Imposter Syndrome Affects Everyone — Here's How to Power Through

Powering through imposter syndrome requires confidence — not faking it but internalizing your deservedness and believing in it. 

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The night before the board named me CEO of the company that would become Clearfield, I had only gotten a few hours of sleep. My husband and I got home very late after visiting a sick relative, and the next morning, I dressed in the closet to keep from waking him. When I arrived at the board meeting, about to have all my dreams come true, I nearly died when the chairman of the board leaned over and whispered in my ear:

"You better go change. Your shirt's on inside out."

I had never felt like more of an imposter.

Around 70% of people will experience this phenomenon of feeling like an imposter at some point in their lives. Imposter syndrome is a real threat to anyone who ever attempts success, but the typical suggestion to just "fake it until you make it" may end up causing more harm than good. Powering through imposter syndrome requires confidence — not faking it, but internalizing your deservedness and believing in it.

Everyone Feels Like an Imposter at Some Point

Imposter syndrome is "an internal experience of intellectual phoniness" despite high accomplishments. People label themselves as imposters when they feel out of their league or feel they got to where they were by luck rather than skill. While women are more likely to report the condition, it can and does apply to everyone. For some, this feeling can come right after getting an MBA and feeling unprepared to lead a project in their first management job. For others, it might come when being named CEO and showing up with a shirt on inside out, which overpowers any sense of achievement or credentials.

Impostor syndrome always starts from within, but once it does, it becomes easier to find external factors that compound that perception, especially when we keep the feeling to ourselves. In a 2022 UK survey, over 50% of workers reported feeling like an imposter, but 94% had never discussed those feelings at work. When you receive constructive criticism, those reviewing your performance have no idea about your internal sense of phoniness unless you tell them, and their attempts to help you improve will only add to your feelings of inadequacy. Faking confidence in these situations provides temporary relief, but being inauthentic never solves the internal problem of self-doubt.

Faking It Through Imposter Syndrome Affects Our Work

The perception of being an imposter is a heavy burden that holds people back from achieving success. Imposter syndrome can cause procrastination, decreasing your productivity. Not believing in your worth keeps you from applying for promotions, even if you deserve them. Faking confidence forms a protective barrier and hides that sense of being an imposter, but it takes a lot of energy to keep up and draws ambition away from improving. Hiding these feelings can be very isolating and hurt your well-being and personal relationships. This shield may keep judgment out, but without nourishment from the people around you, it holds fear and self-doubt in.

Faking their way through imposter syndrome may motivate some people to achieve their goals, but it comes at the high cost of constant anxiety. They overwork themselves and stay up all night preparing for presentations to make sure no one discovers they're a fraud. Even if that presentation is a success, they convince themselves that it was because they worked much harder than necessary, setting a standard to do that every time they feel fear. Over-preparing in an attempt to fake confidence or pretend you know everything keeps you from ever establishing the necessary reach you need to strive for continual learning. Instead, you need to recognize what you don't know and improve on that with confidence.

Nurture True Confidence To Overcome

Instead of "faking it" in the hopes that you'll one day "make it," take action to develop the necessary confidence to believe that you can. The first step when feeling like an imposter is to breathe. Use the acronym BRA: breathe, relax and allow. Breathing lets you relax, and through relaxing, you can allow the world to happen around you. Only then can you truly listen to gain energy and factual data rather than seeking out what makes you an imposter.

The next step is to do a personal review — not an assessment, but a sampling of who you are and what you're doing. Define your ambitions and why you think anyone else might be better at achieving them than you. Search for the root of your imposter syndrome not with vague excuses like fear, but with concrete reasons that cause this feeling. When you take fear out of the equation, you can move on to the next step: investing time to improve those concrete reasons. You may find none, and then you can move on with confidence. Nourish that confidence at every opportunity.

Give Yourself a Little Grace

When the chairman of the board pointed out my inside-out shirt, I started apologizing, embarrassed for my carelessness and assuming he would see it as an indicator of my professional abilities. Instead, he just responded, "If that's the least I have to do for you in the next 10 years, we're going to be just fine." I could have chosen to run away with fear, but instead, I thanked him and took it with grace. When you approach a difficult situation with grace, it may not undo the mistake, but at least it lets you walk away from it with your head held high.

Everyone gets afraid sometimes, but by accepting and acknowledging weaknesses instead of feeling threatened by them, you can manage this fear with the confidence and transparency needed to overcome it. No one is expected to have it all figured out, and no one wants you to pretend that you do. Instead of faking confidence and hoping it will make you confident, confront your imposter syndrome by building faith in yourself, which will lead to actual growth and greater success.

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