After 10 years of working in the mental health industry, 5 years of studying, and 18 months of writing and rewriting, I’m in the final stages of earning my doctoral degree in clinical psychology. Yet, despite all of my hard work, I am experiencing a lot of Imposter Syndrome. I find myself thinking that I’m going to get “found out” and discovered to not be smart or deserving of this degree. It may surprise you to learn that even though I am a behavioral health coach and I help people work through Imposter Syndrome every day, I am still always doing my own work to keep from getting stuck in the imposter mindset myself.
As my colleague, Kali Fields Williams, recently wrote on this topic,
“Imposter Syndrome is the belief or mindset that your achievements haven’t been genuinely earned by skill or talent, but are instead the result of luck, manipulation, or just working harder than others.”
Often I can tell when a person I’m coaching is getting stuck in this mindset. The first complaint that I’ll hear is that they’re feeling “burned out.” The experience of feeling stressed will then start to become a habit that impedes other areas of their life, making it hard for them to feel like they’re doing anything well. I will notice certain common phrases, like “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m just not fit for my job.” When I see this, I’ll start to talk with the person about what Imposter Syndrome is and make a plan to begin working through the steps below.
Every one of these steps is meant to help people shift from an imposter mindset to a mindset of “self-validation.” This is because even the most successful people suffer from feeling like a fraud. There’s no amount of external awards, promotions, or achievements that will replace the value that you put on yourself — self-empowerment is the key to overcoming Imposter Syndrome.
With many of the people that I coach, I help them overcome negative self-talk, like feeling like you’re not “good enough,” by building what I call an “Accomplishment Log.” I ask them to get in the habit of making a list at the end of each workday, either as they’re leaving the office or getting home, of the things that went well that day or week. The point of this exercise is to switch the focus from what’s going wrong to what’s going well. This practice helps to affirm why you do belong and what you’re good at. It can be easy to focus on mistakes, especially if you want to improve. But there’s just as much to learn from what you’re doing well and, in truth, one could argue that understanding your strengths is just as critical.
Finding opportunities to train and mentor others is another way to overcome Imposter Syndrome. Taking the opportunity to pass on what you’ve learned to someone who is just beginning can surface all of the strengths, skills, and learnings you’ve earned. When people try this tactic they are reminded of what it was like when they first started and how many skills they developed along the way to get where they are now. Additionally, helping others is an effective way to boost your own self-esteem and sense of value. It’s very rewarding to help a friend, colleague, or mentee succeed at learning something new.
Just as mentoring someone else can help you overcome feelings of fraudulence, finding a mentor yourself can also help. I’ve found at multiple stages in my career that it’s helped to hear from supervisors and advisors how they have handled mistakes or self-doubt. Talking to a person that you respect about how at one point in their life they were also experiencing those same thoughts can help to normalize the stress you may be feeling. Everyone makes mistakes because that’s the best way to learn, so you might be surprised to find out that your mentors and personal heroes have probably made many along the way.
Imposter Syndrome is extremely challenging to experience on your own. It can be isolating to feel like you’re a fraud or like you’re the only one struggling and these thoughts can prevent you from reaching out to a trusted friend or mentor to talk. For this reason, I highly recommend looking into regular behavioral health coaching or therapy. A coach can help you prevent getting burned out by Imposter Syndrome and help you build skills to use in the future if you feel self-doubt starting to surface again. With people who are closer to burnout or are already feeling burned out, I suggest working with a therapist as well. While it can be hard to reach out for help, I always remind the people I work with that even superheroes call on their sidekicks when they need help with a tricky situation.
It’s important for your mental health to feel like you belong — at work, at school, and in your personal relationships. Try these tactics when you feel that sense of fraudulence or isolation start to come up, or reach out to a coach, trusted friend, or mentor. Because you do belong and you have worked hard to get where you are today.