How to overcome impostor syndrome at work and in private life

How to overcome impostor syndrome at work and in private life

In this article, you will discover how to overcome impostor syndrome in your work and private life.

Starting from the principle that a tailor-made coaching with a life transition coach from our coaching practice is sometimes necessary to overcome this problem, this article nevertheless proposes to highlight the scientific literature on this subject and to provide some practical advice that is easy to implement.

If, despite excellent results, you have the impression that your success is the result of luck and that you find it difficult to take credit for your actions at work, and if you live in fear that your lack of competence will be discovered by others despite the praise of your professional or personal entourage, you could be a victim of the impostor syndrome.

To find out, I will introduce you to some basic notions on this subject. Then, you will discover practical tips that will help you better control this syndrome.

Before moving on to the tips, it is important to define what is meant by Impostor Syndrome and be aware of its possible consequences.

What is impostor syndrome?

According to Calvard (2018) impostor syndrome is a persistent feeling of inadequacy and fraud despite evidence of competence and achievement.

Sakulku & Alexander (2011) summarized six characteristics first identified by Clance & Imes (1978) that people with impostor syndrome possess in McGee (2017):

  1. The impostor cycle – facing a task related to success leads to anxiety, self-doubt and worry, which leads to excessive preparation and/or procrastination, followed by achievement, a sense of relief, reduced positive feedback, followed by perceived fraud, increased self-doubt, depression and anxiety.
  2. The need to be special, to be the best.
  3. Aspects Superwoman / Superman – the desire to be perfect.
  4. Fear of failure.
  5. Denial of competence and discounting praise.
  6. Fear and guilt about success.

What are the dangers of impostor syndrome?

Villwock, Sobin, Koester & Harris (2016) show a correlation between the impostor syndrome and the risk of burnout.

When impostor syndrome is identified in an individual, it is usually accompanied by other problems, such as depression (McGregor et al., 2008; Oriel et al., 2004; Ross, Stewart, Mugge, & Fultz, 2001) and anxiety (Clance & O’Toole, 1987; Thompson et al., 1998). In addition, the impostor exhibits workaholic behaviors that lead to burnout and increase the risk of burnout (Cowman & Ferrari, 2002; Kets de Vries, 2005; Kumar & Jagacinski, 2006). Rewards and recognition for their work is then associated with anxiety, stress, and work-life balance issues that determine that the impostor sees both as undesirable (Cowman & Ferrari, 2002; Sakulku & Alexander, 2011), in Joshi & Mangette (2018).

Now that you know the likely risk of this syndrome, here are some tips from the scientific literature that will help you better manage impostor syndrome in both your professional and personal lives.

Here is a brief summary of my tips:

1 – Evaluate yourself in fairer manner

2 – Overcome the fear of failure and the fear of success

3 – Strengthen self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy

4 – Act on your beliefs, internal dialogue and self-assertion

5 – Focus on your progress and achievable goals

6 – Overcome perfectionism, lack of discipline and procrastination.

1 – Evaluate yourself in fairer manner

Research shows that, in general, individuals who feel like impostors:

  • have difficulty evaluating themselves objectively
  • tend to perceive themselves as less competent than others
  • attribute their positive results to external factors as well as their failures to their lesser skills

According to Bravata & al. (2019) individuals with Impersonator Syndrome have difficulty accurately attributing their performance to their competence (i.e., they attribute successes to external factors such as luck or receiving help from others and attribute setbacks as evidence of their professional inadequacy). Gerstmann (1998) shows that imposters:

  • describe others as perceiving them as more positive than imposters perceive themselves to be
  • do not describe themselves in the way they think others would like them to be described
  • describe how they are when they are with others differently than how they describe themselves when they are alone
  • describe themselves in less positive terms than non-imposters

The apparent inconsistency between their feelings and the positive objective elements (successes, acknowledgements, compliments) leads them to consider only their subjective feelings Harvey & Katz (1985).

The impostors seem to underestimate their skills more in a public context than in a private one and feel less positive emotions when faced with success, especially when that success is public Leary & al. (2000).

Imposters have a significant fear of negative evaluation by others (Brauer & Wolf, 2016; Chrisman & al., 1995; Clance & O’Toole, 1987; Ross & Krukowski, 2003; Thompson & al., 2000).

In the occupational context, Sharma (2018) shows that those who are more optimistic about their careers are less affected by Impostor Syndrome and are more satisfied with their careers.

One of the ways to assess yourself more appropriately is to use the power of caring. In this sense Barr-Walker & al (2020) show that peer support and mentoring are effective external coping strategies to reduce Impostor Syndrome.

According to Stifano (2018) another effective strategy to reduce the impostor syndrome is to develop self-compassion.

In summary, as long as impostor syndrome impacts the objective evaluation of facts, a gain in objectivity can be achieved through strategies aimed at reinforcing optimism, benevolence and self-compassion.

Practical tip

Using the following chart, start from a given situation and write down your feelings about it, then move on to the optimistic assessment, i.e. developing a more positive meaning of your initial assessment.

Then, using your own evaluation, write a new evaluation that is less critical than the initial one.

Finally, if you have the opportunity, ask a caring person in your professional circle to share his or her assessment of the situation with you.

Finally, summarize the overall gap between your initial evaluation and the others.

This awareness will be the starting point of your change, which will bring you closer to a fairer evaluation. A life coach is able to facilitate this change that will allow you to grow more and reach your professional and personal goals.

Now that you have understood the importance of evaluating yourself more fairly, the next step is to overcome the fear of failure and the fear of success.

2 – Overcome the fear of failure and the fear of success

Individuals affected by the Impostor Syndrome are more exposed to both the fear of failure and the fear of success.

Fear of failure

Thompson, Foreman & Martin (2000) show that imposters report less control, more anxiety, more negative affect, and more worry about errors than non-imposters.

Sightler & Gravely Wilson (2001) show that this more intense feelings as an impostor were associated with an external locus of control and a stronger perceived effect of work on family life.

Empirically, imposters tend to have strong feelings of lack of control over their environment and favor an external LOC (Brauer & Wolf, 2016; Cohen, 1990; Cromwell & al., 1990; Robinson & Goodpaster, 1991; Rohrmann & al., 2016; September & al., 2001; Sightler & Wilson, 2001; Thompson & al., 2000; Vergauwe & al., 2015).

Summarizing the fear of failure of these individuals could be linked to less perceived control caused by a more external locus of control. That is, these individuals attribute their results more to external factors that do not depend on them.

Fear of failure is one of the most common trends associated with IS (Ross & al., 2001). Fear of failure encourages imposters to avoid difficult projects and activities with a lower chance of success in order to avoid the negative consequences that result from failure (Sahragard & Baharloo, 2009), in Gao Nhia (2015).

It has been confirmed that imposters internalize their failure more than non-imposers (Thompson & al., 1998).

Uncertainty about the right strategies to implement and pessimism about the possibility of actually succeeding at the level of the objectives set are fueling fears of impostor failure (Clance, 1985; Clance & O’Toole, 1987; Ross & al., 2001). It leads them to:

  • aim for lower goals, below their real potential, in order to be certain not to risk failure
  • avoid difficult, overly competitive situations or situations that could lead to too great a failure
  • avoid the completion of tasks that may have been brilliantly carried out by a member of the circle

Failure for impostors is humiliation (Cowman & Ferrari, 2002; Kohut, 1984; Langford & Clance, 1993; White, 2001).

To conclude on the fear of failure, this less perceived control leads to:

  • unpleasant emotions
  • disengagement
  • greater internalization of failure
  • fewer actions to try to deal effectively with events

Fear of success

The fear of failure is also accompanied by the fear of success.

In this sense, Sahragard & Baharloo (2009) show that people who experience the impostor syndrome have a greater fear of success.

Imposters fear that they will not be able to succeed at a new task or repeat a previous success (Chae & al., 1995; Clance & O’Toole, 1987; Thompson & al., 1998).

Despite success and regardless of feedback, imposters reject signs of recognition, praise, or compliments (Brauer & Wolf, 2016; Clance & O’Toole, 1987). They feel undeserving of these successes or feel they are not entitled to them (Gibson-Beverly & Schwartz, 2008; Ross & Krukowski, 2003). They will even tend to constantly look for excuses to minimize, reject or denigrate their success (Ferrari & Thompson, 2006).

One reason for this fear of success is their low perception of competence and misattribution, leading them to feel that they have no legitimacy. It is thus translated into the impostor syndrome (Chae & al., 1995; Clance, 1985; Fried-Buchalter, 1992, 1997; McElwee & Yurak, 2010):

  • fear of change, especially personal and individual change
  • fear of bringing in new, more difficult requirements, giving rise to a greater risk of failure
  • fear of not being able to live up to it in the future

In summary, these individuals:

  • have difficulty taking credit for the results they achieve
  • attribute their results to external factors
  • live in fear of being unmasked
  • have difficulty internalizing their success appropriately and they tend not to expose themselves to new situations

Practical tip

I invite you to write two lists. In the first list, you write down all the actions you have put aside because of your fear of failure.

In the second, you write down all the actions you avoided because of your fear of success.

Now reorganize these actions in order of importance and start from the most important.

For each action that you report, identify the emotion you felt.

Write down:

  • this emotion
  • the message it brought to you
  • the meaning you gave to your feelings

If it is a fear, write precisely what you are afraid of in a few lines. Then write 3 objective reasons that contradict your fear.

Then, plan an action that will allow you to begin to move out of your comfort zone.

Here is a video in which I explain how to get out of your comfort zone:

If you wish to go further on the theme of the comfort zone, I invite you to discover the article how to get out of your comfort zone: the complete guide.

To overcome the fear of failure and success and reach your goals more quickly, you can benefit from the expertise of a life coach.

Now that you have understood the importance of overcoming the fear of failure and the fear of success, the next tip is to strengthen your self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy.

3 – Strengthen self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy

Research on Impostor Syndrome shows that people who perceive themselves as imposters are exposed to lower self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy.

In this sense, Schubert & Bowker (2019) show that individuals with low or high and unstable self-esteem are more likely to be vulnerable to feelings of Impostor Syndrome compared to individuals with high and stable self-esteem.

As we have seen previously, these individuals tend not to move outside their comfort zone for fear of being exposed to the judgment of others and being discovered and considered incompetent.

This happens even if in reality these individuals are quite capable of performing as well as others or have already achieved significant results.

It is therefore possible that in order to protect an already low self-esteem, these individuals decide to overprotect it by avoiding any action that could endanger them.

At the same time, research has shown that imposters have difficulty internalizing their skills and accomplishments. This has a negative impact on both self-confidence and self-efficacy.

In this sense, Dahvlig (2013) shows that this has the effect that people with lower self-confidence and self-efficacy are more likely to experience the Impostor Syndrome.

In summary, assuming that self-esteem and self-confidence are strongly linked, it is highly probable that this feeling of incompetence of the impostor leads him/her to overprotect him/herself by reducing his/her actions in order to avoid exposing him/herself too much to the gaze and judgment of others. As long as the impostor is impacted in an exaggerated way by the judgments of others on whom he remains very dependent, one way to help these people consists in reducing this dependence by helping them to define themselves in a more objective way starting from factual elements and being located in their sphere of influence.

In this sense, the restitution of a more positive and realistic image of oneself probably occurs through the feeling of self-efficacy and its four sources, a consequent predictor of the impostor syndrome (Blondeau, 2014; Vergauwe & al., 2015). Questioning oneself in an adapted manner and integrating their successes may allow impostors to better consider them.

In summary, an effective way to build self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy is to help these individuals become aware of their skills, accomplishments and the importance of improving their sense of self-efficacy in order to be less influenced by the opinions of their professional or personal entourage. To go further on the theme of self-confidence, I advise you to discover my tips to regain self-confidence.

Practical tip

Start with your most important professional and personal accomplishments. Think about what you are proud of.

Then write down the skills that helped you achieve these results.

Now give yourself credit for your accomplishments by writing a sentence of your choice and reading it aloud every day.

For example, I achieved this result because of my skills, I am proud of myself for what I accomplished and I deserve my personal and professional success.

Finally, focus on how you feel and do something fun to celebrate and mark your success in your mind.

Now that you have understood the importance of building self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy, the next tip is to act on your beliefs, internal dialogue and self-assertiveness.

4 – Act on your beliefs, internal dialogue and self-assertiveness

Research shows that beliefs play an important role in Impostor Syndrome much more at the level of cognition than the emotions experienced by these individuals.

This is why one of the best ways to help a person affected by Impostor Syndrome is to help them become aware of how their beliefs impact their behavior, their feelings and the results they obtain.

In this sense, people confronted with the impostor phenomenon thus seem to be mainly affected by the cognitive components of anxiety (e.g., doubts, apprehension, lack of confidence) rather than by emotional or physical tension (e.g., physical agitation, nervousness).

Similarly, for the depression trait, there are high positive associations with dysphoric moods, but only low negative associations with euthymia. Individuals with an impostor self-concept are therefore characterized less by an inability to experience positive emotions, such as joy, than by an inability to control their fears and apprehensions. The current results suggest that the main problem with the impostor phenomenon is cognitive rather than emotional, which corresponds to the anxiety experience described above in Rohrmann, Bechtoldt & Leonhardt (2016).

Acting effectively on the cognitive-behavioral dimension of belief can:

  • reduce the anxiety experienced by these individuals
  • promote the implementation of new, more effective behaviors

Without this work on beliefs, the individual may have problems in both his private and professional life.

According to Neureiter & Traut-Mattausch (2017) imposters can build their careers on the basis of false beliefs about their abilities and skills.

One way to reinterpret events is to become aware of one’s beliefs. This means that a cognitive-behavioral approach such as the one used in coaching can be very effective in helping people dealing with Impostor Syndrome.

To go further on the topic of beliefs, I invite you to discover the article how to overcome limiting beliefs.

Another complementary way to work on beliefs is to modify and readapt both internal dialogue and communication with others.

The goal is to promote awareness of all the individual’s skills and points for improvement, while avoiding too sudden questioning that can negatively affect self-esteem and therefore block the evolution of a more stable identity, i.e. less dependent on the opinion and judgment of the outside world.

Impostors have a high level of self-deprecation, based on constant self-criticism (McGregor, Gee, & Posey, 2008) and high standards of achievement and personal evaluation (Vergauwe & al., 2015).

Tip, Tanitimlari, & Sor (2018) show that people with higher levels of impostor syndrome have lower social skills compared to those with lower levels.

The follow-up of impostors coaching also involves assertiveness training because of the difficulties these individuals have in making requests and refusals, receiving criticism, or accepting compliments (Clance & O’Toole, 1987; Clark & al., 2014; Thompson & al., 1998).

Practical tip

First of all, I advise you to become aware of your internal dialogue, i.e. the way you communicate with yourself.

From now on, write down in a notebook the words, expressions and your attitude towards yourself.

First, just record your own communication. Then start to introduce more caring alternatives to your internal communication.

Secondly, become aware of how you communicate with others by focusing on your difficulties in:

  • being more assertive
  • taking credit for your actions
  • using emotions to improve the quality of your relationships with those around you

As before, begin to change your language by being more assertive and more caring towards yourself.

5 – Focus on your progress and achievable goals

One way to deal with the anxiety typical of Impostor Syndrome is to help each individual focus on what is in their control. In this way they can learn to become aware of their talents while freeing themselves from the need for approval as well as the fear of others’ judgment. One way to do this is to help people focus on their progress and on goals they perceive as attainable. Here is what research shows.

Among external coping strategies, continuing to learn is the most effective strategy with the lowest mean score for Impostor Syndrome in Barr-Walker & al (2020).

From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, induction of a growth mindset contributes to better cognitive control (Schroder & al., 2014), which may be particularly useful, given that imposters demonstrate an unstable external locus of control and external attributions in successful situations (e.g., Brauer & Wolf, 2016), in Zanchetta, Junker, Wolf & Traut-Mattausch (2020).

The impostor syndrome is generally associated with a low sense of self-efficacy (Clancey, 2015; Eschbach, 1990; Ives, 2011; Jöstl & al., 2012; Lapp-Rincker, 2003; Vergauwe & al., 2015). Specifically, imposters have low active mastery experience (Blondeau, 2014). This reflects their difficulties in fully integrating their skills or qualities despite their successive successes or objective evidence of success in their situation.

The demanding position lies in the tendency of imposters to have a strong motivation to succeed by setting high standards of achievement and unattainable goals, while remaining deeply dissatisfied with their performance (Thompson & al., 1998, 2000; Vergauwe & al., 2015).

In summary, as long as people with Impostor Syndrome tend to set difficult goals to meet the expectations of others, which exposes them to more stress and anxiety, helping them to focus on more realistic goals and actions can help them to:

  • internalize their skills more effectively
  • take credit for their accomplishments
  • facilitate the development of more functional identity

Practical tip

Take a specific aspect of your professional or personal life that you would like to improve but that at the moment is a source of stress and anxiety.

Set a realistic goal that you want to achieve. If you don’t know how to do this, I invite you to discover the article how to set goals, achieve them and be truly happy.

Then, start using a to-do list and your agenda to plan regular actions that will allow you to reach the goal you have set for yourself.

Acting in such a way will allow you to progress by protecting your self-esteem from the judgments of others while strengthening your self-confidence and you will become a witness to your progress.

Doing this will allow you to feel more and more legitimate in both your professional and private life.

6 – Overcome perfectionism, lack of discipline and procrastination

People affected by the impostor syndrome feel a kind of overdependence on the external gaze. This can lead them as much to an excess of perfectionism in order to stick to an ideal image projected to please others, as to a demotivation linked to low self-esteem and self-confidence manifested as a lack of discipline or a tendency to procrastinate.

Here’s what the research shows.

Perfectionism is closely related to the impostor syndrome, as individuals use it to convince themselves that they are worthy of their high position by delivering something of high quality and avoiding blame, in Vinnicombe & Val Singh (2003).

Employees concerned about impostor tendencies could benefit from coaching programs focused on improving self-efficacy and mitigating inappropriate perfectionist concerns.

Moreover, as shown by Bernard, Dollinger & Ramaniah (2010), the impostor syndrome is also linked to lower discipline and perceived competence.

Previous studies have provided empirical evidence of a substantial positive association between impostor and self-disabling behaviors, i.e., procrastination (Ross & al., 2001; Cowman & Ferrari, 2002; Want & Kleitman, 2006), in Rohrmann, Bechtoldt & Leonhardt (2016).

In summary, helping these individuals become aware of their excessive perfectionism and exaggerated fears about the expectations of others is critical to their healthy progress in both their work and personal lives.

Practical tip

I suggest you answer the following questions to check if you are concerned by the difficulties we have just mentioned.

Are you used to work more than necessary all the time without ever feeling satisfied?

Do you often worry about what your professional and personal entourage thinks of you?

After working for a long time to do your job, do you experience anxiety or stress?

Do you often feel demotivated and tend to procrastinate and not meet deadlines?

Answering these questions is important in order to implement the necessary changes that will allow you to overcome the pitfalls of Impostor Syndrome.

If you wish to go further on the topic of procrastination, I invite you to read the article 10 outstanding tips to stop procrastinating.

If you wish to become more disciplined, I advise you to read the article how to be more disciplined in your life: the ultimate guide.

Conclusion on how to overcome impostor syndrome

In this article, I have presented 6 tips from my synthesis of the scientific literature on the theme of the impostor syndrome.

Taking the right actions to adequately deal with this syndrome is essential for you to flourish in your work and in your personal life.

If you wish to benefit from the expertise of a life coach, write to us now through our contact form to book your first coaching session or discover now our life coaching packages.

Leave a Comment