around 70% of people experience the effects of Imposter Syndrome within their lifetime. This indicates that rather than being something out of the ordinary, these feelings of fraud are a natural human condition.

However, that doesn’t mean these symptoms shouldn’t be dealt with, as they can really prevent people from living their lives to the full and cause unnecessary negative emotions. Thankfully, there are ways to counteract the effects of imposter syndrome.

Believable Mantra

People with imposter syndrome are consumed by habitual thinking, stuck in thought patterns that continually repel any positivity or praise. The first important step to overcome this habit is to start looking out for truths that cannot be argued with, no matter how much you doubt yourself, and position them as motivational mantras. This mantra should reflect positively on you, while being firmly based in truth. Here are a few examples of effective mantras:

  • I am doing this to the best of my ability
  • My contributions make a difference to other people
  • I am a hardworking person
  • If I weren’t here, others would be inconvenienced by my absence

The priority here should be finding a mantra that is completely objective, and based in fact. Steer away from emotional ideas that rely on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘strong’ and ‘weak’, as these concepts always come back to opinion, and therefore can be easily disputed by a person who is already firmly in the habit of rejecting any compliments.

Honest Feedback

Once an unshakeable mantra has been chosen - and you needn’t limit yourself to just one - the next important step is to begin to scrutinise your own performance. Again, emphasis must be on grounding feedback in reality and approaching it in the most objective way possible. The impact of Imposter Syndrome will only start to subside once you begin to readjust your mind to accepting ideas that it doesn’t necessarily agree with.

So start taking the time to consider performance. If a particular area of your life is the subject of negative emotions then address that first, but the best results can often be reached when self-appraising behaviour in a variety of situations. When critiquing your own behaviour or performance, give particular consideration to the following points, and respond to them in the most specific and detailed way possible. You may find it beneficial to write down these ideas, and your responses to them.

  • What did you do well?
  • What about your performance would you change for better results next time?
  • How objectively did you assess your performance, and what about the way you judge yourself would you begin to adjust?

Of course, a lifetime of mental habit is not going to be broken overnight, and there is no quick fix for the symptoms of imposter syndrome. But it’s essential to get into a routine of working against negative thoughts and immediate rebuffal of praise from others.

It is all about slowly adjusting the way you see things, step by step, to reach a point where even the most dismissive of us will come around to seeing that the world is not that binary - and neither is your own performance.

Karen Meager and John McLachlan are the co-founders of  Monkey Puzzle Training and two of only a handful of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) Master Trainers in the UK. They are authors of Time Mastery and Real Leaders for the Real World. 

Image credit: Twinsterphoto/Shutterstock


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