My first thought when I got accepted to the University of Michigan Law School was that I was finally on my way to a long and stable career as an attorney.

(Spoiler alert: things would turn out to be way more unstable than I thought.)

My second thought was that someone had made a mistake.

By the time I arrived at orientation in the fall, I was convinced.

While my peers had fought tooth and nail to get into Michigan, I had applied to law school because it seemed like a safe next step. While my classmates had done legal internships and NGO rotations to beef up their applications, I had taken the LSAT at the eleventh hour. Even the decision to apply was a fluke. “You like to argue. You should become a lawyer,” said my aunt, whose strongest connection to the legal industry was watching reruns of Judge Judy on Saturday mornings. That was literally the extent of my career strategy.

So there was no way I actually deserved to be there. I had fooled everyone, I thought. Someone made a mistake. How else could someone like me end up with all of these high performers at one of the best law schools in the country?

Those thoughts — and the feelings of fraudulence, anxiety, and self-doubt that came with them — followed me throughout my first year of law school.

They resurfaced when I landed a job on Wall Street after graduation, a job I basically talked my way into at the last minute.

They returned once again when I first began hosting a podcast with little more than the ability to plug in a microphone.

And they reared their head again, maybe stronger than ever, when I started my own company from scratch earlier this year, and found myself wondering whether I really had what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

What I was wrestling with, of course, is imposter syndrome.

It’s an experience we all have at different points in our lives, one that can rob us of our confidence, our security, and our very sense of self.

If we fail to work through it properly, then we walk through life feeling like strangers, liars, and scam artists. If we learn how to process it the right way, then we can work through our insecurity and self-doubt, and embrace our achievements in a way that makes life a lot more fun, connected, and fulfilling.

But in order to do that, we need to understand how this strange experience actually works.

The Science of Imposter Syndrome

Whenever I give a talk at a company or university, I like to ask how many people in the audience feel that they actually don’t belong there — that they somehow slipped through the cracks.

Without fail, almost every single person in the room raises their hand, and I’m reminded that this feeling of “cheating” the system, of being “found out,” is a secret we all share.

“What’s talent but the ability to get away with something?” asked the playwright Tennessee Williams. (You know, one of the greatest playwrights in human history. But did he think he was? Clearly not.)

And if you asked most people, they’d probably confess to thinking about their abilities in the same way. That what the world calls “skill” or “accomplishment” is really just “forgery” and “good luck.”

In 1978, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term “imposter syndrome” to describe the experience of being unable to internalize accomplishments and feeling a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”

This state, they explained, made us feel disconnected from our own talents, abilities, and achievements. It also created an anxiety — sometimes even a straight-up paranoia — that the world will eventually figure out that we’ve lied, cheated, or finagled our way through life.

People who experience these feelings of fraudulence tend to believe that they haven’t truly earned the success they’ve had, often despite clear evidence of their intelligence and capability.

Instead, they attribute their success to luck, random chance, or the ability to trick people into believing they’re more competent than they actually are.

And the really fascinating thing? Everyone has this experience at some point or another.

Imposter syndrome — also known as the “imposter experience” or the “imposter phenomenon” — visits people from all walks of life. Multiple studies have shown that impostorism affects both genders, and occurs in people from all professions, cultures, and levels of success.

There’s also a close relationship between imposter syndrome and mental health. John Kolligian Jr. and Robert J. Sternberg, for example, point out that people who wrestle with imposter syndrome also tend to exhibit depressive tendencies, self-criticism, and achievement pressures (ding ding ding!). Other researchers have confirmed a correlation between impostorism and depression, and point to the links between impostorism and perfectionism, distress, and anxiety.

What’s more, Clance later found that about 70% of all people have felt like impostors for at least some part of their careers.

So it’s no surprise that everyone from Tom Hanks to Sonia Sotomayor, Emma Watson to yours truly, has wrestled with the imposter experience at some point or another.

(And yes, I feel like a fraud for just including myself in that group of luminaries. But in my defense, impostorism is pretty much all we share. Or do we actually have a lot in common, and this is just my imposter syndrome talking? Does this weird loop ever end?)

Meanwhile, other researchers concluded that anyone can feel like an imposter if they fail to internalize their success — even if they’re objectively successful.

That’s an important distinction, because there is a key difference between imposter syndrome and true fraudulence.

True Fraudulence vs. Imposter Syndrome

True fraudulence and imposter syndrome are often treated as the same thing, because they share similar underlying feelings of forgery and exposure.

But there are crucial differences between these two experiences, and we have to understand them to make sure we’re attacking this problem the right way.

As we’ve seen, imposter syndrome refers to feelings of fraudulence that are not tied to an accurate understanding of our own competence. When we fail to internalize our talent and achievements, then we mistakenly believe that we haven’t organically earned our success.

It’s this miscalibrated relationship to ourselves that causes the feelings of fraudulence. We feel like imposters, but we’re not.

True fraudulence is a different beast.

True fraudulence arises when there is an objective gap between our ability and our success —  when our accomplishments can only be explained by luck, chance, nepotism, or manipulation.

In that scenario, no amount of introspection or calibration will make the feelings going away completely. The fraud is real. The fear of being found out could actually come true. We really are imposters.

Most people wrestling with true fraudulence tend to suppress those feelings when they arise, because they are based on a painfully accurate assessment of their own value. Of course, some people do this so well that their fraudulence doesn’t even seem to hold them back. If you’ve ever worked at a family-owned company, an organization overrun with fancy MBAs, or any system that overvalues privilege and politics, then you know exactly how effective that coping mechanism can be.

Recognizing our own true fraudulence when it arises is essential.

When we’re true imposters, then we know it’s time to bridge the gap between our ability and our success. We can work harder, learn new skills, build bridges, seek out growth opportunities, and navigate our fraudulence with discipline, humility, and a genuine desire to improve. We can overcome the fraudulence by putting in the work to no longer be frauds. We can embrace our insecurity, and put in the hours to overcome it. That’s good self-development, and it’s key.

Of course, it’s possible to experience both true fraudulence and impostor syndrome at the same time.

Casey, one of our recent clients, recently found himself dealing with exactly that one-two punch after he was promoted to a management position in his company. After three years of a killer streak as a salesman, he suddenly found himself with wildly different responsibilities in charge of an entire sales team. Whereas before he was only responsible for making personal sales targets, interfacing with clients, and managing accounts, now he was responsible for meeting departmental targets, reviewing entire account rosters, and managing his team.

Suddenly, he felt like a fraud. What did he know about leadership? Did being a good salesperson mean he deserved this promotion? Was he really a good enough salesperson to guide an entire department?

In our sessions, we helped Casey tease out his true fraudulence from his imposter experience.

On the one hand, there were objective gaps between what he had done and what he was now in charge of at his company — things like performance psychology, KPI tracking, strategy development, and project management. These were skills Casey knew he needed but didn’t have. In other words, they were legitimate sources of anxiety and fear.

On the other hand, there were feelings he had about his own value and security — like doubting whether he deserved a promotion, questioning his authority, and discounting his ability to grow into the new role.

Once Casey had a grasp of the sources of his fraudulence, he was in a much better position to develop a plan to work through them.

To address the gaps in his expertise, he created a psychology reading list, signed up for a project management certification course, read sales strategy case studies, and sought out informal mentoring from other department heads.

Almost immediately, his fraudulence waned. With a game plan and some mental reframing, he no longer thought of himself as a imposter playing the role of manager, but as an experienced salesman learning how to become a manager. That’s a classic example of recognizing true fraudulence and putting in the good old fashioned work to address it.

As for Casey’s imposter syndrome, we explored all of the beliefs and mechanisms contributing to the feeling that he didn’t truly belong. That is a more subtle and ongoing process, and that’s what we’re primarily focusing on in the rest of this article.

Causes of Imposter Syndrome

The irony of imposter syndrome is that it often affects the very people who should suffer from it the least.

High performers, ambitious professionals, dedicated creatives — people who know what it means to be great, and put in the hard work to get there — often feel the least secure in their accomplishments.

Why is that?

Why does the imposter experience visit people who are hardly imposters?

The best explanation comes from Clance and Imes, who explained imposter syndrome in terms of three central behaviors. Interestingly, these behaviors are actually designed to avoid impostorism. But when we adopt them, they actually end up reinforcing it.

Diligence and hard work.

Typically, the fear of being “found out” by someone important — a boss, a teacher, a client — causes the “imposter” to work even harder. The imposter puts in longer hours, studies harder, and obsesses over the quality of their work — exactly my strategy at Michigan Law — which results in much-desired approval from authorities.

That accomplishment then validates the imposter and delivers some temporary relief from the feelings of fraudulence. After all, how can they really be an imposter if they’re putting in the hours? How can they be frauds if they’re earning recognition?

But the accomplishment doesn’t really do the trick, because it usually feels like a hollow victory over those authority figures — yet another instance of pulling the wool over their eyes. Once the positive feelings wear off, the underlying sense of fraudulence remains, often stronger than it was before.

And so the hard work that was supposed to defeat impostorism actually ends up perpetuating it. This catch-22 is why many high performers never break out of the cycle of impostorism, no matter how hard they work.

What’s so frustrating is that hard work is often the only tool they have to compensate for their perceived fraudulence. But the solution just recreates the problem.

Compensation and inauthenticity.

To avoid feelings of fraudulence, many “imposters” will work to game the system around their perceived weaknesses by finding other ways to satisfy authority figures.

For example, an employee wrestling with impostorism might figure out the opinions their boss likes to hear, then express those opinions in meetings to earn additional validation. As researchers point out, this can also work in a more subtle way: the employee might hold back on opinions they know their boss won’t like in order to keep the boss happy.

Either way, they’re compensating for their fraudulence by finding other ways to please the powers that be. If they can’t be perfectly competent, the thinking goes, then at least they can be liked, needed, respected, or appreciated in other ways — even if those ways are inauthentic.

(By the way, this is super useful for founders and managers to understand, since they hire top performers who tend to be preoccupied with their own value. When employees experience imposter syndrome, they often engage in this kind of self-censorship, politicking, and homogeneity of ideas — precisely the behaviors that work against a healthy organization. And all because they’re wrestling with their own feelings of fraudulence!)

When people engage in inauthentic behavior, their perceived fraudulence often becomes real fraudulence.

As the imposter compromises their authentic experience (their true opinions, feelings, preferences, reactions) out of fear of being evaluated poorly, they start to believe that they really do need the false self they were trying so hard to shake. Without that false self, they’d be exposed, criticized, seen. As painful as the fraudulence is, authenticity seems even worse.

And just like that, we’re back to the catch-22.

The use of observation, interest and charm.

Another common strategy among “imposters” is to focus on using charisma and perceptiveness to win the good graces of authority figures.

This behavior might be a way to earn someone’s personal affection or loyalty outside of the work in question, or to be recognized as “special” in some way.

For example, an employee wrestling with imposter syndrome might seek out responsibilities beyond their immediate role (“What else can I do?” “How can I become indispensable to you?” “How can I do my work in a way that makes you happiest?”), or take an extra interest in their boss’s personal lives (“How was Sophie’s soccer game?” “Did Chris like the concert Saturday?” “Let me finish this up; you probably want to get home to your family.”)

Of course, these behaviors can be perfectly productive and healthy, but when they’re motivated by the imposter’s need to compensate for perceived weaknesses, they often end up deepening the underlying feelings of fraudulence.

For one thing, if the authority figure does believe that the imposter is special, the imposter will still have a hard time believing it, because that specialness is based not on their competence but on their personal attributes. (“Does he like me for my work, or because I always ask about Sophie?” “If I stop taking an interest in her life, would she still find me valuable?”)

At the same time, the imposter believes that if they were truly competent, then they wouldn’t need someone else’s approval in the first place.

Which, of course, becomes even more evidence that they’re actually a fraud!

So this is really tricky. When it comes to impostorism, it almost seems that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Either you accept that you’re an imposter and let the fraudulence cripple you, or you find ways to combat the fraudulence, which only makes it worse. It’s a paradox that most people never break out of.

Interestingly, people with a high EQ and strong social skills often fall into these patterns the most. Because they have more empathy and are adept at understanding and communicating, they tend to find all sorts of clever ways to cope with the imposter experience.

But the same techniques they use to avoid feeling like an imposter only perpetuate the underlying feeling that they really are frauds at heart, and will be found out at any moment. Their strength for understanding others ends up becoming their fatal flaw.

This was definitely true for me. When I realized I wouldn’t be the most brilliant attorney in the room, I chose to help the partners close new business. When I realized I couldn’t outcompete my fellow associates at my law firm, I decided to focus on satisfying our clients’ needs instead.

The better I became at reading people, the more I wanted to satisfy their needs and interests. The more validation I received as a result, the more I pegged my value to my ability to read them, and the less I recognized my actual accomplishments. And so the feeling that I didn’t really belong in the legal world only got worse, despite how hard I was working to secure my place within it.

Is there any way out of that paradox?

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Decades of research have shown that there is no single “cure” for impostorism. It’s an experience that tends to creep up at various points in our lives, in varying degrees and in different ways, especially as we learn, grow, and change. Rather than trying to defeat it, I find it more helpful to embrace it, understand it, and learn how to resolve it in a healthy way, by exploring the beliefs, patterns and behaviors that comprise it.

That process begins, as most things do, with self-awareness.

Recognize impostorism when it arises.

Imposter syndrome is most damaging when we don’t even know it’s there. When we suppress our feelings of fraudulence — a very common coping mechanism, since they’re no fun to experience — we keep them in a vague, blurry mess in our psyche. That allows them to fester beneath the surface of our consciousness, and subtly dictate how we navigate the world.

So the first step is recognizing impostorism when it arises. That really means two things.

First, differentiating impostor syndrome from true fraudulence.

When we see true fraudulence in ourselves, the only solution is to put in the work to bring the gap and address its underlying sources. In other words, we just have to become better, like Casey did when he got the promotion.

Second, acknowledging when we are having the imposter experience, and accepting all of the thoughts and feelings that accompany it.

When we sense a gap between our achievements and our sense of self, then we can be sure we’re dealing with something more than true fraudulence.

Once we acknowledge that we’re not feeling as competent, intelligent, or accomplished as we are, we immediately embrace the parts of ourselves that we’d rather not acknowledge — the same parts that make us believe we need a false self in the first place. That sets us up to let go of the imposter identity that’s causing most of the trouble.

When we doubt, we pretend. When we pretend, we invent. When we invent, we suffer.

But when we accept, we just are. We don’t need the false self, because we’re no longer trying to compensate for what we’re not. And if we’re not trying to compensate, then it’s much harder to feel like an imposter.

Know that impostorism will arise from time to time.

As we’ve discussed, impostorism often visits those who should suffer from it the least. That’s because those who appreciate the importance of ability and hard work often doubt that they have enough of them to really succeed. Behind every story of success is a struggle with imposter syndrome somewhere along the way.

High performers also suffer from impostorism because they chase — and often achieve — ambitious goals.

Whenever they reach a new level of success — a promotion, enhanced responsibilities, bigger projects, accolades, power — there’s a natural gap that opens up between their ability and their position. In that gap, feelings of fraudulence creep in. It’s almost as if they have to be imposters in order to advance in their careers. If they weren’t, would they take the risk of pursuing new opportunities, of pushing themselves beyond their abilities?

But our achievements don’t always unfold in lockstep with our capabilities.

Oftentimes, our achievements are a few steps ahead, and we have to catch our competence up to them — just as Casey did when he got promoted.

Knowing that feelings of fraudulence can creep in when we advance in our careers makes it easier to cope with them. It also tells us that we’re on the right track. We’re growing, achieving and pushing past our previous limitations, and opening up new opportunities to evolve. This kind of impostorism is not a personal failing. It’s a byproduct of success.

Discuss your experience with other people.

For many people, the imposter experience is quite shameful. The more successful you are, the more likely you are to have felt some degree of fraudulence, and the less likely you are to admit to it. That’s why impostorism has become the secret we all share. We’re afraid of what it would mean — and how people would perceive us — if we actually copped to it.

I’m convinced that life would be much better if we did cop to it. The shame we feel around impostorism is directly correlated to how willing we are to discuss it.

When we don’t talk about it, impostorism feels like a private struggle, a personal weakness, and an embarrassing flaw. When we do talk about it, we realize that everyone deals with impostorism, that it’s actually a universal feature of the human mind. Impostorism is hard enough without feeling like we’re also alone in the experience. That’s why we have to choose to discuss it with other people more openly.

By opening up about imposter syndrome, I also get to hear how other people cope with the experience. Their tools become my tools, their lessons become my lessons. At the same time, I’m usually reminded that my sense of impostorism is not entirely accurate. The people who know me best are able to reflect my capabilities back to me in a way that reconnects me to my achievements. They remind me what I’m good at, what I’ve accomplished, where I excel, and I do the same for them. Armed with that data, we build a more realistic relationship to our own abilities, and the inaccurate fraudulence starts to evaporate.

That perspective — knowing you’re not alone, learning from other people, and getting a better view of yourself — is one of the best ways I’ve found to reduce the anxiety of imposter syndrome.

But it requires that we open up about it. We have to decide to not feel like imposters alone, but imposters together. That way, we can learn to become authentically connected to our achievements through our tribe.

Reframe your beliefs.

Imposter syndrome tends to visit people when they hold two (very common) beliefs.

The first belief is that they should be “more” — more talented, more accomplished, more confident, more attractive, more connected — than they are at this moment.

The second belief is that they shouldn’t struggle as much as they do.

When we believe both of those thoughts at the same time, we create ideal conditions for impostorism to take root.

Why?

Because if we believe that we need to be more than we are at this moment, then the easiest solution is to create a false self that appears to be “more.”

That false self can only be built on a foundation of pretense, which is the architecture of impostorism. We pretend to be what we know deep down we’re not, and suddenly we’re looking over our shoulder, wondering when people will figure it out.

At the same time, if we believe that we shouldn’t struggle too much — if we avoid the discomfort of working, trying, failing, and picking ourselves back up — then we’ll start to find clever ways to avoid that process.

Once again, the easiest way is to construct a false self that has already “figured it all out” — that already knows everything we want to know, that can already do everything we want to do — and therefore doesn’t need to struggle much at all.

Refusing to accept ourselves as we are while simultaneously avoiding the struggle of self-improvement is a perfect recipe for impostorism.

On the other hand, meeting ourselves where we are at this moment while embracing the fact that we do need to work hard and struggle — that is a recipe for authenticity, humility, groundedness, and healthy self-development.

So when you notice impostorism creeping up, take a moment and investigate these two beliefs.

When you feel like a fraud, are you hanging onto a belief that you should be more than you are right now?

To put it another way, are you hanging onto a belief that who you are right now is bad, wrong, shameful, or “not enough?”

At the same time, are you operating under the assumption that you shouldn’t struggle, feel confused, or appear weak?

Are you inventing a false self to avoid the discomfort of self-development?

If so, then you can consciously reframe these two beliefs, and see how your experience changes.

Explore the idea that you should be who you are at this moment — that maybe you shouldn’t be more than you are right now. Is that belief just as true? Does it serve you better?

At the same time, try working with the belief that you should struggle — that maybe things shouldn’t be easier — and you might just find that the discomfort of having to grow is what you need right now.

Why construct a false self when those beliefs work so much better?

When you find yourself feeling like an imposter, I’d be willing to bet that one or both of these beliefs are at work. Reframe the belief, and you’ll begin to rewrite the larger experience. Investigate the thoughts that give rise to that fraudulent self, and you’ll find that the fraudulent self becomes less and less necessary.

As we’ve seen, the imposter experience gets stronger when we compensate for our perceived weaknesses by gaining approval through other means. Being kinder to ourselves about those weaknesses — the true ones as well as the merely perceived ones — is one of the most powerful ways of reducing feelings of fraudulence. And being kinder really just means exploring the beliefs that serve our self-development best.

Develop an internal sense of self-worth.

Impostorism thrives when we overvalue what other people think of us.

When we work primarily to satisfy other people’s opinions, we tend to construct an identity that best suits them — the fraudulent self.

When we work to satisfy our own self-opinions, we cultivate an authentic sense of self.

That’s why an internal sense of self-worth is so important. If we stay connected primarily to what we value most, it’s much less tempting to create a fraudulent mask that can satisfy what other people value at the expense of our own identity.

The first step in developing an internal sense of self worth is to simply notice when and how much we care what other people think of us.

Do we take other people’s praise, validation, or criticism more seriously than our own? Do we listen to other people’s opinions over our inner voice? Does how we feel about ourselves depend mostly on how other people feel? How do we behave when we care that much about those opinions?

The more aware we become of these needs, the more aware we become of the fraudulence we create in order to satisfy them.

The second step is to calibrate our sources of evaluation.

When I look back at my time in the legal world, it’s pretty hilarious how much stock I put in other people’s opinions.

I didn’t strive to be the perfect law student, but for a couple years, it really mattered how my peers thought about me — or, rather, what I thought about what they thought about me. I had unconsciously prioritized their evaluation over my own, and was happy to develop a false self in order to secure it. (Nevermind that they were probably absorbed in my evaluation of them, and dealing with some pretty gnarly impostorism of their own. Oh, humans.)

Of course, approval will always have a hold on us — that’s just human nature — but it’s our job to consciously prioritize our own opinions first. When we don’t, we end up pegging our sense of self-worth to people in positions of authority, even if it means sacrificing our authentic selves. Once we put those sources of approval into perspective, it becomes much less enticing to create a false self in order to win it.

To be clear, I’m not saying we need to become completely indifferent to other people’s opinions in order to be ourselves. We don’t need to be sociopaths or narcissists in order to avoid the imposter experience.

We just need to understand our priorities. If we place our internal sense of self-worth above an external one, then we stay connected to our authentic selves while still taking in other people’s feedback, opinions, and needs. That way, we keep a foot in both worlds — another powerful way to combat the fraudulence of living exclusively in one or the other.

Finally, take some time to consider how your sense of self-worth has developed up until this point.

Was your locus of evaluation always external? Was there a time when it felt more internal, but shifted? Were you encouraged by authority figures to seek their approval before your own? Do you work in a system that expects and rewards a certain degree of fraudulence? (Spoiler alert: most people do!)

Our childhoods and family backgrounds play a huge role in seeking approval. Consider the authority figures who instilled in you a need to please — namely parents, but also siblings, relatives, teachers, bosses — and notice how those early templates have contributed to your false sense of self. These are the psychological roots of impostorism.

The science bears this out. One team of researchers, for example, studied the links between parenting styles and imposter syndrome, and found that both lack of parental care and parental overprotection were linked with higher impostor scores. In other words, being neglected and being coddled both contribute to impostorism — probably in order to play the role that will best secure the love and attention we desperately need as children.

Other researchers found that family expectations around intelligence and competence profoundly affect imposters, who tend to develop a strong need to please. That need to please might cause children to change their behavior in order to win validation from their parents, creating a false self that carries over into adulthood as insecurity, which high achievers then experience as feelings of fraudulence.

Once you see that you were encouraged to win validation from a young age — as so many of us are — it becomes much easier to notice the false self that’s designed to secure it.

You can then choose, moment to moment, to drop that false self. What’s left is the authentic identity that was being masked by the imposter. And that authentic self is ultimately far more effective at earning true validation and building meaningful relationships.

Notice your tendency to self-compare.

Imposter syndrome has magnified significantly in the last 10 years, largely due to the acceleration of technology. We all know the impact that social media has on our mental health, but it plays an especially powerful role in the imposter experience.

When feelings of fraudulence appear, check in and ask yourself how much you’re comparing yourself to other people.

Are you hoping to be as — as fit, as wealthy, as well-traveled — as the people in your news feed?

Are you trying to be more — more effective, more successful, more glamorous — than the people in your timeline?

If so, have you constructed a false self — either online or in person — to create the perception that you are as or more than they are?

Just as there’s a relationship between impostorism and approval, there’s also a relationship between impostorism and comparison.

Notice that when you feel like an imposter, you’re often comparing your blooper reel to someone else’s highlight reel. When you compare your “insides” (feelings, thoughts, experiences) to other people’s “outsides” (curated feeds, polished photos, branding), you’re setting yourself up for the feelings of inadequacy that give birth to a fraudulent self.

Ironically, you’re also probably comparing yourself to someone who is doing the exact same thing (possibly even to you!). The fact that we don’t openly discuss impostorism makes it hard to see that everyone is engaging in the same obsessive self-comparison. That is the insane hall of mirrors that is modern technology, and once you see it for what it is, it’s much harder to buy into.

So notice this particular habit, and consciously choose not to engage in it more than is necessary. Instead, work on comparing yourself to yourself.

Are you better than you were six months ago? Are you happier than you were a year ago? Are you evolving according to your own standards and goals? As we discussed a moment ago, this internal sense of self worth is the foundation of an authentic identity.

When you ask yourself those questions on a regular basis, you strengthen your relationship with your own achievements. Looking outward erodes our connection to our own stories, creating a kind of amnesia about our achievements and making us feel like frauds. Looking inward fosters that connection, reviving the crucial link between our identities and our competence — which makes it much harder to fall prey to imposter syndrome.

Commit to authenticity.

All of the principles we’ve been discussing will help resolve the anxiety and fear that make imposter syndrome so crippling.

By rewriting the patterns that underlie impostorism, you can actually use those feelings of fraudulence to become better — precisely what the false self was trying, but failing, to do for you.

But at the end of the day, there’s only one principle that will cut through the fraudulence that holds us back: the decision to simply be yourself.

When we commit to living, thinking, and behaving authentically, we set aside the false self that underpins imposter syndrome, and we engage with the world as the people we really are. We stop pretending, and start showing up; stop hiding, and start revealing; stop avoiding, and start confronting. As soon as we set that false self aside, we can actually work on the vulnerabilities that the imposter identity was trying to hide.

What that means in practice is showing up — in our lives, in our careers, in our relationships — as the people we are right now.

We can drop the need to pretend to be more competent than we are, and work with the ability we do have to become better. We can stop trying to earn the validation of other people, and choose to prioritize our own standards and opinions. We can stop suppressing our feelings of  fraudulence, and discuss them openly with our friends and colleagues.

Every moment offers a new opportunity to behave a little more honestly, a little more organically. As you commit to that process, you’ll find less and less need for the fraudulent self to begin with. Why be an imposter when you can own who you are? Why bridge the gap when you can simply live in it? Why pretend when you can become?

At the end of the day, the answer to impostorism isn’t a concept but a practice. That practice is called authenticity, and it’s the ongoing commitment to remember and reengage with who we truly are, in the most authentic sense of the term. Over time, we rediscover something we forgot a long time ago: that who we really are is all we never really needed.

[Featured image by Tom Barrett]


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