“You will always be looking over your shoulder waiting for somebody to call you out and say, ‘You’re a fraud, you’re an idiot.’ … I still start things and basically wait for somebody to go, ‘Wow! You really don’t know what you’re doing. You really suck.’”
It always comes across as a shock to hear expressions of self-doubt from individuals who are prominent in their fields. But for roughly 70 percent of the population, the worry that somebody will call you out for being a “fraud” is a persistent sensation, regardless of — or because of — how successful they become. It’s called impostor syndrome, and a number of individuals with public, validated successes have experienced it, including Michelle Obama, Neil Armstrong, and Edward Norton, who, in his Big Think Edge lesson, expressed the quote above.
Although it may overlap with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, studies have shown that impostor syndrome is its own separate construct. For many people, impostor syndrome wanes over time, but others aren’t so lucky. In these circumstances, it can introduce crippling self-doubts at the onset of every new venture.
When individuals with impostor syndrome try to tackle a new project, they have to handle two complementary fears. The first is the fear of success, which may propel them to new and seemingly underserved positions. The second is the fear of failure, which will expose their perceived incompetence to others, revealing themselves to really be the impostor they’re afraid of being. Because of this, individuals with impostor syndrome often avoid opportunities or even handicap themselves. Thus, facing impostor syndrome takes no small amount of courage.
Learn to reframe your thinking
Fortunately for those prone to impostor syndrome, it’s not an inescapable feeling. Experts have identified some ways of dealing with the sense of being a fraud. It can be helpful to reach out to others and talk about your experience. Reframing your thinking is another powerful tool — consider how failure can be an opportunity, rather than a terrible disaster; how you’ve experienced success in the past; or the fact that you do have talents that should be rewarded.
But perhaps the best way to manage impostor syndrome is to recognize what thoughts are related to the syndrome, such as the idea of being a fraud, of being incompetent, or that luck is the only reason you’ve gotten to where you are. By acknowledging these thoughts when they arise, you can more readily follow Norton’s advice and embrace the fear that comes with starting a new venture.