Imposter syndrome, the most dangerous form of self-doubt, is a pervasively common experience that happens to everyone at some point, from the most junior newbies to the highest seasoned experts.
And it’s a tricky thing to pin down. Imposter syndrome is a remarkably unpredictable psychological phenomenon that behaves in rather puzzling ways.
It doesn’t discriminate in choosing its target, and will easily latch onto a person regardless of their status, role, or position. Further, it doesn’t disappear with growing success and instead seems to get worse as we grow and get better.
This, I should emphasize, is the ironic (and dangerous) feedback cycle of imposter syndrome: The very thing that, in theory, should alleviate imposter syndrome – more success – is the thing that worsens its symptoms in the long-run.
What people fail to understand, then, is that the solution to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to simply accumulate more successes. Quite the opposite, actually.
It’s to relish in all of life’s little failures and to do the things that your brain says you shouldn’t do.
Here are 3 science-backed ways you can easily make this happen.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
1. Seek out failure
At the heart of your imposter syndrome is the fear of failure. Which means then that the best way to overcoming imposter syndrome is to overcome the fear.
Decades of research in clinical science has shown us that often the best way to do this is to expose yourself to the stimuli linked to the fear (e.g., a situation, an object, a place, a person, etc.).
Its effectiveness lies in a reversal of certain assumptions made by the brain: Incoming face-to-face with the thing that you normally would try desperately to avoid, your brain comes to realize that the perceived threat is actually much lower than what it convinced you it was all along.
You can do the following exercise.
List out all your fears that relate to your feelings of inadequacy, failure, ineptitude, and so on. Then rank each of them from 0 (easiest to deal with) to 10 (most difficult to deal with). Start exposing yourself to the easiest failure sources and gradually work your way up.
As you get more and more comfortable with your fears, two things will begin to happen.
First, you’ll notice just how limiting your prior beliefs were, which prevented you from exploring opportunities. And second, you’ll begin to see “failure” as a necessary feature of the learning and growth process. Which leads me to the next point.
2. Reframe failure to learn
Once you’ve learned there’s nothing to fear from failure, the next step to overcoming imposter syndrome is to engage in what I call a semantic frame-switching exercise.
It’s a type of perspective change that works by looking at the interpretation behind failure, both its semantic and experiential meaning.
Let’s dive into the brain for a sec.
The brain evaluates “failure” as something that is bad. The word itself has a clear negative connotation, drawing associations to other words and phrases like rejected, dejected, downcast, sullen and sad, self-hatred, and hopeless. The question is, why?
The reason for this overly negative framing of failure is that it’s rooted in loss – rather than gain.
The brain operates by computing inputs like an economic cost-benefit calculator. It’s an ineluctable fact of our evolved neural hardwiring.
All losses get framed as “bad”, which prompt avoidance behaviors and fear-related emotions. While all gains get framed as “good,” which prompt approach behaviors and curiosity-related emotions.
Once you dissociate the fear from failure, you can frame-switch and begin to associate failure not as something “bad” but as something “good”. Something that is required for us to learn and change and grow.
3. Do the hard things first
Imposter syndrome’s obsession with success (and fear of failure) forces you to focus on the easy things.
It deters you from confronting and dealing with the things that are considered difficult or hard. Which of course tend to be the more important things. So, you end up procrastinating on those jobs that really matter.
Much of this, unfortunately, happens on an unconscious level, with “decisions” being made outside your immediate awareness.
The following exercise will get you to break the automatic loop and begin overcoming imposter syndrome.
Think of a time when you were feeling the least confident about yourself. Really visualize the experience and situation.
Now, ask yourself: What type of tasks/work were you doing? List them all out. Then for each item, assign a score from 0 (super easy) to 10 (super difficult).
Look at your list and the scored values. Are many of them under 5? Probably. You were “choosing” to do the easy tasks while avoiding the tough stuff.
We do this because the brain operates under a “short-term strategy” when feeling stressed or inadequate. It convinces us to go after the low-hanging fruit because it’ll provide some immediate relief in the interim.
But the brain is short-sited. This isn’t a lasting strategy, as the positivity it provides is lacking substance which only further exacerbates your imposter syndrome in the long-run.
An easy fix is the following: Create a working to-do list.
Rank order the items from easiest to hardest. For the top 5 most difficult items, do these things right away at the start of your day.
Set an intention as you plan out your weeks and days.
At the beginning, you’ll feel an internal pushback in confronting the tough stuff head-on. Eventually, you’ll settle into the habit and recognize just what you’re getting out of it.
You’ll reach success (and more) by overcoming imposter syndrome.
In trying to overcome your imposter syndrome, there might be the worry that, without the explicit focus on success (which you believe your imposter syndrome does for you), you are effectively reducing the odds of becoming “successful.” Not true.
Doing so won’t limit your likelihood of reaching success. Success, however you may define it, is a natural bi-product of the above processes.
Apply these three techniques and you will
i) expose yourself to a greater number of personal growth-related opportunities,
ii) learn new things that you wouldn’t have otherwise learned,
and iii) be more productive and confident in your tackling of day-to-day tasks.
Now that pretty much sums up personal success.
Any other tips on overcoming imposter syndrome?
About The Author
This is a guest post by Dr. Nick Hobson from PsychologyCompass, where top performers learn how to reach their peak mental performance.