What Is Imposter Syndrome, and How Can We Overcome It?

Published on September 24, 2021

Woman looking in the mirror giving herself a pep talk

“It’s only a matter of time before they realize I’m not cut out for this position and fire me.”
“I don’t deserve this award — it must have been a mistake.”
“I feel like I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar to you? If so, you may be dealing with a classic case of imposter syndrome, a phenomenon defined as the “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in individuals who are highly successful but unable to internalize their success.”

What Is Imposter Syndrome Exactly?

In other words, despite the achievements and success you’ve had in your career, you still fear others calling you out for being a fake or not deserving of the accolades you’ve received. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone — it’s been estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one run-in with imposter syndrome in their lifetime, which means it’s a fairly common mental trap.

Vera Cheng, a registered social worker and psychotherapist at the Healing Collective in Toronto, says many of her clients have experienced imposter syndrome at work or at some point during their career.

“These people put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect and do well,” Cheng says. “It can stem from childhood if their parents pressured them to do well in school or compared them to other kids or their siblings. As adults, they don’t want others to perceive them as incompetent.”

How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome 

Cheng says some of the clients she’s worked with have internalized a belief system that reinforces the idea that they’re not good enough, causing them to downplay their expertise at work. She offered a few steps people can take to prevent imposter syndrome from interfering with career success and more importantly, their peace of mind and happiness:

1. Identify the Root of the Problem

If one of her clients is experiencing imposter syndrome, Cheng first recommends getting to the root of the problem to determine the best path forward.

“One thing I challenge them to do is figure out the underlying patterns, the history, and where the belief system is coming from,” she says. “I help them to acknowledge the feelings and thought processes that have led them to this specific problem.”

Woman walking in a park surrounded by greenery

2. Focus On Your Strengths 

Next, Cheng helps her clients by asking them to validate their own strengths and confirm the things they know they’re good at. This helps to build confidence and challenge the thoughts and feelings telling them they’re not good enough.

Woman sitting comfortably on her living room rug typing on her laptop

3. Try Mirror Work To Help With Imposter Syndrome  

Originally popularized by self-love guru Louise Hay in the 1980s, mirror work is still a valid technique for increasing confidence and combatting low self-esteem. Cheng works with her clients to come up with affirmations they can recite in front of the mirror twice a day for five to 10 minutes.

“It’s important that they repeat the affirmations daily, so they are able to believe in them,” Cheng says. “The affirmation could be focused on their strengths like things they have achieved in life, or something as simple as, ‘I’m a good friend because I’m always there for my friends,’ or ‘I’m a good listener.’ The important thing is that you have examples to back up your affirmation so you can believe in it.”

Cheng also recommends writing affirmations on sticky notes and placing them somewhere visible at work like on the side of your computer or your bulletin board, so you can be reminded of your strengths throughout the day.

Woman looking into a mirror

4. Practice Mindfulness

For situations that feel more pressing in the moment, like when you’re about to give a big presentation in front of dozens of colleagues, and the self-doubt is creeping in, Cheng recommends practicing mindfulness-based exercises. She suggests trying to stay present in the moment and take note of any bodily sensations you’re feeling without judgment.

“Slow down, take a deep breath and come up with some sort of affirmation you can repeat to yourself silently,” Cheng says.

You could also try structured mindfulness exercises, like sitting meditation and walking meditation.  

Woman sitting with her eyes closed practicing mindfulness

5. Avoid Comparison  

Finally, Cheng recommends steering clear of comparing yourself to other people because everyone has different experiences, strengths and skills. She notes it’s important to focus on your own best skills and expertise, not those of your colleagues or friends.

“I think it’s important to not be hard on yourself because we all want to do well and be ‘perfect’ but sometimes you have to ask yourself, ‘What is perfect?’ There is no perfect,” Cheng says.

Woman sitting at her desk working on the computer looking determined

Cheers to self-compassion 🥂! For more mental wellness tips, find out how a mental wellness practice like meditation could change your life.

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The Author
Mackenzie Patterson is a Toronto-based writer and journalist. She enjoys long walks, iced coffee on tap, and discovering all the latest and greatest health and wellness trends.