The Impostor Mindset: What It Is & What To Do About It

By Lou Solomon

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Recently I spoke to a group of women in leadership in the UK on the Impostor Mindset. Every other head in the audience of 200 women was nodding.

The Impostor Mindset — also known as Impostor Syndrome — is a condition that is so widespread that 70% of all successful people experience the symptoms at some point in their lives.


The Definition

The “Impostor Mindset” is the feeling when successful people, despite their achievements, have persistent self-doubt and anxiety about not being as competent as others perceive them to be. They believe they are undeserving of their position and others’ perceptions—because they haven’t earned them.


The Research

Two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, gave this condition a name 45 years ago. They called it “the impostor phenomenon.” At the time, they thought it was only a condition experienced by women. But today, we know it is present equally among men and women.

You’ll hear the term differently, combining impostor with syndrome, mindset, or phenomenon. The power word is “impostor.” It runs up the backbone of every human who has ever experienced it. People have told me, “I never knew there was a name for it.”


Symptoms of the Impostor Mindset

Since the early research, dozens of peer-reviewed studies have involved more than 14,000 participants in documenting the impostor syndrome.

These elements dominate discussions on the symptoms of the Impostor Mindset:

  • Inability to enjoy success
  • Chronic worry over mistakes
  • Painful perfectionism
  • Feelings of phoniness
  • Attributing success to luck
  • Feeling guilty about the trappings of success
  • Not sharing accomplishments with friends and family

Famous People Talk About It

Over the last couple of decades, famous people have begun to speak publicly about their experiences with the Impostor Mindset.

Look at what Maya Angelou has to say about the Impostor Mindset:

“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, uh; oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’ll find me out.”

Despite winning three Grammys and being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, Maya Angelou questioned her success.

I’ve been following marketing expert Seth Godin for years. After publishing a dozen best sellers, he wrote in The Icarus Deception that he still feels like a fraud.

Other well-known people who’ve talked about their experience with the Impostor Mindset include Meryl Streep, David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Tom Hanks, Sheryl Sandberg, Howard Schultz, and Tiny Fey, to name a few.


What causes the Impostor Mindset?

For many, it comes from growing up with conflict or in a critical and demanding family that focuses on being intelligent as the most important thing for kids. For some, it’s the choice of graduate and doctoral studies, competitive fields, or high-stress jobs. New studies point to minorities who experience a lack of belonging.

  • Family conflict
  • The disproportionate focus on achievement as worth
  • Intellectually competitive fields
  • Minories in white organizations
  • Graduate and doctoral studies
  • Demanding, high-stress jobs
  • Women in male-dominant industries
  • Becoming an entrepreneur, starting a business
  • First in the family to go to college
  • Early success as a child or young person

Triggers

Some people temporarily experience the Impostor Mindset when triggered by an event they consider a test of competence, such as public speaking.

At Interact, we see this all the time. People come to our on-camera classes worried that when they stand to speak, others will see that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Other triggers include your first day on a new job or big project, running your first Board Meeting, or any kind of public performance.


What To Do About The Impostor Mindset

The Impostor Mindset lives in fuzzy abstraction and begins to recede the moment you take action.

1–Talk about it. The most effective way to overcome the Impostor Mindset is to talk about it. Tell someone that there are times when you feel like you don’t belong or haven’t earned your success.

2–Build Community. Grow a circle of good human beings as friends who will help you celebrate your successes. Share your bouts of self-doubt.

3–Confront negative self-talk. For me, the Impostor Mindset is like having a mean best friend in your head who bullies you and says things like—“These people are brilliant, and you don’t belong here.”

Listen for and reject the self-talk and ask four questions*:

  1. Is this thought true?
  2. Can you know without a doubt that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

*Byron Katie is a brilliant woman who came up with these four questions.

4–Uncover your strengths. For me, it has been essential to nurture my unique abilities and giftedness. By doing that, my strengths begin to feel natural and organic and belong to me.

5–Research the topic of the Impostor Mindset, and you’ll feel validated. Find the white papers and articles that interest you. Researchers everywhere are putting this condition out into the open.


My Story

I grew up in a strict military family. My father was demanding and shamed everyone around him when they made mistakes. His parents raised him the same way.

Being smart was very important in my home. The rules were to make straight As and always finish first. From schoolwork to how we kept our rooms–it all had to be perfect.

Somewhere along the way, I confused my self-worth with outer achievement. And if I made a mistake, I was afraid it would reveal my incompetence. So I devoted my life, schooling, and early career to proving my value.

I had a great career in broadcasting, and I was promoted several times and was on the fast track to a spot with Cox Broadcasting. But no matter how far I climbed the ladder in life, I couldn’t feel my success on the inside, and I felt like I was only “posing” as a successful person.

Today, I am doing my life’s work with an inner sense of deserved value, a community of special friends and family, and the incredible good fortune to help others find their voice.

I have a sweet list of good and generous people who have believed in me, which makes it natural to do the same for others.

There is courage and beauty in achievement. But the dark side to accomplishment is when we pursue it as the source of our worth.


Want to learn more about how you can overcome the Impostor Mindset?

Freeing Your Radical Hero: Fighting the Impostor Mindset by Lou Solomon is a little book about a vast topic. It serves as a guide on your journey of battling your insecurity by releasing your inner hero.

It is filled with honesty, answers, and exercises. The book was inspired by Lou’s TEDx Talk, “The Surprising Solution to the Impostor Syndrome.”

Her purpose, in an accessible, down-to-earth way, is to help others fight the impostor mindset—a journey that can be both humbling and exhilarating.

Learn more about the book here and the book is available for purchase here.

Are you ready to face your insecurity head-on? We are here to help.

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