Holly Richardson: Struggling with Impostor Syndrome

General Photographic Agency | Getty Images Albert Einstein at home, circa 1925.

“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” — Albert Einstein

In the late 1970’s, two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, described this syndrome that occurs among high achievers who are “unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than ability.” While Clance and Imes first thought Impostor Syndrome was unique to women, subsequent research has shown that men experience it as well.

Do you think everyone else has it all together? Maybe they do, but chances are, they don’t think so.

Poet Maya Angelou said: “I have written 11 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.’”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that when she was at Princeton, she felt like she was waiting for someone to tap her on the shoulder and say, “You don’t belong!”

Dr. Margaret Chan, former chief of the World Health Organization said, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”

Actress Emma Watson remarked, “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going ’Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved.’”

Dr. Valerie Young divided imposter syndrome into five subgroups:

  1. The Perfectionist: You set excessively high goals for yourself, then beat yourself up if you’re not perfect 100 percent of the time.

  2. Superwoman/man: Convinced you are a phony when everyone else is the real deal, so do more, more, more to prove you measure up.

  3. The Natural Genius: Things normally come easy, so if you are unable to do something perfectly the first time, you wonder what is wrong with you.

  4. The Rugged Individualist: You believe that if you ask for help, it proves you are incapable.

  5. The Expert: Somehow feel you have tricked your employer into hiring you, you constantly seek additional training and certifications to prove you know your stuff, but you never feel like you know enough.

While you might not be able to banish Impostor Syndrome completely, here are some ways to work around and through it.

1. Call on your tribe to support you. You have people who think you’re the bees knees. Use them as accountability partners and as cheerleaders. Know where to go for positive, meaningful encouragement.

2. Keep perspective. Not everything is going to go well and that’s OK. Do toddlers feel like “walking imposters” when they fall down after taking one or two shaky steps? Of course not! They learn from it and so can you.

3. Use affirmations. And post them where you can see them: “I belong here.” “Inhale confidence. Exhale doubt.”

4. Strike a pose. Check out Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED talk on body language (currently over 43 million views) and spend two minutes in the power pose she calls the “star pose.” Stand up, spread your legs slightly, raise your arms over your head into an open V shape and hold it for two minutes. It works.

5. Recognize your expertise. And celebrate your successes. You did do the work. you did accomplish your goals, you did earn this.

6. Accept compliments gracefully. Instead of shrugging off, minimizing your success or making excuses, simply say “Thank you.”

7. Act as if. I know, I know. A whole article on Impostor Syndrome and I am telling you to fake it ’til you make it. I’m not asking you to fake your accomplishments, but rather, fake your confidence. For example, if you want to be happy, smile. See tip #4 and strike a power pose. Take your seat at the table. Literally. As you keep acting “as if,” you’ll find that it becomes real.

Amelia Earhart summed it up well: “Decide whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying.” You’ve got this.

Holly Richardson is a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune and frequently wonders how she got so lucky. She loves to write but has put off writing a book because she believes no one will read what she has to say.

Holly Richardson