5 Ways to Defeat the “Imposter Syndrome”

Do you ever fear being exposed as an “imposter”?

“I’ve written eleven 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.”

That wasn’t my quote, but one by acclaimed novelist Maya Angelou.  

Her fear is one I’ve heard expressed before by other women. Women like Andrea, the Global HR Director for a large cosmetics company, who shared with me that she is sure that any day executive management will realize she wasn’t fully qualified for her role. Or Debra,  a successful DC attorney, who told me that she often feels like people think she knows more than she does. And, ironically enough, the aspects of her job in which she feels the most insecure are those in which she has the greatest expertise.

The sentiment these women shared is one I’ve heard many times, and nearly always by women! That is, they feel undeserving of their success and often fear being ‘found out’, as not smart or talented or deserving or experienced, or (fill in the blank) as other people think they are. As self-doubt gradually chips away at their self-confidence it drives them to settle, to sell out, and it stops them from reaching higher… where they may run even more risk of being exposed as an impostor.

It’s very human to occasionally wonder whether we really have what it takes to accomplish our goals and fulfill the expectations others have of us.

It’s a common phenomenon. Indeed researchers estimate that up to 70 percent of people will suffer from it at some point in their career (and yes, more women than men!). Of course, no one (apart from serial narcissists) is immune to self-doubt. It’s very human to occasionally wonder whether we really have what it takes to accomplish our goals and fulfill the expectations others have of us.

What matters most is not whether you occasionally (or regularly) fear failing, looking foolish or not being ‘enough’. Instead it’s whether you give those fears the power to keep you from taking the actions needed to pursue your ambitions, achieve your goals and fulfill the potential still dormant within you.

Unfortunately, too often people do.

Focus on Your Value, not Perfectionism

As I wrote in my book Brave, there’s a distinct and crucial difference between giving your best and being the best. Likewise there’s a difference between trying to better yourself and being better than everyone else on the planet.

Overcoming the “Impostor Syndrome” requires accepting that you don’t have to attain perfection or achieve Da Vinci like mastery to be worthy of your success. It’s not about lowering the bar. Instead it’s about resetting goals to a realistic level that doesn’t leave you forever striving and feeling inadequate. You don’t have to be Einstein to be a valuable asset to your organization and those around you. You simply have to be the full quota of you!

Never Diminish Your Success

It’s likely no surprise that the Impostor Syndrome is the domain of the high-achiever. Those who set the bar low are rarely its victim. And so if you relate to what I’m sharing, then just know that it’s because you won’t settle for mediocrity. Rather, you’re a woman who reaches high; who wants to do your best at work and gives your best to the world.

But just as we owe it to ourselves to take responsibility for our mistakes and failures in life, we must also take responsibility for our wins and successes. People struggling with Impostor Syndrome often attribute their success to external factors – like luck or a helping hand. Unsurprisingly, women do this much more than men, who are more likely to chalk up their good fortune to a combination of internal factors like grit, talent, brains and sheer hard work.

Minimizing your success doesn’t serve anyone. So if sometimes you feel undeserving of success, write down a list of all you’ve accomplished (including the challenges you’ve overcome) over the last year. We may never have met, but I would hazard a guess that even the fruits of 12 months’ effort will help you realize you’ve earned every bit of the success, influence and respect you enjoy.

Cease the Negative Comparisons

“If only I could read a P&L as well as Ruth”

“If only I was as creative like Chris”

“If only I could speak with the confidence John has”

We women can be all too practiced at comparing our weaknesses with others’ strengths. All of which only fuels any nagging sense of inadequacy. That is, we often compare our weakness with others’ strengths.  

All the while, John and Ruth and Chris are likely thinking: “If only I was so good with the details, or strategy, or at getting collaboration” as you are!

Likewise, we also often compare our insides with others’ outsides. Acutely aware of how hard we work to keep our head above water and enjoy the confidence, clarity and courage we want, we often assume others get by effortlessly. The reality is that most people struggle just like you do. Perhaps not in just the same way, or with the same gremlins. But in their own way, with their own unique set of challenges, insecurities and internal struggles.

Risk Exposure

Fear of being “found out” can drive us to stick with what we know we’re good at, where risk of being uncovered is minimized. Letting fears sit at the helm in life is a surefire recipe for lackluster mediocrity; or as Thoreau put it, “a life of quiet desperation.”

While playing safe removes the immediate risk of exposure, it opens up the greater risk of never knowing just how capable, deserving and “more than worthy” you truly are.

Sure, it takes courage to take on challenges and pursue aspirations that leave you vulnerable to being exposed. But in refusing to let your inner gremlin dictate your choices, you open new doors to discover new strengths, reinforce old ones and validate your unique values. And even if you never accomplish all you aspire to, you will accomplish more than you otherwise would. And, in the process, you’ll come to realize that the only impostor you ever had to worry about is that fearful voice inside your head.


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MARGIE WARRELL has come a long way from her childhood growing up on a small farm in rural Australia. Today is a thought leader in human potential and is passionate about helping people live and lead more bravely. Drawing on her background in business, psychology and coaching, she runs courage-building programs to organizations worldwide such as NASA, Ernst & Young, Oracle, The Body Shop and The UN Foundation. An adventure traveller who has worked and lived around the globe, Margie is mom to four rowdy kids and author of three bestselling books: Find Your Courage, Stop Playing Safe, and Brave.

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