Imposter syndrome is a pervasive and often crippling belief that, despite appearing competent or even successful, you are actually a fraud, who is likely to be unmasked at any time to devastating effect.

I recently shared a link to a TED talk about imposter syndrome on social media, and was surprised by the response. It triggered a discussion about whether self-doubt is actually a good thing.

In fact, I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this because it depends what we mean by self-doubt.

More than self-doubt

However, what I understand by imposter syndrome goes a lot further than self-doubt. It’s a deep shameful belief that if everyone could really see the real you, they’d know that you were actually incompetent or even useless. And if you suffer from imposter syndrome you are living in fear of this happening.

Feeling this way has absolutely nothing to do with how competent you actually are. Some very high profile and successful people have admitted to feeling like a fraud. And thank goodness, because realising how many of us feel this way, at least from time to time, can really help. It isn’t just our shameful secret.

How to overcome imposter syndrome

So, how can you overcome imposter syndrome? Well, in my experience, both personal and working with others, the more you try and overcome or fight these kinds of negative thoughts and feelings, the bigger they seem to get. It isn’t about stopping the thoughts, but about learning not to take too much notice of them. They’re just thoughts, you don’t have to believe them.

This doesn’t mean that self-doubt can’t sometimes be a good thing. If you have made a mistake, great, you’ve got something you can learn from. Don’t buy into any accompanying feelings of shame or worthlessness, just learn the lesson and move on.

If you’ve realised you still have something to learn that’s also good. You can’t develop until you identify gaps in your knowledge or skills that need to be filled. So, get on and fill them.

But those poisonous shameful, fearful thoughts and feelings? You don’t need those. They are your lizard brain’s attempt to keep you safe by limiting you. But unless you want to go and live in a nice safe hole in the ground, you don’t actually need this kind of protection. So, notice the thoughts and feelings arising, but realise that you don’t actually have believe them.  

At first this feels hard. You’re so used to automatically believing everything your thoughts tell you. But it gets easier with practice, like developing an unused muscle. And the more you do this, the freer you are to have the confidence to share with the world all the brilliant things that you can do.