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How To Beat Imposter Syndrome

Retraining your brain is possible, but it takes the right method
Adobe Stock / Elnur
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

An unwelcome regular at the tech party goes by the name of imposter syndrome, which is an unshakeable feeling of not being as competent or as qualified as people around you think you are – in other words, the feeling that you are some kind of fraud. The phenomenon is especially prevalent among women and minorities, but really it can take hold of anyone, and a whopping 70% of people are said to have experienced at least a few of its symptoms.

In this article we are going to talk not about what Imposter Syndrome is (if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you know), but on what you can do to mitigate it or even, given time, get rid of it altogether.

Step 1: Talk about it

Imposter syndrome will always find fertile grounds in quiet, introverted personalities. It is also remarkably good at keeping them quiet, as you would expect from what is essentially a fear of being exposed.

A good way to start countering it, then, is to try and talk about it openly. If you are not comfortable bringing this up with your colleagues, start by talking to friends outside of work. You may be surprised to find how many other people know exactly where you’re coming from, and this will help you normalize, accept and metabolize your feelings.

If your discomfort is so acute that you can’t even talk about it with friends, then accept that you have an issue and get hold of a therapist. They’ll do more than listen – they’ll help you figure out an action plan tailored to you as an individual.

Step 2: Prepare an emotional response

Imposter syndrome is a cycle of self-reinforcing negative thoughts, but these are always triggered by ordinary emotions which everyone experiences. If you are in the process of learning something new, it is entirely predictable that you will feel a bit lost – the problem is when you start to think that feeling lost is what defines you.

The correct solution is not to try and avoid having such feelings (which is impossible), much less to berate or otherwise punish yourself for having them. Instead, learn to recognize the subsequent negative thoughts the moment they rear their ugly heads, and have a mental routine to respond to them. The aim is to break the self-reinforcing cycle before it can build up into something affecting.

If you’re struggling to learn a new concept and you hear a little voice saying “You’re too dumb to understand this,” then say to yourself, “It’s normal not to understand something the first time, but I will just study it again until I get it, just like everyone else does.” If you are about to give a presentation and the little voice says “Nobody will be able to follow you,” just remind yourself, “I will let people ask questions at the end, so that if anything seemed obscure, I can clarify.”

The fact that the emotions which trigger imposter syndrome are normal does not mean that they are rational. Recognise this, and prepare a set of rational responses to the instances in which your ‘little voice’ is awakened. Remember that the aim is to practice cutting short a build-up of negative thoughts, not to suppress them altogether.

Step 3: Write down your achievements

Most of us are taught as children not to be too vocal about the things we are good at. This is fine for people whose natural ego needs a little reining in, but the opposite lesson becomes necessary when your own brain is actively concealing your accomplishments from you.

Get a little notebook or a calendar or something, and, at least twice a week, sit down and write two things which you accomplished and that you are happy about. It may feel a little awkward at first, but what you are doing is rewiring your thought processes, which is an established psychological practice. You are training your brain to to think about things that it normally shies away from. On top of that, ideas that are written down are much more easily recalled, so that the next time you start thinking “I can do nothing right”, some of the things you definitely did do right should pop into your mind immediately.

Getting your brain to think positively is a matter of method, and contrasting imposter syndrome is just one of the possible applications of this particular routine. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing it – if you want to change how you think, you’ve got to change what you do.

Step 4: Find your mental exercise

The method I suggested above to keep track of your achievements is but one of the most powerful among dozens of possible routines that can help you keep imposter syndrome in check. Others include reciting inspirational sentences in front of a mirror, mentally visualising scenarios in which you succeed at what you are doing, speaking positively about yourself in the third person, rewarding yourself with a treat when you accomplish something positive, or conversely snapping your fingers or ringing a bell when you feel your brain spiralling towards negative thoughts.

Some of these routines may initially sound ridiculous to you. In reality, they are common among people of all sorts, including highly successful athletes and entrepreneurs. This is why talking to others is the first step in this list – because getting over your pride, that innate desire to tell the world you don’t need anything or anyone, is the first and sometimes the biggest of hurdles.

Explore options and solutions, in literature or by talking to others. Try out a few of them, and find the ones that work best for you. Beating imposter syndrome is less about following a standardised list of steps than about finding the personal ‘recipe’ that works best with your mind and your personality. After all, you know yourself best. You will know when something is making you feel better.

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