Sometimes it seems like everyone else has it all figured out, and here we are, struggling to understand the basics. You know what the funny thing is? Most of these other people feel the same way. This frustrating undercurrent of self-doubt is our old pal imposter syndrome.
“Imposter syndrome occurs when we experience pervasive self-doubt about our abilities despite evidence to the contrary,” says AbleTo Clinical Content Producer Sarah Dolling, LPC. “We tend to attribute our successes to outside influences. For example, thinking ‘I just got lucky on that project.’ But when we experience setbacks, we assume we’re solely at fault. We think things like, ‘I failed because I’m inadequate.’”
Many people think of imposter syndrome as it relates to their work, but imposter syndrome can affect nearly every aspect of our lives — parenting, sports, relationships, creative endeavors, you name it. And the effects can be significant.
“In addition to feeling terrible, imposter syndrome can lead us to avoid new opportunities or downplay our achievements,” says Dolling. “It can also increase our risk of burnout.”
But notice one important through-line with imposter syndrome: It starts with thoughts. And intrusive thoughts can be dealt with. After all, we have countless thoughts every day — silly ones, weird ones, fun ones, dark ones. But they’re just mental events. We can choose how we react to them. So let’s talk about how to do that.
How to deal with self-doubt
Step into a more confident mindset with these therapist-approved tips.
Aim for progress, not perfection
This can be a hard thing to do, but it’s absolutely necessary. “Trying to make progress versus trying to achieve some sort of mythical state of perfection, is much more realistic,” says Dolling. “And, it makes it easier for us to own our accomplishments.”
Check your thoughts
When you start feeling like an imposter, take a moment to notice the thoughts you’re having. Then ask yourself if they’re helpful. I know, I know… the response to this is, “Well of course it’s not helpful. How is asking that going to help?”
But to free our brains from unhelpful habits, we need to catch unhelpful thoughts in the moment. Next, note that it’s just a pesky, unhelpful mental event. Then we need to reframe it (see below) or try to move on.
Work on reframing
Reframing is the practice of turning an unhelpful thought into a helpful one. The type of thought that creates an opportunity for growth. For example, maybe you sometimes have the thought, “I’m a failure and I don’t know what I’m doing.”
You can reframe it to, “I’m trying my best and even though I don’t know how to do this, I’m going to figure it out.”
If it feels corny, good. A big component of moving through imposter syndrome is self-compassion. Need some extra guidance? AbleTo’s 3 Cs Guided Journal tool can help.
Self-doubt is emotional quicksand. It’s easy to wind up neck-deep in it and see no way out. But struggling, just like in quicksand, makes it worse. When you feel these feelings coming on, take a few minutes to meditate. You can find short meditations in your AbleTo program.
Talk to someone
Grab a friend and tell them what’s running through your head. Even if it sounds embarrassing, telling a friend can help alleviate some of the enormous pressure we put on ourselves. “Friends can also offer a different perspective,” says Dolling. “One that helps us challenge our unhelpful thoughts and/or beliefs.”
Be your own hype person
When you’re feeling anxious or struggling with unhelpful thoughts, try repeating a mantra or giving yourself a pep talk. For example, ‘I am meant to be here.” Or, ‘I may make a mistake, but I will learn from it.’ “Repeat these thoughts until you feel a sense of calm or even confidence,” suggests Dolling.
You can also make it a daily practice that you do no matter how you’re feeling. Over time, positive self-talk can help make us feel more capable and less like an imposter.
Ask for help
No one knows everything. And that’s okay! So ask for help when you need it. It might be all you need to feel more confident in completing a task.
Celebrate your successes
Take time to applaud your accomplishments. It can also help to keep concrete reminders of your achievements — like an email from a colleague thanking you for your great work — in a place where you can see it. “The accomplishments don’t have to be large either,” says Dolling. “Small wins can add up to a big confidence boost.”
You’ve got this
We can all doubt ourselves sometimes, having come with an inner critic built in. But these harsh thoughts are usually untrue. The reason the saying ‘fake it ’til you make it’ is so popular is because so many of us aren’t sure what we’re doing. We’re figuring it out as we go along. It doesn’t make us less than or unworthy. It just makes us human.
By Kelton Wright
Kelton Wright is an author, editor, and athlete passionate about helping people live happier lives. She’s taught mindfulness to NFL coaches, led hundreds of women through cycling clinics, written an Amazon bestseller on dating, and worked with brands like Runner’s World, Rapha, Headspace, Teen Vogue, Bicycling magazine, Thrive Market, Skratch Labs, Peloton Magazine, and more all with the mission of empowering others.
Clinically reviewed by Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Senior Manager of Clinical Product Experience at AbleTo.
Photo by Fly_dragonfly/iStock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.