"Millions of people, from entrepreneurs to celebrities, have a hard time internalizing their accomplishments," says Valerie Young, an expert on impostor syndrome and, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women (Crown Business, 2011).
The impostor syndrome is especially common among people who become successful quickly or early, and among outsiders, such as women in male-dominated industries. "They explain away their success as luck or timing," Young says. "They feel this sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop."
That fear is stressful, and often leads people to hold back instead of pushing for bigger clients or more challenging opportunities.
Most of the people who feel like impostors are actually exceptionally capable. It's their self-image that's off. "Feeling like an impostor is different than being an impostor," Young says. "Feelings aren’t facts."
To beat the impostor syndrome and trust your success, try these four tips:
1. Interpret your fear as excitement.
When you face a daunting task that incites your insecurity, tell yourself that the fearful jitters are actually excitement. "Fear and excitement have the same physical reaction," Young says. "Your body doesn't know the difference." It's your mind that interprets the jitters, and you control that story.
To turn fear into excitement, frame the situation as an opportunity. Say, "I'm excited to tackle this challenge," and "I'm going to learn a lot from this." By replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, you let your adrenalin work for you instead of against you.
2. Set reasonable expectations.
People who feel like frauds often hold themselves to standards that no one could ever meet consistently. "They’ve set this ridiculously high internal bar," Young says, adding that they often expect nothing short of perfection.
In order to gain confidence, learn to see that bar where it really is -- not where you imagine it. Compare your self-expectations to your expectations for peers, or ask trusted mentors to describe what they would expect of you. "You have to redefine what it means to be competent," Young says.
3. Focus on learning from failure.
People who feel like impostors tend to struggle with failure. "They feel that if they were really competent, they wouldn't fail or make mistakes," Young says. But even the most successful, competent people are constantly making mistakes – that's how we learn.
To see failure in a positive light, practice failing in small ways. Pick up a new hobby, such as chess, and every time you make a mistake, write down what you learned and try again. As you practice, notice how your skills improve, and how those lessons help you get there. Seeing that connection when the stakes are low can help you learn to embrace failure professionally.
4. See "faking it" as a skill.
We all have moments when we need to fake confidence or sell an idea that was thrown together at the last minute. In those moments, impostors tend to focus on thoughts like, "that was all an act," which leaves them feeling fraudulent.
But knowing how to appear confident is a valuable asset in any job. "It's a skill to be able to walk in and act like you know what you’re doing even if you don't," Young says. Allowing yourself to build and applaud that skill -- without practicing any intentional harm or deceit -- will help you feel credible even when you’re out of your comfort zone.
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