Impostor syndrome. The hidden affliction of the high-achieving woman.

Remember the last time you experienced a major accomplishment? Maybe you finally landed your first client or got hired into your ideal job. Maybe you earned a big promotion or award, or were chosen from a large group for an elite opportunity.

Most likely, it felt exhilarating, exciting, and unbelievable.

But did it feel almost too unbelievable?

Did you start to question yourself and hear doubts creep into your head, saying things like “I don’t belong here,” “I’m not worthy,” or “I don’t deserve this?”  

The definition of impostor syndrome

It’s all too common, especially as women, that once we achieve a certain level or goal, we experience a debilitating level of self-doubt and a deflating of confidence.

Enter impostor syndrome. Impostor syndroheme refers to a term coined by psychologists in the 70s that refers to high-achieving individuals who have an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

Basically, you attribute your achievements to some external “fluke” instead of your own personal skills, talents, and efforts. You might also feel like you’re the odd one out, like you are the one who doesn’t belong.


Impostor syndrome affects women… and high achievers

In addition to being more common in women than men, studies show that up to 70% of people have experienced impostor syndrome, especially those who are over-achievers and perfectionists who feel their work is never good enough.

If you grew up in an environment that was highly focused on rewards and recognition (and highly criticized if that that level of achievement wasn’t met), you are more likely to feel like an impostor.

You’re most likely to be hit with a bout of impostor syndrome when you embark on new endeavors, reach new heights of success, or find yourself in an entirely new arena. So if you are an achievement-oriented woman, you will likely experience impostor syndrome many times throughout your life!

How to know if you have impostor syndrome

How do you know if you have impostor syndrome? Simply start listening for the inner critic.

Your inner critic or impostor sounds like a loud voice inside you, criticizing you, tearing you down, and listing all the reasons why you “can’t” or “don’t” deserve something. It also provides excuses for you not to try something at all.

Do you…

  • Have difficulty accepting compliments or praise
  • Discount your success (i.e., “It wasn’t that big of a deal.”)
  • Fear failure so much it keeps you from trying new things
  • Fear success and being “exposed”
  • Constantly compare yourself to others and feel like you don’t measure up
  • Consistently feel like you don’t belong
  • Attribute your success to luck (and no part of your own)

If these sound familiar, you are likely experiencing impostor syndrome.


The negative effects of listening to your inner critic

Your inner critic may sound annoying, unimportant, and useless. But it actually has a purpose.

Think of impostor syndrome as a built-in self-protection system. It wants to protect you from failing. It does this by planting seeds of doubt in your mind, hoping that you will believe it.

Consider this: If you’ve always done only what you know you can, trying something new carries with it an inherent risk of failure. Your inner critic wants to avoid failing at all costs, so it sabotages you by putting scary messages in your head.

When your inner impostor is so strong that you actually avoid things — things you want to do, things you’ve dreamed of doing, things that would be amazing opportunities for you — in the name of “playing it safe,” you let the impostor win.

Impostor syndrome can keep you in the wrong job, in the wrong place, with the wrong partner, living a life beneath your full potential. But you don’t have to let it.

Befriend your inner impostor

Once you identify your inner impostor, you can choose to 1) listen to it, accept it and let it hold you back or, 2) you can hear it out, acknowledge it, and put it in its place, and go for it anyway.

Eventually, over time, you will start to notice the messages as they arise and learn to differentiate the voice of your intuition (i.e., the real you) and your inner impostor (i.e., the fearful one who wants to protect you.)

Your inner impostor will never go away entirely. It’s likely to rear its ugly head whenever you are faced with a new challenge. So you might as well make friends with it.

You can do this by creating awareness. When you hear the voices of doubt and fear, acknowledge that it’s the voice of your impostor. Recognize that it shows up when you are on the verge of something big. Know that it is trying to protect you.  But also know that it is your choice how you respond.


7 tips for overcoming impostor syndrome

When your inner impostor shows up, ready yourself to deal with it, so you can make the right decision and move on with your life.

Here are 7 ways to break free from impostor syndrome:

1. Notice. First, identify which areas of your life your impostor is showing up for you. Are you constantly looking for external validation that you “belong”? Procrastinating on something for fear of it not being perfect? Holding yourself back from new opportunities or challenges because you feel like a fraud? Choosing not to share your true feelings or beliefs out of fear? Recognize the messages that are showing up for you and what it really means.

2. Be kind to yourself. Just because you notice the voice of your impostor doesn’t mean that you have to have a reaction about it. Think of it as something that everyone deals with from time to time. Know that by virtue of having this affliction, you are most likely a high-achiever who has accomplished quite a lot! Instead of beating yourself up about it, know that it’s just trying to protect you. Recognize that it’s likely showing up because you are embarking on something that is very important. The more important something is, the more likely we are to want to protect it and shield it from potential failures.

3. Question the voices. When you start to hear the critical messages spin in your mind, stop and observe them. Then start to question those messages. What is your inner impostor telling you? “I could never do that.” “I will fail at this.” “I’m not as good as so-and-so.” When you hear this kind of internal dialogue, start questioning it instead of automatically believing it. Ask yourself, “How true is this really?” and “What could be another way to look at this?”

4. Change your inner dialogue. After you’ve started questioning the voices, the next step is to change your the messages. Consider your response to the voices in your head, and to replace them, come up with words that support you rather than drag you down. For example, when you hear “I’m a fraud,” you can reassure yourself, “I’m here because I belong here.” When you think, “What if it doesn’t work?” replace it “What if it does?” Rephrase these into statements that you actually believe and that you feel good about.

5. Give yourself permission to do your best and let that be enough. Letting go of perfection is hard, but it is also freeing when you are able to let yourself off the hook and know you are enough. Instead of worrying about “failure”  as the end-all-be-all, think of it failure an opportunity to experiment and learn. Give yourself permission to try new things, no matter how they might work out.

6. Be open about sharing your experiences with others. Each time someone shares her story of impostor syndrome, more stories are brought to the table. It’s not as rare as you think — especially within groups of high achieving women. When more people talk about their experiences, we not only normalize it, but we serve as sound boards, support resources, and reality checks for each other.

7. Think of fear as an indicator of what you must do. Instead of thinking of the impostor voices as red flags or stop signs, think of the voices as green lights showing you the next thing you need to do. If you’re terrified of being found out or discovered, take the chance to show up, confront the fear, and prove to yourself you can handle it. 

Marianne Williamson famously said,

We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

So make a commitment to shine your light, in spite of your inner impostor’s warnings not to. Make a conscious choice to go in the direction of your dreams, despite the fear of failure. Think of life as an experiment rather a win-lose game. You only learn and achieve new levels of success by expanding yourself. Each time we confront expansion, we encounter the impostor, and must choose how we will deal with it.

How does coaching help impostor syndrome? 

Working with a certified coach can help you overcome limiting beliefs, recognize where you’re holding yourself back, and create a plan to move forward with confidence. To learn more about coaching for impostor syndrome, sign up for a free consult.