Is there an “impostor” holding you or your team back?
We’ve all heard the expression “Fake it till you make it.”

It sounds innocent enough and may actually be good advice. That is, if—once you make it—you actually accept you are a success. Ah, there’s the rub.

For some people, success always feels fraudulent. When this happens, it’s called Impostor Phenomenon (also called Impostor Syndrome), which was identified in 1978 by two clinical psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They used the term to identify high-achieving people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments and instead have a persistent feeling of being a fraud.

Most of us have experienced moments of Impostor Phenomenon at some point in our lives. In fact, research says at least 70% of us have displayed symptoms. The Impostor’s Club is filled with some very well known people:

Tina Fey, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Maya Angelou, Howard Schultz, Natalie Portman and Michelle Pfeifer are just a few celebrities who self-identify as impostors. This syndrome has no prejudice. No one is immune. It affects all, agnostic to gender, race, culture or creed, introversion or extraversion.

So what causes it? Several studies from 1985 to 2006 identified two key factors that contribute to this syndrome: perfectionism and family environment. 

So how do you know if you or someone on your team may be suffering from Impostor Phenomenon? Some common symptoms include negative self-talk, a need to constantly check and re-check work, and intentionally avoiding workplace attention. Sufferers will often overcompensate by staying late at work and not setting realistic workload boundaries. They have persistent feelings of self-doubt and live in fear of being found out as a phony. They will blame themselves when things go wrong, even when it’s obvious there were other factors at play.

In an article in Mental Floss, Manhattan psychologist Joseph Cilona wrote: “Those struggling with imposter syndrome also tend to attribute success to luck rather than merit and hard work, and generally tend to minimize success.”

The Caltech Counseling Center website identifies the three types of impostors:

  • Those who believe they are frauds and feel they do not deserve their success or position. They think they are tricking others into thinking they are competent. As a result, they fear being “unmasked or found out.” They fear others will discover how much expertise they lack.
  • Those who attribute their success to luck. People with Impostor Syndrome tend to credit luck or external variables to their success and do not believe it has anything to do with their abilities. They might say things like “I just got lucky” or “This was a fluke.”
  • Those who discount their success. These folks will proclaim their success is no big deal. They will also have difficulty accepting compliments.

Can anything be done to minimize the impact of Impostor Phenomenon? The bad news is most victims have this little voice of doubt so deeply ingrained in their psyche it is nearly impossible to exorcise. The good news is you may not want to completely rid yourself of it. Impostor Phenomenon brings a natural sense of humility to your work, which can be a very healthy thing. The challenge is to prevent it from becoming a paralyzing fear.

In a Harvard Business Review article headlined “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome,” executive coach Gill Corkindale offered these tips:

  • Recognize imposter feelings when they emerge. Being aware is the first step to change.
  • Rewrite your mental scripts. Instead of telling yourself people are going to find out what you don’t know, remind yourself it’s natural not to know everything and you will continue to gain more knowledge as you progress.
  • Consider the context. We all have times when we don’t feel 100% confident. There are situations when you may, indeed, be out of your depth, and self-doubt is a normal reaction. Just remind yourself this is only for this specific situation and you don’t feel this way all the time.
  • Be kind to yourself. We are all entitled to make mistakes. Forgive yourself. Be sure to reward yourself for getting big things right!

Alexis Meads offered some great advice in a Huffington Post article headlined “How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome”:

  • First you must become a mental warrior. Be aware of how the doubt shows up in your head.
  • Then inhale confidence and exhale doubt. Create a space to remind yourself of the “badass” you are. This could be an inspiration file filled with emails, quotes, photos, whatever reminds you of how awesome you are. Stop the comparison game. Remember you are unique and everyone’s timeline for accomplishments is different.

In a recent New York Times column headlined “Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome,” financial planner Carl Richards wrote that when he hears that little voice in his head he takes a deep breath, pauses for a minute, smiles and says, “Welcome back old friend. I’m glad you’re here. Now, let’s go to work.”

The Impostor Phenomenon pushes him to be his best by embracing the pressure.

Finally, if all else fails, you can fall back on the wisdom of Stuart Smalley from “Saturday Night Live”: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”