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3 Ways to Fight Imposter Syndrome

Northwestern MutualVoice Contributor •  March 19, 2015 | Focus on Women

By Lisa Wirthman

What do Tina Fey, Maya Angelou, and Sheryl Sandberg have in common? They all suffered from “imposter syndrome.” Such feelings, epitomized by profound self-doubt and a sense of being a fraud, are common among women of every age and every level of success, says Dr. Valerie Young. Author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, she’s been studying the imposter syndrome for three decades. Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term in 1978.

While nervousness and stage fright before a big interview or presentation are normal, women with imposter feelings have a different reaction once the spotlight fades. “After they successfully perform, they feel like they’ve fooled people,” says Young. “They attribute their success to the fact that it was a good audience or that they were lucky.” And they’re afraid of being “found out.”

While Young says about 70 percent of women suffer from the phenomenon, certain situations make them more vulnerable to having imposter feelings, such as self-employment where there is little validation, being a student judged on intelligence, or working in a creative field with subjective standards.

As for the rest of us, those who feel like they belong in a group have better odds of avoiding imposter feelings, says Young. On the other hand, anyone who stands out from a group because of age, gender, ethnicity, or other distinguishing characteristic is more likely to feel like a fraud who doesn’t belong.

While men also suffer from imposter syndrome, women are more susceptible because they tend to internalize their feelings, says Young. It’s also more common for women to let imposter feelings hold them back professionally, she says.

“Men tend to compartmentalize feelings, while women endlessly loop them around in their heads,” she says. Women who feel like impostors tend to experience shame when they fail, which makes it harder to bounce back when that shame is internalized. “For women, if somebody says a report is inadequate, what we hear is: You’re inadequate,” says Young.

Many imposter feelings are unconscious, so it’s important to identify the syndrome first in order to get past it. “Pay attention to the ways you might dismiss or deflect or just ignore evidence of your abilities,” advises Young. “To what do you attribute your achievements?”

Once women identify imposter feelings, the trick to battling them is to think differently, says Young: “My goal is not to get people to overcome imposter syndrome, but to talk themselves down faster and learn to have imposter moments instead of an imposter life.”

Young offers three core tips for how to think differently:

1. Reframe failure. According to auto tycoon and inventor Henry Ford: “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more successfully.” Rather than thinking of failure as an ending, consider it a new opportunity to achieve the results you want. In sports, for example, athletes replay game tapes to figure out what they did wrong and improve their performances the next time around. “You practice, you get better, and you keep trying,” says Young.

2. Reframe competency. Whether they’re perfectionists, self-perceived experts, or superwomen, women who feel they have to know everything or do everything right are less forgiving of themselves when things go wrong, says Young. It’s important for women to feel entitled to make mistakes and not know all the answers so they can have the opportunity to learn and grow, she says.

3. Reframe fear. Although it would be nice to feel confident 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that’s not how confidence works, says Young. The reality is that we all have moments of uncertainty. “Your body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement,” she advises. “So the next time you’re nervous, just keep telling yourself that you’re excited.”

With all of Young’s tips, she says the key to success is accepting that you have to think differently before you can actually start to feel differently. “After a while the feelings will catch up,” she says. “So you have to tell yourself things that you don’t believe, and then act accordingly.”

“Even if you’re afraid,” she adds, “just keep going.”

Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.

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