Why the Impostor Syndrome Holds You Back And How You Can Conquer It

Updated August 9, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
impostor syndrome

To understand the impostor syndrome, ask yourself this question: have you ever felt like you were great at something? Maybe not from the start, but over time you mastered it through practice and learning. Then, suddenly, somebody acknowledged it out of the blue. It’s a good feeling, isn’t it? We all experience a few times in our lives that sort of progression from beginner to advanced.

As time goes by, our skills improve, and we get better at what we do. We are trained on the job, or we educate ourselves, and in time we become really good at that particular level.

Soon enough, somebody higher up takes notice, and you receive a promotion. All of a sudden, you have been pulled away from the comfort of your environment and tossed into more troubled waters.

“Steve, you are really good at this. Now I want you to stop doing it and instead manage these five people and make them as good in this area as you are. Good luck, Steve. I believe in you.”

Well, holy mother of God!

When you hear something like that, what does your instinct tell you? You only have two options: yes or no. No means remaining stuck at your current level and losing a great opportunity, which might not come by again. Saying yes means stepping into the unknown.

The Impostor Syndrome Root

Interestingly enough, people who say no in a situation like this will deal with some level of upset, but that upset will be clouded by the fact that they were at least asked. If you say no to the above, you will return to your place of comfort, where you will continue to be great at what you do and feel accomplished. You’ll be stuck, but at least you’ll be stuck in a good place. Most importantly, you’ll feel like you have taken control of the situation. Soon enough, the sadness of not going the extra mile will vanish as the pleasure of the comfort will keep you content.

On the other hand, if you say yes to this, you will have a bout of quick euphoria created by the fact that you are advancing. You are growing in your position. You are moving up. But soon, you start to feel terrified. After all, you were good at your job because that was your job. You trained for it, and you practiced it for a long time. But this new thing… Well, you love the fact that you are climbing the ladder, but what if you don’t have the new skills needed to succeed at that higher level?

Since you were moved up, everyone’s eyes are going to be on you, right? They have to make sure you don’t screw up. They expect you to be as good in this new position as in the one before. People now depend on you. They look up to you as a mentor, as a coach. Holy crap!

“Where’s Steve?”

“He won’t come out of the bathroom, Sir. He’s sobbing uncontrollably.”

Well, you can sense a bit of an exaggeration here, but you can see how this kind of emotion is real. And what is interesting about it is that it’s a widespread emotion, felt by all high achievers. It’s called the impostor syndrome.

The Psychology of the Impostor Syndrome

You see, to move up and make a change not just in your job but in any aspect of your life, you need first to pave your way. As you sharpen your strengths, increase your skills, and develop yourself overall as a human being, all you do is set yourself up for better performance in the future.

However, it’s impossible to be ahead of the curve continually. Much like you cannot perform enough exercise in one day for the entire year, your mind cannot be so much ahead of your performance that you are perfectly prepared every time you step into a new arena.

Instead, you need to look at an area where there is a certain amount of the unknown and have the guts to step into it, knowing well enough that at least a part of you is not ready for it. That’s called taking a risk, and people who are high achievers understand that you cannot move up without taking some level of risk.

As your savings kept in a regular checking account will bring you almost no interest, doing the same thing you’ve always been doing will get you very little growth. Sometimes you need to take that step toward the abyss and grab onto anything possible to keep you afloat.

From the first-hand experience with these terrifying emotions, I can tell you that it’s a damn tricky thing to do.

The #Impostor #Syndrome affects everyone. The truth is, sometimes, you must fake it till you make it. Click To Tweet

The Impostor Phenomenon

Throughout our history, the world has been segregated into many dimensions. One of the most common ones, where the gap is still felt today, is by gender. To this day, just being a man still gives you advantages in the workforce. Just knowing that fact creates a certain expectation or lack thereof.

Since very early on in our history, women have been regarded as the source of life. However, by the same token, women have been considered not only inferior intellectually, but even as a temptation to man’s bad behavior. All of that, of course, is bullshit. But thousands of years of that kind of attitude will create deeply-rooted expectations.

Can you imagine that only in 1920 was legislation passed in the United States that provided women with working opportunities? So it’s no surprise that when women entered the workforce, they felt like they didn’t belong. Everyone, from their husbands and fathers to their friends, told them that they were not made for work.

Every woman knew that this was wrong, but those many layers of years and years of indoctrination left deep scars. So when high-achieving women entered the workforce bravely and with a lot of desire to succeed, something hung heavily on their chests.

In 1978, Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes from Georgia State University published a research paper titled The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Interventions. You can read the full PDF here. In this article, the authors coined the term impostor phenomenon and defined it as follows:

“The term impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.”

This research study surveyed a hundred and fifty highly successful women who had earned their Ph.D. and were highly respected professionals in their fields or were otherwise recognized for their excellence.

The Impostor Syndrome Applies to Everyone

In 1993, the same authors published a follow-up paper titled The Impostor Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regarding Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and Their Implications for Treatment. In this updated article on the impostor syndrome, the authors expanded their idea, extending it from focusing solely on women to observing everyone.

The authors write: “Research on the impostor phenomenon, an experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities, is reviewed. Impostor feelings are shown to be associated with such characteristics as introversion, trait anxiety, a need to look smart to others, a propensity to shame, and a conflictual and non-supportive family background. The findings are discussed in terms of self-psychological theory, with the impostor phenomenon seen as a result of seeking self-esteem by trying to live up to an idealized image to compensate for feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.”

In simple, layman’s terms, the impostor syndrome manifests when a person doubts the true nature of their accomplishments and believes that the results are pure luck, and have a consistent fear of that fact being discovered. In other words, you somehow managed to stay under the radar, although you don’t really know what you’re doing, and soon enough, somebody will find out, and you’ll be screwed.

If you’ve read the article on the locus of control, you know that people with a high internal locus of control view the results in their life as a direct effect of their actions, while people with an external locus of control see the opposite. However, when experiencing the impostor syndrome, something strange happens. It’s as if the locus of control splits in half. The accomplishments are regarded as a result of luck and, perhaps, lack of enough scrutiny, while the failures are seen as a result of our own actions.

More often than not, people who suffer from the impostor syndrome and are promoted have a fear that the person who made that choice made a mistake. Or perhaps, we were selected because there was no other person available. There’s gotta be a catch somewhere; it simply cannot be because we are that good.

It almost sounds like a psychological disorder, but it’s not being classified as such by the literature. Instead, it is recognized as a prevalent phenomenon that people deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Types of Impostors

Dr. Valerie Young is an expert on the impostor syndrome, having studied it for many years. She categorized the different types of impostor syndrome into five groups. It’s essential to understand the ideas behind each category so you can figure out if you fall into that category. If you do, there are different things that you can do to overcome this debilitating phenomenon.

The Perfectionist

If you are a perfectionist, the impostor syndrome fits you like a glove. That’s because, as a perfectionist, you must do everything perfectly. Any falling short is going to be seen as a result of your own actions. Moreover, even when things are really, really good, your first instinct is to say that they could’ve been better. And here is where the impostor syndrome kicks in. What if someone were to discover that you could’ve done a better job?

Perfectionists will polish their work to no end. They will attach files to their emails, then delete them, reopen them, and add one more dash of color before starting again. What if just one more line would make it better? What if that’s the only thing my manager will focus on?

As you read through this, you probably intellectually understand how damaging that is not only to your productivity but even to your psyche. Because, if you can’t let go of those feelings, eventually you will have to hit that send button, and when you do, the doubts will continue, but now there’s nothing you can do about it anymore. Your file is out there, with its flaws and parts that could’ve been better.

The reality is that your work will never be flawless. You need to accept that and move on. There’s a massive gap between flawless and grossly wrong, and most likely, you are never even close to grossly wrong. But trying to tread the line toward perfection will only fill you up with anxiety and frustration.

Send that damn file!

The Superwoman/Superman

Because one root of the impostor syndrome comes from the mindset that you are a fraud among the rest of the people who are the real deal, you will try your best to work yourself to death. By staying long hours in the office, trying to solve as many problems as possible, and putting out large quantities of work, you feel like you are “earning” your stars. You think that people won’t dare to question you, considering all the hard work you put in.

People who do all they can to appear super-human will often burn out and begin to disregard other parts of their lives, such as their family, health, and even their finances. All bets are on their appearance, and all efforts are to avoid anyone questioning them. Because this kind of external validation is critical for workaholics, in time, even the work product itself might suffer because the person emphasizes how they appear much more so than on what they actually do.

Gaining experience through learning and shunning the need for external validation will give you, in time, the ability to take a step back and admit that you are not, in fact, a super-human.

The Natural Genius

Unlike the super-human who feels that the more time and effort expended, the better, the natural genius is just the opposite. He feels like his or her validation comes from the ease with which they can accomplish their work. In this context, speed becomes critical.

People who fall into this category often had a comfortable ride for at least a part of their lives. For instance, a child who dashed through elementary and middle school with the best grades and accolades from their teachers might expect that they will be high achievers in all their future endeavors.

For natural geniuses, getting stuck or not getting things done right on the first run is a difficult thing to swallow. As a result of that, these people might become sloppy or begin avoiding things that they feel might not be easy enough or within their realm of comfort.

To push past that, you must develop the self-awareness and understanding that, although you might be a natural genius in some instances, you are probably not one in others. By understanding that everything you do must be built up step by step and that your past is not always a representation of the future, you shed this very high bar and will be able to accept who you are.

The Soloist

People who fall into this category are afraid that they’d be deemed incompetent if they ask a question. After all, if you are an accountant, how can you possibly ask an accounting question? Aren’t you supposed to know everything?

Of course, when I exaggerate it like that, it sounds ridiculous, but is it really? Soloists will agonize over a project for hours and days on end without seeking help. Asking for help is seen as a weakness and a potential “leak” of their inability to cope with the project.

Asking for help not only makes you human, but it will allow you to connect with people. By being vulnerable and admitting what you don’t know, you create a connection. Nobody expects you to know everything, just as your bosses know that they don’t know everything.

The Expert

Experts are people who have a deep need to check off every single item on the list of requirements before they even attempt to apply. The need to be an expert is another form of impostor syndrome that usually keeps people paralyzed. Although I advocate continuous learning, you can never learn everything, even about one subject. By trying to be overly prepared, you will waste many opportunities along the way.

Knowledge and wisdom are essential to success, but there will be a time when action needs to come first. If you become an academic or a forever-student, life will pass you by. In the end, you will know a lot and will have accomplished nothing.

It’s a skill to understand when you know enough, and it’s not an easy one to master because knowing enough is subjective by nature. By practicing more bias to action, you will get out of your own head and into the world.

Jump in even when you feel like you don’t know enough. If it turns out that you were right, you’ll know very soon. But simply assuming that you don’t is a damning path that will keep you away from opportunities.

Impostor Syndrome – Conclusion

Look, we all experience a lack of confidence from time to time in several aspects of our lives. As a matter of fact, some of the most successful people in humankind’s history suffered from it.

In his 1938 diary, John Steinbeck wrote, “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” Of course, he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature about thirty years later. That future fact didn’t prevent 1938 Steinbeck from feeling like an impostor. The difference is, he kept going despite those feelings.

So, what conclusion can we draw here? Well, I say it’s that we will all experience some sort of impostor syndrome one way or another. Allow it to be there; try to understand it. See if it falls in one of the categories above and figure out how to cope with it. But, most importantly, keep going. Keep moving.

If you are a real impostor, you will find out. But if you’re not, you will eventually push through and succeed. That is, of course, until you take on the next step up the ladder. Then, it starts all over again.

“I have written 11 books, but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”Maya Angelou

Other Impostor Syndrome Resources

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. Have you ever felt like an impostor in your life?
  2. How do you think the impostor syndrome has held you back?
  3. Have you ever felt like you’ve conquered your impostor syndrome? How?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!

puzzle pieces To learn even more about limiting beliefs, which the impostor syndrome leads to, I invite you to check the Discover Your Beliefs step, part of the Discovery Voyage in my free Self-Growth Journey Program. There, you can also download a free related practical worksheet to describe and re-frame your own beliefs.



beliefs, emotions, self-confidence, weaknesses

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