How to overcome the imposter syndrome

What do Australian Mike Cannon-Brookes, the co-founder of Atlassian; Arianna Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Post; and Howard Schultz, the chair, president, and CEO of Starbucks, have in common?

They have all openly admitted to suffering from “the imposter syndrome”.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalised, fear of being exposed as a fraud.

Do you ever feel like you will be revealed as a fraud and shown the exit?

According to a study conducted by the International Journal of Behavioral Science, an estimated 70 per cent of people experience impostor feelings at some point in their lives.

Do not fear, you are in great company.

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Howard Schultz revealed to the Harvard Business Review that he, along with other CEOs he knows, are faced with the feeling they are not worthy of their position, yet many will not open up about their feelings. Schultz said: “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.”

Many retail CEOs, managers, and leaders suffer anxiety-inducing thoughts about their incompetence or lack of qualification.

It was psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who first studied this unwarranted sense of insecurity in 1978. They discovered that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome remained convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have.

Arianna Huffington has publicly admitted to living with feelings of self-doubt. She said, “The greatest obstacle for me has been the voice in my head that I call my obnoxious roommate.”

So what can you do to manage your internal narrative when the imposter syndrome story keeps replaying in your head?

1. Acknowledge and normalise

Many who experience impostor syndrome feel like they are the only ones feeling this way. Now that you know that 70 per cent of people suffer from imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, you can start to normalise the feeling. You are part of a club with a very high membership represented by some of the most accomplished CEOs and leaders in the world.

2. Talk about it

According to a survey by Vantage Hill Partners, “being found incompetent is the number one fear of executives worldwide”. The results of this survey act as a reminder that you are not alone and have access to the sage advice of the many who have travelled this road before you. By finding a coach or mentor you can safely flush out your unrealistic feelings of inadequacy. Hearing their experiences of imposterism can help relieve your state of mind.

A good question to ask yourself when imposter feelings arise is, Is this thought helping or hindering me?

3. Reframe your thoughts

Reframing your thoughts plays a vital role in building confidence. Impostor syndrome expert Valerie Young says she reminds people that “the only difference between someone who experiences impostor syndrome and someone who does not is how they respond to challenges”.

“People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or competent or capable than the rest of us,” Young says. “It’s very good news, because it means we just have to learn to think like we’re non-imposters.”

4. Don’t freeze

Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes’ advice is don’t freeze when you don’t know something  – research it, add value and turn it into a force for good. 

“The most successful people I know don’t question themselves but they do heavily and regularly question their ideas and knowledge. They know when the water is way too deep and they are not afraid to ask for advice. They don’t see that as a bad thing and they use that advice to hone those ideas to improve them and to learn and it’s OK to be out of your depth sometimes,” he said in his TED talk.

5. List your achievements

Often when you are in the imposter syndrome space, you overlook all you have achieved. By simply writing a list of your achievements, you will be reminded of the many great outcomes you have accomplished.

Another way to add to this list is by reaching out to fellow workers and past employers to request testimonials. This is a sure way to discover the positive impact you have had on others.

By using these techniques and being more open and confident about your feelings, you can start to live these three simple truths: you have talent, you are competent and you deserve to be where you are.

Leora Givoni is an executive coach, communications strategist and founder of Small Act Major Impact.

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