New psychological research teaches us how to overcome feelings of impostorism.
It takes tremendous courage to start your own business or freelancing company. But it’s courage that you have. Remember, the personality profile of an entrepreneur — and, by extension, a Xolopreneur — is full of superlatives. Research shows that entrepreneurs possess a natural self-confidence. They also possess enhanced emotional clarity and an instinctive ability to cope with ambiguous situations.
But even the most resolute entrepreneurs can sometimes fall victim to self-defeating thought patterns. One of these patterns is known as Impostor Syndrome, or the tendency to feel like you are not as good in your career as your experience, training, awards, or the opinions of others might suggest. A little bit of Impostor Syndrome can be motivating, but too much of it can poison your career ambitions. Here’s what psychologist Fabio Ibrahim of Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany has to say about Impostor Syndrome:
“Research on the Impostor Syndrome shows that very high self-doubt is not conducive to a career. The fears lead to not facing challenges and not being able to grow from them. People with high Impostor Syndrome tend to set themselves either very high or very low goals. Very low goals do not pose challenges and very high goals are rarely achieved. Greatness arises from self-doubt and the will to develop through learning from mistakes.”
In other words, it’s important to hold yourself accountable by exercising a certain degree of self-doubt. But too much of it can lead to the internalization of self-sabotaging thoughts, such as “I’m not as good as they think I am” or “it’s only a matter of time before they realize someone else can do this better.”
How to beat imposter syndrome at its own (mind)game
Fortunately, emerging psychological research teaches us how to avoid thought patterns associated with feelings of impostorism. For example, a recent study found that people who struggle with Impostor Syndrome exhibit what psychologists call a flawed “attributional style.” By this, they mean that they are more likely to attribute achievements to external factors such as luck or chance and more likely to attribute setbacks to internal factors such as a lack of ability or intelligence. An example of this could be believing a new freelancing or work project you bid on and won was due to good timing while believing a project you lost was due to your ideas not being good enough.
This is not a recipe for self-confidence or success. Instead, you should learn to own your successes — not in an immodest or arrogant way, but in a way that reaffirms your belief in your ability to achieve your goals. By the same token, you should ease up on yourself when you experience a failure or setback. Failure is a part of life, and it often bears no relation to how effective you are, or can be, at a given task.
Another piece of advice is to learn to remove any guilt or feelings of undeservedness when you catch a good break. Life will undoubtedly hand you your fair share of setbacks — many of which will be completely out of your control. So, it is important to learn to take the lucky breaks without looking back.
The link between personality and impostorism
Psychologists have also shown that neurotic personalities, or people who are prone to experiencing negative emotions such as fear, anger, worry, envy, and loneliness, are more likely to exhibit Impostor Syndrome. This probably has to do with the cycle of self-doubt that is associated with impostorism.
But remember that personality traits are not set in stone, not even neuroticism. Research shows that neuroticism decreases gradually over the lifespan. Interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness exercises can also reduce neuroticism. Even improving your self-care routine by doing things like getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating healthy can reduce the degree to which neuroticism affects your personality and may help quiet feelings of impostorism.
It’s also important to remind yourself that feelings of impostorism are not indicative of an unhealthy personality. Research suggests that people who struggle with impostorism tend to be simultaneously ambitious and modest — two admirable traits that help promote positive career outcomes. They also possess greater self-insight than most.
Feelings of impostorism are only self-defeating when they cause you to disengage from opportunities for career advancement. If you feel like Impostor Syndrome is holding you back, do your best to
- Change your attribution style to own your wins
- Keep your neuroticism in check by creating a healthy self-care routine
- Remember not to shy away from learning opportunities that can help you reach a new level of professionalism.
To learn more about Imposter Syndrome, check out our webinar with therapist/author Katrin Saali Saul.
Mark Travers, Ph.D., is an American Psychologist with degrees from Cornell University and the University of Colorado Boulder. Xolo helps him run his online therapy practice, www.awake-therapy.me, from whatever part of the world he is currently living in.