How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

This brief animation from Ted-Ed connects self-doubt with high performance and explains three ways you can combat it.

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Have you ever felt as though, no matter how much progress you make or success you achieve, you don’t truly deserve your accomplishments?

If so, you’re in good company. In this video from Ted-Ed, narrator Elizabeth Cox explains how feeling like a fraud is a phenomenon that plagues many successful people.

She points to writer Maya Angelou and physicist Albert Einstein, both of whom believed they didn’t deserve the attention their work received.

“Accomplishments at the level of Angelou’s or Einstein’s are rare, but their feeling of fraudulence is extremely common,” Cox says.

Feeling like a fraud is a phenomenon that plagues many successful people.

This unwarranted sense of insecurity is known as imposter syndrome. It leaves many of us feelings as though we haven’t earned our success, or that our thoughts aren’t worthy of attention. In some cases, it can even prevent people from sharing ideas, applying for university, or pursuing certain jobs.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome was first studied by psychologist Pauline Rose Clance in 1978. Despite the name, it isn’t a disease or abnormality, and is not tied to depression, anxiety or self-esteem. It is a feeling, an experience, a belief that can be hard to shake.

In fact, Cox says calling it a “syndrome” downplays how universal the feeling truly is—one that has been established across gender, race, age, and profession.

“People who are highly skilled or accomplished tend to think others are just as skilled,” Cox says. “This can spiral into feelings that they don’t deserve accolades and opportunities over other people.”

Cox explains that what makes imposter syndrome so common is the experience of “pluralistic ignorance”: while we each second-guess ourselves privately, we believe we are alone in our doubts because no one else voices their own thoughts. 

“Since it’s tough to really know how how hard our peers work, how difficult they find certain tasks, or how much they doubt themselves, there’s no easy way to dismiss feeling that we’re less capable than the people around us,” Cox says.

Three steps to overcome imposter syndrome

1) First, start a conversation.

The only surefire way to quiet your inner critic is to talk about what’s going on in your mind. While this may sound simple, Cox explains that many people hesitate to share how they feel as they fear the feedback they receive from others will only confirm their concerns. 

However, often when people discuss their experience of feeling like they don’t belong, they learn others around them have felt the same way in the past.

According to Cox, learning a mentor or trusted friend has also gone through the same thing can provide clarity and relief to those with imposter syndrome. 

2) Then, collect your positive experiences. 

Many of us toss off the compliments we receive for our work, and only remember the criticism. The next time someone starts to sing your praises, allow yourself to truly appreciate what is being said. 

“Once you’re aware of the phenomenon, you can combat your own imposter syndrome by collecting and revisiting positive feedback,” Cox says.

Making a concentrated effort to listen to and reflect on words of encouragement can help sooth anxieties the next time self-doubt pops up.

3) Finally, realize you’re not alone.

Cox suggests having open conversations about challenges is another way we can undercut feelings of imposterism — which may never entirely fade — because those common experiences can help us realize we’re not as alone in our insecurities as we feel.

For instance, developing awareness around academic and professional challenges — where mistakes can come from equipment failure as opposed to competence — is essential for thriving and building confidence.