Imposter Syndrome. How to overcome it?

Picture by: Giulia Bertelli

For as long as I can remember, I’d never attributed my achievements to my own efforts or abilities. Did I do really good on an exam at school? I was lucky the questions in it were just what I studied the night before. Delivered a great presentation? It really wasn’t that great. My peers were complimenting me because they didn’t want to make me feel bad about it. Managed a project that added massive value? My boss’s guidance made it all happen. Thankfully she was there.

The list goes on. And it wasn’t me being modest or fakely humble. I was truly believing that no accomplishment had to do with my own endeavor.

In parallel, I’d focus intensely on things I could’ve done better and attribute everything that would go wrong to myself. Got 9 out of 10 exams with high grades at school? That one exam with a lower grade was a shame, I should’ve studied more. A candidate I was recruiting turned down a job offer last-minute? I should’ve seen it before, and my mistake would cause a 2-week delay while I looked for new prospects. 

The combination of being excessively demanding with myself and unassuming in the estimation of my accomplishments would constantly make me feel like I was a fraud, a scam. I was undoubtedly going through the symptoms of impostor syndrome.

And the tricky part about impostor syndrome is that it’s quite difficult to spot it from a subjective standpoint. For me, it was just how things were. The strong conviction I had that I had nothing to do with my success and everything to do with my failure was effectively blinding me from seeing reality. Needless to say, my self-esteem levels were next-to-nothing.

Lucky for me, I was seeing a coach for stress-management purposes (that’s another story), to which I became very close to. I would tell her about my emotional afflictions—low self-esteem among them—which led us to the realization that I was exceedingly doubting my own accomplishments and I needed to work on it (we never actually labeled it ‘impostor syndrome’).

From then on, it’s been quite a battle, do I still experience a lack of confidence? Absolutely, daily! My impostor self is and will always be trying to disguise falsehood as reality. But I’ve learned to control it better thanks to different strategies. 

I became aware of it

As obvious as it sounds, becoming aware of my impostor syndrome was one of the highlights during my battle against it. Only when it happened, did I start to implement strategies to bring my enemy down to its most insignificant expression. Awareness triggers action.

How did that happen? By expressing emotional afflictions with those I trusted: Family, friends, and my coach. They’ll always see the forest when we cannot see further than a single tree. I was surprised by how relatable my feelings were when I shared them, which helped me be certain that I wasn’t alone. In fact, according to science, about 70% of people experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lives.

Also, something I wish I had found sooner was this test, which helps determine whether (and to which extent) someone suffers from impostor syndrome.

I internalized my accomplishments

It took me some time before I was able to internalize the achievements I had worked on. Starting to do so was crucial in controlling my impostor syndrome for good. The essential paradigm shift that allowed me to do so was to perceive reality from an objective standpoint.

Once I became aware that I had impostor syndrome, it turned easier to identify instances in which my perception of certain circumstances did not correspond with reality. At this point, I realized it was a matter of conditioning my mind to see the world without the influence of my personal feelings or opinions.

A simple but powerful exercise I started—and up to this day, still do—was to write down the 5 main achievements of the week, no matter how big or small. The purpose was to celebrate my mini-victories and feel proud of myself. In addition, I’d write compliments from my relatives, friends or colleagues which would help me convince myself that I was far from being an impostor. By writing these positive occurrences, I could also turn to them for situations in which my self-confidence levels would start dropping. That way, I’d help my current and future selves better understand the true state of things.

I identified and addressed negative thoughts

Negative thoughts are the fuel that spreads the fire of impostor syndrome. Hence, controlling my negative mind was the next goal, which was like a broken radio stuck in the phrases “I’m stupid, I’m not good enough, others are so much better than me…”.

The first step was to achieve constant monitoring. I didn’t engage in any special exercise or secret recipe. I would simply remind myself to find negative thoughts as soon as they’d manifest. In the beginning, I’d forget for days, but I eventually got the habit and it’s now embedded and fully functional.

The second step was to address these thoughts. I heard strategies like pinching or shooting oneself with a rubber band upon identifying negative ideas to condition the mind. I didn’t try that. Instead, upon catching myself negative-red-handed, I’d immediately replace that thought for its positive counterpart. For instance, I’d turn “I wasn’t good enough” into “I did my best”. Here again, I required endless repetition until eventually getting accustomed to doing so.

I try to stop comparing myself with others

There are different reasons why we compare with others in the first place, but I’d summarize it as follows: Either to push ourselves down or to pull ourselves up. My case was the former. I’d always idealize the abilities of other people to the detriment of mine. This would feed my insecurities and would inevitably make me feel like an impostor.

What made the difference in this respect was awareness. By realizing I was engaging in pointless comparisons, I’d be able to address this behavior to the benefit of my self-esteem. I understood that everyone has different paths, challenges, insecurities, and ambitions, which would make for a senseless estimation of similarities. Most importantly, I learned that it was only myself to whom I should be striving to be better than. 

I learned that stumbling doesn’t make me a fraud

The difficult part of stumbling is that the occurrence itself has nothing to do with subjectivity. Failure is reality. When slipping along the way, all my insecurities would manifest and I’d feel like I was cheating on everybody, including myself. There were no mental exercises that could save me from the lack of success I was witnessing.

The crucial realization in this front was a change in the way I’d perceive failure. I learned that it must be regarded as a step closer to success, as opposed to one further from it. Inevitably, at a certain point in our lives, we will stumble. But that doesn’t mean we’re wrongdoing. It’s simply proof that we’re on the right track to the accomplishment of our goals, which have everything to do with ourselves 😉

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