If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve experienced imposter syndrome at least once in your life. It’s something many of us are familiar with—that feeling of “not enough” creeping in the back of your mind, the voice whispering that you’re a fraud. There’s a vague sense that everyone is going to find out that you’re nowhere near as skilled or talented or qualified as you appear to be. If you’re not careful, these feelings can cost you.
In fact, I’m someone who has paid the price of imposter syndrome several times throughout my career. I’ve lost thousands of dollars to it—turned down potential clients, business opportunities and more—all because of a deceptively simple fear that I wasn’t good enough, and if I said yes to these opportunities then people would “find out” the truth: that I was a fraud.
Imposter syndrome and my career
Like many people, I’ve spent years trying to combat my imposter syndrome. Initially, I thought my debilitating self-doubt could be conquered through achievement. If only I could do more—more degrees, more awards, more accomplishments—then maybe I’d finally believe in myself, and I wouldn’t have to worry about people finding out that I was a fraud because I’d have proven to myself and others that I wasn’t.
No matter how much I chased that validation my imposter syndrome never went away. Instead, it only seemed to get worse.
I realized I had a problem after my imposter syndrome started hurting my business. I’d noticed a pattern in the clients I would turn down—rather than saying no to work that didn’t suit my skills, I’d developed a habit of turning down projects based on scale. The larger and scarier a project felt, the more likely I was to talk myself out of accepting it, even claiming to one potential client that I wasn’t the right person for the job only to accept an identical project for a smaller business a few months later.
The tipping point was when I turned down a potential client and referred them to someone else only for them to hire me to execute the campaign. I was so terrified of failing to measure up that I said no to thousands of dollars of new business—and the potential for more work in the future—and accepted a fraction of the amount to do the actual work required. It was a major wake-up call, and I realized that my imposter syndrome wasn’t just holding me back, it was actively destroying my career.
The truth about imposter syndrome
“The interesting thing about imposter syndrome is that competency is required for it to exist,” explains Dr. Julie Gurner, a clinical psychologist and executive performance coach. “A person who truly isn’t qualified would be a ‘novice,’ and a real ‘imposter’ is someone who claims to know something or be something they are not. People who struggle with imposter syndrome are often experts who don’t believe fully in their own competence, even when the evidence for it is clear and abundant.”
Translation? The solution lies in the problem.
We feel a lack of confidence, but confidence has nothing to do with our feelings. It’s about our actions—our skills and experiences—and the risks we’re willing to take in order to grow. Countless experts agree that one of the easiest ways to build confidence is through practice, so when we discount ourselves we’re actually preventing ourselves from doing the thing we need to build confidence.
It’s a mental trap that keeps us stuck in an endless cycle of self-doubt because we want proof of something that can’t be proven without actually doing it. If I want to know that I’m good at golf but I’m too scared to play golf because I’m uncertain whether I’m actually good at golf, I’ll never be able to know anything about my skills or have the chance to use or improve them.
Rather than bolstering our careers, Dr. Gurner suggests that it’s this pursuit of perfection that is holding us back. Many people with imposter syndrome know they aren’t perfect or that they don’t have all of the answers, so they end up seeing that as “proof” that they’re not skilled or competent enough rather than seeing it for what it really is: that nobody is perfect and you don’t have to be.
“As a result, people who have imposter syndrome often don’t give themselves any leeway, and hold themselves to all-or-nothing in their thinking patterns,” explains Dr. Gurner. “Sadly, if they don’t think they can execute perfectly, it can keep them from taking on opportunities to showcase their clear expertise.”
How to combat imposter syndrome
My approach to dealing with imposter syndrome started by looking back at everything I’d accomplished throughout my life, and instead of viewing it as “proof” that I wasn’t an imposter I started looking for a common denominator. Why did I do these things but not others? After all, I had a pretty massive list of wins: I’d interviewed Julian Assange while I was in graduate school, I served as a citizen journalist at the 2012 NATO Summit after winning the international NATO iReps competition, I’d gone viral on almost every social media platform, I had two director-level marketing positions under my belt, I’d spoken at multiple conferences, all of my clients raved about my work—and these were only the things I accomplished under 30.
So what changed? It wasn’t that I didn’t feel like an imposter during those times—sitting in a Wikileaks press conference, surrounded by journalists from every major media outlet in the world, I definitely did. Instead, all of these experiences started with a single question, “Why not?”
Obviously, my brain could come up with a laundry list of reasons, but I tried to flip my perspective. If my options are to either 1) do nothing, with a 100% chance of not getting the thing I want or 2) do something, with a split chance of getting the thing I want versus not getting it, then why not take the path where I have at least the possibility of success?
“If you never put yourself out there, the world never gets to appreciate what you’ve got, and you never get to fully expand and see what you can do. Life becomes like looking through the window watching others accomplish something, often with less talent or skill, than you know you could have done yourself—all because they were bold enough to take the chance,” Dr. Gurner adds. “The truth is, the world benefits when people know what they’re good at—it’s how we all come to admire and appreciate the best minds, works, talents and innovations of our time. Someone took a shot to put it out themselves out there.”
It was this change in perspective that fueled my growth as I realized that risks are necessary to achieve almost anything. It might be a cliché, but you can’t win a game if you aren’t willing to play. For me, it took seeing that I wasn’t just not winning but actively losing—missing opportunities not only to make money but to gain valuable connections and experience—to realize this.
And once I did? I was able to start using my “why not” philosophy to gradually start taking risks again and build momentum as my confidence grew. I still experience imposter syndrome from time to time, but my goal isn’t to erase my self-doubt—it’s just about learning how to act in spite of it, rather than letting it control me and my future.
Photo by @Elisall/Twenty20