How high achievers can overcome imposter syndrome

Feeling you don’t belong at the top? You’re not alone: Up to 80 percent of high achievers suffer imposter syndrome. Here’s how to stop it holding you back.

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When I received your email, my impostor syndrome went through the roof,” Lisa Ventura, multi-award-winning cybersecurity professional and founder of the UK Cyber Security Association, wrote on LinkedIn. “I thought it must have been meant for someone else and not me!”

My email was about her inclusion in SC Magazine’s 2021 Women of Influence list. To an outsider, her response seemed absurd. Ventura had written two books on security in 2020 alone, all while caring for her father, who has an autoimmune disease.

First recognized in 1978, John Kolligian Jr. and Robert J. Sternberg described imposter syndrome as affecting “high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor.”

Imposter syndrome is more common than you’d think

A 2020 systematic review of 62 studies covering some 14,000 participants found 9 to 82 percent of people experience imposter syndrome. For historically marginalized people, like women, Black, indigenous and other people of color, prevalence seems to be at the higher end of the scale.

Kim-adele Platts, a coach who works with C-suite (senior) executives across industries, says, “What’s surprised me is not only how many people suffer from it, but who those people are.”

She was amazed to find the number of people she knew who had these feelings. “These were people I aspired to be like who appeared to have great confidence. It made me realize I wasn’t alone – we don’t know what inner demons others face,” she says.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg discussed her imposter syndrome in her bestselling book, Lean In. Every time she excelled at work, she thought she had “fooled everyone yet again” and that “one day soon, the jig would be up.”

This year, Ventura, Platts and entrepreneurship advisor Nat Schooler launched Imposter Syndrome Awareness Day to highlight the problem and provide help and resources to those who suffer it. Here’s some of their advice.

Challenge your critical inner voice

If your inner voice tells you things like, “I’m no good at public speaking,” ask yourself, “Are there any times when I’ve been good at it?”

Kim-adele Platts, C-suite coach

“Your subconscious will find those examples too – then you can use them to give yourself the kind of advice you’d give others. “I am not enough” is just one of the lies we tell ourselves.”

“Negative self-talk is a bad habit, and it can heavily influence our stress and anxiety levels,” says Ventura. The trick is to be kind to yourself, always challenge negative thoughts and add positive thoughts for balance. “Psychologists have found that repeating affirmations, like “I always work hard,” can reduce stress and anxiety. Perhaps it’s because these positive statements build a bridge into your subconscious mind,” she says.

Start a success log

Ventura recommends starting a physical journal, document or spreadsheet to log all your successes, achievements and goals. Hers includes photos and inspiring quotes. “When my impostor syndrome creeps in, I look through my success log and focus on what I’ve achieved,” she says.

Ventura also thinks rewarding yourself for success helps. “It doesn’t have to be with high-cost items,” she says. “I reward myself with little things like watching a film I like, listening to my favorite music or eating favorite foods – anything salted caramel-related goes down well.”

Avoid comparing yourself to others

“There are always people with more skills than you, who are higher up the career ladder or just better than you,” says Ventura. “I honestly don’t care, and neither should you.”

Everyone has their own path, with different advantages, experiences and struggles. Ventura thinks you shouldn’t try to compete with anyone, even yourself.

And remember, things don’t always happen in a neat, straight line: “Life is full of twists, turns and curveballs.”

Ask for help and have friends around

Nat Schooler stresses there’s no need to do it all on your own. “If you get stuck, ask for help.” He reminds us not to let others contribute to the problem: “Surround yourself with people who encourage you and actively build your confidence,” he says.

Although a common experience, imposter syndrome is finally being discussed and understood. Sheryl Sandburg speaks to the power of sunlight on this problem: “If you know you suffer from imposter syndrome, tell someone. Once you say the words out loud, you start to realize how ridiculous it sounds.”

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About authors

Kathryn Cave is a technology journalist and editor who covers the human side of the industry. Outside work, she likes books, bunnies and theatre.