If you think you're not good enough, you can join the club, because many women experience impostor syndrome. But, contrary to popular belief, it turns out that a little self-doubt isn't such a bad thing after all.
Tara Sutton is an award-winning war correspondent and documentary filmmaker from Toronto. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York's Columbia University, and she was the first foreign reporter to enter Fallujah, Iraq, after the siege in 2004 to document human rights abuses during the Iraq War. She's also given talks all over the world. But, sometimes, Sutton feels like a fraud.
"When I was in Iraq, I was the only video journalist and I was freelancing," says Sutton. "Everybody else had security experts and crews and flak jackets, and I didn't have any of that stuff. I'd lie there at night thinking, You're so useless. You don't know what you're doing. Why are you even here? I always felt so inferior, like I wasn't as qualified as everyone else."
What is it?
Though impostor phenomenon, or impostor syndrome, as it's commonly called, was first identified in 1978 to describe high-achieving people who dismiss, minimize or ignore evidence of their abilities, Sutton only recognized the symptoms in herself after reading an article about it in The New York Times. Since then, high-profile people—from Mike Myers (who famously said, "I still expect that the no-talent police will come and arrest me") to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg—have publicly admitted that they had a problem.
In an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, research estimates that 70 percent of us will, at least once in our lives, fear being exposed as frauds, no matter how successful we are. "People who feel like impostors have a hard time internalizing and owning their accomplishments and, instead, ascribe them to things like luck, timing, connections or computer error," says Valerie Young, the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.
These feelings are especially common for students and people in creative fields such as writing, acting and music. "You're judged subjectively and are perceived as being only as good as your last book, film, show or assignment," says Young. "You have to continually prove yourself in ways you wouldn't if you were in an accounting department or in customer service." That self-doubt is also more common among women, minorities and people who grew up poor or working class. "Whenever you're in a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence, you're more susceptible," says Young.
How to make impostor syndrome work for you
Alicia Liu first blogged about her brush with impostor syndrome in 2013, and she has revisited the topic several times since. The Canadian computer programmer, who now lives in San Francisco, wrote about how feeling like a fake made her reluctant to speak up for fear of sounding stupid. "The stakes were even higher because I was the only female engineer on nearly every team I've been on, so I felt I was representing my gender," she wrote. "I quietly avoided doing things I didn't think I'd be good at, even though the only way to get better is to do them." That's one of the problems with impostor syndrome—it can hold you back from learning. It may even make you overprepare, which "leads to unnecessary work and potential burnout," says Liu.
But Pamela Catapia, a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver, says there can be benefits to feeling this way. "If you have impostor syndrome, you're likely a caring, conscientious, talented person who has both the desire and the capacity to improve the world," she says. She points to her clients as evidence; many of them tell her they feel like impostors, but, for the most part, they're actually extremely competent with unrecognized or underutilized leadership skills.
While Catapia admits that impostor syndrome can lead to procrastination, self-sabotage, anxiety and overwork, she says it is possible to make those feelings work for you. The secret is to recognize the good and the bad of impostor syndrome—and hang on to the good. "If overpreparing for things is working, keep that strategy. But if you're feeling burned out and exhausted, dial it down," she says. Young agrees. "I don't like to hear people say 'stop being a perfectionist,' because that's not helpful. You do things because you're getting something out of it. So I ask people, 'What's the good part about being a perfectionist that you want to keep?' If you care deeply about the quality of your work—not everyone does—keep that part, but let go of any shame you might feel over minor and very human imperfections."
Sutton credits impostor syndrome with helping her become a better journalist, though she didn't realize it at the time. "The benefit of feeling that way is that I asked so many questions. I had no assumptions that I knew what was going on," she says. "It also led me to do a lot more listening than talking."
There are still days when Sutton's self-doubt resurfaces, especially when it comes to public speaking. "Whenever I start to write a speech, I feel like I don't have anything to say. Now I know it's just a feeling, but in the beginning, I believed it was true."
Make peace with your inner critic
Though impostor syndrome can push us to achieve, it can also do more harm than good, leading to anxiety, procrastination and burnout. Here's what to do if the negatives start to outweigh the positives.
1. Know that you're normal
We often assume that struggling with confidence in a new situation is proof that we're impostors, says self-help speaker and author Valerie Young. But those feelings are normal. "Of course you're going to feel off base at first," she says. "If you're starting a new job, instead of thinking, I don't belong here, try, This is going to be hard for a while. This is new for me, and mastering or taking on new things is hard." She adds that, unless you're a narcissist, you should have feelings of self-doubt every now and then. "If it's your first time doing something, you haven't had time to develop the confidence that comes from prior experience."
2. Put it in context
Consider why feelings of inadequacy are there in the first place, says computer programmer Alicia Liu. "It's not merely a personal issue—though impostor syndrome is too often framed as purely personal. For me, it also reflected the discrimination and stereotyping in the tech industry and wider culture." Your own experience may be rooted in childhood or exacerbated by dismissive coworkers or cultural stereotypes. "You need to sort through your beliefs about yourself and your talents and to examine which belong to you and which came from others," says clinical counsellor Pamela Catapia. "Think about the beliefs that protect, guide and encourage you to grow versus the ones that shame and control you and keep you stuck." When you acknowledge how other people's attitudes might be holding you back, it's easier to feel worthy and confident.
3. Change your mind
"If you want to stop feeling like an impostor, you have to stop thinking like one," says Young. "This means reframing the way you think about competence, failure and fear. If you get an assignment that feels beyond you, instead of thinking, I have no idea what I'm doing, the reframe is, Wow! I'm really going to learn a lot," she says. And remember, your body doesn't know the difference between fear and excitement—sweaty palms and a dry throat come from both. "As you're walking to the podium or going to meet with your boss, just keep thinking, I'm excited. The best part is that, over time, you will be."