The advice “fake it ’til you make it” is meant to motivate you to push past your fears, but what if you continue to feel like a fake even after you succeed? Actually, that’s totally normal: 70% of us suffer from “imposter syndrome,” the feeling of being a fraud, according to the International Journal of Behavioral Science.
While it’s not an official clinical diagnosis, psychologists acknowledge that imposter syndrome is real, and is often accompanied by anxiety and even depression. First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, the condition affects high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success, attributing their accomplishments to luck instead of ability.
You might be surprised at the people who admit to feeling like an imposter. While a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society at Harvard University, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg felt she didn’t deserve to be there. “Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself,” she writes in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. “Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”
Actress and fellow Harvard alum Natalie Portman shared her continued feelings of inadequacy with the school’s 2015 graduating class in a commencement speech. “Today I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999,” she said. “I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.”
And Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz admitted to being insecure: “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.
Imposter syndrome is fueled by two very powerful and interconnected human emotions: anxiety and shame, says Aaron Nurick, professor of management and psychology at Bentley University in Waltham, Ma. and author of the book The Good Enough Manager: The Making of a GEM. “The anxiety usually comes from perfectionism, and the associated stress can distort one’s perspective,” he says. “The key is understanding the internal messages derived from these feelings and then taking steps to change the narrative. What is the primary source of anxiety, and what is the social environment? We often feel shame in relation to highly significant others.”
“[Imposter syndrome] is clearly a head game,” says Lou Manza, professor of psychology and chair of the department of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. “If you’ve actually accomplished something, then own it. There’s no need to think that you didn’t really earn it.”
While it takes time to quiet that inner voice, the more you do it, the quieter that voice gets, until it disappears, he says. “A problem, I think, is that some people are unwilling or unable to take the time to try to squash the thoughts, so they just get louder and louder,” he says. “This can be avoided, but it does take effort. If the ‘imposter’ doesn’t want to make the effort, then they’re in trouble.”
While insecurities will probably always arise, you can avoid damaging your confidence and career by taking these three steps to stop feeling like a fraud.
1. Identify Your Strengths
Take time to reflect on your true strengths and weaknesses, and be very specific about how you put these strengths to use and how they add value to the task and environment, says Nurick. “If you are good with numbers, for example, how does that skill-set come into play in your normal work pattern?” he asks.
If you aren’t sure of your strengths, gain better perspective by seeking honest feedback from a trusted mentor or confidant. This person can help you challenge the assumptions that lead you to feeling inadequate, and the conversation will benefit your stress level, says Nurick: “Expressing anxiety can lead to productive mechanisms to alleviate it,” he says. “Some anxiety is actually beneficial as a motivator.”
2. Unwrap the “Shoulds”
Try to understand the assumptions—the “should” statements—that lie just beyond immediate awareness, says Nurick. For example, “I should be the smartest one in the room. “I should know every aspect of the job in order to be respected and in charge.” “I should not make a mistake, because to make a mistake is to fail and to be revealed as incompetent in the eyes of my team and peers.”
“This internal logic can lead to a downward spiral and self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says.
Once you know the “shoulds” that plague your thinking, deconstruct each one apart to identify why you feel this way and what would happen if you didn’t live up to the bar you’ve set for yourself.
3. Reframe Mistakes
People who suffer from imposter syndrome fear mistakes, but they are an important part of the learning process. “Straightforwardly admitting them, but not dwelling on them or looking for excuses or blame, can actually increase your esteem and respect,” says Nurick. “Perfectionism usually leads to cover-ups which are often worse than the initial mistake, and can lead to a culture of blame, back-biting, and suspicion.”
Schultz says a CEO’s willingness to feel insecure is not a weakness, but only when used properly. “I would say one of the underlying strengths of a great leader and a great CEO—not all the time but when appropriate—is to demonstrate vulnerability, because that will bring people closer to you and show people the human side of you,” he told The New York Times.
No one has all the answers, no matter how smart they are or how impressive their credentials, says Nurick. The key is to know how to communicate it. “Expressing this in the form of curiosity and posing thoughtful questions can increase participation in decision making and ownership of the process,” he says.