The ironic yet motivating truth about imposter syndrome

The great Stoic philosopher Seneca noted that, “What we struggle with is the fault, not of the places, but of ourselves.” This insightful statement captures the persistent self-doubt that has been dubbed ‘imposter syndrome’.

A person is sitting at a table with their laptop in front of them. They're looking to their right and smiling. There's an ice coffee next to them, and they have orange long hair and an orange trimmed beard.

Imposter syndrome is the belief that we are not as competent or intelligent as our peers. As a result, we feel that we do not deserve success or have not legitimately earned our achievements. However, when you reframe your perspective on imposter syndrome, you can leverage your negative feelings to press on toward success and grow as a person.

Everyone feels like an imposter

If you’ve ever felt like you don’t deserve your success, don’t worry: you’re not alone. The American Psychological Association estimates that 82% of people experience feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and unworthiness regarding their achievements. These three feelings manifest themselves in many different areas of our life, but here are some of the major ones:

  • The workplace: Imposter syndrome causes us to consider our achievements and success to be the result of luck, not our ability or work ethic. 

  • As leaders: When we feel like a fraud, our attempts to lead will be half-hearted and indecisive because we have no confidence in our abilities.

  • Our relationships: When we feel unworthy of another person’s love, we may self-sabotage or live in constant fear that they’ll discover our flaws and no longer love us. 

  • In school: As students, we can let imposter syndrome silence us and keep us from asking questions that we think others will see as dumb or unnecessary.

  • While parenting: At all stages, we can often feel self-doubt and a sense of being unfit as parents because we make mistakes while raising our children.

The 5 manifestations of imposter syndrome

Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, has observed 5 different ways imposter syndrome can impact our behavior and thought life. These patterns are not intended to describe all of the nuanced ways each person battles imposter syndrome, but instead provide a framework for evaluating and overcoming our personal struggle with imposter syndrome.

1. Perfectionists believe failure is fatal

If a Perfectionist sets a goal and achieves 99% of it, they will focus on the 1% they missed and consider themselves to have not met the goal. For a Perfectionist, any misstep or mistake made while achieving a goal or performing a task is unforgivable. 

2. Experts never feel ready 

This second type of imposter often delays starting projects or trying new things because they never feel like they have enough information or knowledge. Experts try to educate themselves out of their feelings of intimidation and fear. From asking a ‘stupid question’ in school to speaking out at work, Experts avoid embrassing situations where they don’t have all the answers.

3. Geniuses stay on ‘easy mode’

If it feels difficult, a Genius will avoid it because they don’t feel like they’re good enough to do it. Because Geniuses are usually very skilled in certain areas, they become used to doing things with a low amount of effort. 

If a task or goal requires them to perform a task they can’t easily do, a Genius will begin to question their legitimacy or qualifications for that role. As a result, Geniuses avoid new experiences and bypass opportunities to develop new skills.

4. Soloists think help is weakness

When it comes to getting things done, Soloists believe they must be a one-person army. This type of imposter equates asking for help with admitting weakness and failure. Rather than collaborate with others for synergistic results, Soloists limit their potential for growth and impact by doing everything on their own.

5. Supers try the impossible to prove they’re not frauds

To counteract their feelings of inferiority, Supers take on enormous amounts of responsibility and attempt to excel at whatever they do. Similar to Perfectionists, a Super will feel like a failure or a slacker if they are not achieving 100% in every part of their life.

How you can turn imposter syndrome into your advantage

Much of the conversation around imposter syndrome focuses on its negative aspects. However, if you adjust your perspective about it, imposter syndrome can start to positively impact your personal growth and development. 

Know that imposter feelings are misleading 

Basima Tewfik, a Wharton researcher and assistant professor of Work and Organization Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted 3 experiments to determine the impact of imposter syndrome on performance. 

  1. Working with supervisors at an investment advisory firm, Basima compared the interpersonal relationships of staff who struggled with imposter syndrome to those who did not. Basima found that ‘imposters’ were much more collaborative than their peers.

  2. In the second experiment, Basima tasked medical students with diagnosing actors who were trained to exhibit certain symptoms. Students who struggled with imposter syndrome had a superior bedside manner, demonstrating more empathy and asking patients better questions.

  3. For the final experiment, Basima compared the performance of job-seeking ‘imposters’ during an interview to other candidates. As with the medical students, the ‘imposter’ interviewees demonstrated better interpersonal skills, asked engaging questions, and provided excellent answers.

The takeaway from Basima’s experiments is that our performance is often much better than our perceptions. Surprisingly, imposter syndrome can motivate us to be better, not worse, than we would be otherwise—but only if we have the right perspective.

Understand that awkwardness is necessary for growth

We’re wired for homeostasis—we prefer to keep things the way they are. Any time we break an established routine or move into an unfamiliar environment, it feels awkward and uncomfortable. Instead of running away from new experiences and challenging tasks, face them head-on and embrace the awkwardness of growth

Professional mixed martial artist, Connor McGregor once said, “The more you seek the uncomfortable, the more you will become comfortable.”

Use self-doubt as motivation to keep trying

“In those moments where you feel like an imposter…you realize ‘I have something to prove’ so you’re not complacent”, noted Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at New York University, in an episode on his and Kara Swisher’s podcast Pivot. When we recognize our shortcomings and flaws and actively work to address them, we grow better as a person. 

Find a community that supports you

One of the biggest steps you can take toward overcoming a personal challenge is discussing it with others who’ve faced it or are currently facing it. Together, you can encourage and motivate one another to overcome negative self-talk, embrace new experiences, and live confidently. This is the vision that Kim Meninger has for The Imposter Syndrome Files, a podcast featuring personal stories from people who are either battling imposter syndrome or have overcome it.

Our perspective is our biggest productivity tool

I still have a long way to go in overcoming imposter syndrome, but I am doing my best to apply these tips within my accounting firm. More than any productivity app or technology, our perspective can be our greatest asset or biggest liability.

If you want to learn more about overcoming imposter syndrome, I’d recommend The Imposter Syndrome Files podcast I mentioned earlier, as well as The Imposter Cure by Dr. Jessamy Hibberd. Ultimately, I hope this article helps you overcome imposter syndrome and live your life with a confident, conquering mindset.