5 Steps to Kick Imposter Syndrome to the Curb

I'm not good enough. I'm not ready for this. I've got everyone fooled into thinking I'm competent. That nasty inner critic some of us have? It's imposter syndrome. Here's how to show it the door and make your dreams a reality.

Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #615
The Quick And Dirty

How do you defeat imposter syndrome? It takes time, patience, practice, and persistence. Here are five steps you can take to diminish imposter syndrome's power to hold you back.

  1. Recognize and label imposter syndrome for what it is.
  2. Grab some support from friends and colleagues who know your worth.
  3. Practice "fear setting"—acknowledge your worst fears and make a plan.
  4. Do scary stuff—it's the only way to practice conquering imposter syndrome.
  5. Be patient with yourself and persist—you've got this!

I still remember the first piece of work I delivered after starting my leadership consulting business. I had signed a contract to facilitate a half-day leadership program with an executive team of nine leaders.

I walked into the room that day—armed with a Masters Degree in Organizational Psychology, years of experience, and ringing endorsements from prior colleagues—thinking “What the [bleep] am I doing here? How did I possibly convince them that paying me to show up today was going to deliver even an ounce value? At what point in the day should I expect to be pelted with rotten tomatoes?”

Have you ever had your own version of that moment? The one in which everyone can see you’re perfectly qualified to be there, to ask for the thing, to win the deal, to be a success ... except you?

This, my friends, is the phenomenon known as imposter syndrome.

RELATED: 7 Simple Tips to Help You Stop Feeling Inadequate

One of my all-time favorite quotes is this wakeup call, often attributed to good ol' Henry Ford:

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.

So let’s make sure you believe you can.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is that icky feeling of dread you get when you’re about to do (or you're even just considering doing) the scary thing—apply for that job, ask for that raise, pitch your service to a new client, join a conversation with the big-wigs at that conference. It's the feeling that you don't deserve the success you've achieved, or that you're somehow fooling everybody into believing you're much more competent than you are.

The term was coined in 1978 by Dr.’s Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, though the phenomenon certainly existed before that. Some studies show that women and people of color struggle more frequently. But anyone is susceptible to feeling like an imposter.

Wondering whether the thing you struggle with is imposter syndrome? Take this imposter syndrome test developed by Dr. Clance to help you decide.

How to overcome imposter syndrome

The good news is that imposter syndrome isn't terminal, and no pills are required to treat it. I've mostly overcome mine, and I'd love to share my tips to help you do the same.

1. Recognize and label imposter syndrome

Think of all the movie and TV tropes where some ordinary person is tasked with performing an extraordinary feat. The woman with a few hours of flight training under her belt is suddenly asked to land the commercial jet. The veterinary technician is the best and only available option to perform an emergency tracheotomy on the choking restaurant customer.

If you’re not a doctor and you’re afraid to perform surgery, that's not imposter syndrome—that's a completely rational fear! Actual imposter syndrome means you feel unqualified even when your skills tick off many or all of the requirement boxes.

On the morning of that first client session, I stood outside their office full of self-doubt and terror. And then I took a moment to simply recognize what was happening. I was experiencing doubt when I had no logical reason to. I was absolutely qualified to be there. I had the education and experience. I had done the research and applied professional care in designing the session I was about to deliver. What did I think I was missing?

You can’t overcome what you can’t see, so start by labeling your imposter syndrome for what it is.

The answer was ... nothing. I wasn't missing a darn thing. And taking a moment to pause and label my experience helped me realize that.

Did recognizing imposter syndrome cause it to vanish completely and permanently? Heck no. But you can’t overcome what you can’t see, so start by labeling your own imposter syndrome for what it is.

2. Grab some group support

Your imposter syndrome is a version of your meanest inner critic. And if you’re like most people, you’re meaner to yourself than you’d be to anyone else.

As psychotherapist Amy Morin said in an Inc. article about self-criticism:

It's easier to be compassionate toward other people, rather than yourself. While you might call yourself an idiot for making a mistake, it's unlikely you'd say that to a loved one.

In short, we're wired to see the bad in ourselves but the good in others. And you can use this to your advantage!

Grab a trusted friend or colleague. Tell them what you want to do and what’s holding you back. Ask for their unfiltered opinion.

If you’ve chosen wisely, this friend will tell you all of the reasons why your fear is unfounded. They can see your qualifications—what helps you stand out from the rest. And sometimes hearing that from an external source can help counteract the noise of your internal one.

Let those who see you from the outside-in help you stand strong against that insidious imposter syndrome.

Do this exercise with a few people and see what common threads you pull from their assessments. Did three different people highlight what an excellent communicator you are, or how creatively you solve problems, or how inspiring and approachable you are as a leader?

I reached out to three different friends ahead of my first project. Each of them reminded me that even though I was new at being an entrepreneur, I was indeed a seasoned and well-regarded designer and facilitator. And I really needed to hear that.

Let those who see you from the outside-in help you stand strong against that insidious imposter syndrome.

3. Practice fear-setting

Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss describes a process he uses called "fear setting." In his TED Talk on the subject, he says “rather than give a recipe for success … I thought I would share my recipe for avoiding self-destruction.”

According to Tim, often the very thing we most need to accomplish—the asking, the doing, the trying—is the thing we fear most. Your imposter syndrome is your inner irrational fear speaking. So, meet it with so much rationality that it can’t help but back off.

Fear setting involves imagining yourself doing the thing. Then imagine the worst possible outcomes. And finally imagine how you can either proactively prevent that outcome, or how you’d repair the situation if it actually happened.

Your imposter syndrome is your inner irrational fear speaking. So, meet it with so much rationality that it can’t help but back off.

Imagine you want that promotion. [Insert cynical chuckle from your imposter syndrome monster as it tells you you’re not ready]. What’s the worst that could happen? Realistically, you don’t land the coveted role. Maybe the hiring leader calls you crazy for having tried.

Okay. What’s something you can do to prevent that situation? Maybe you have your resume reviewed by an expert or you practice interviewing with someone in a similar role.

And if the worst does happen? Think about what could you do to repair the situation. If the hiring leader gives you a "no" (and maybe, in your imagined worst-case scenario, a derisive laugh), you can ask for feedback. You could say “Maybe I’m not ready for this yet. What would it take for you to consider me in the future?”

Once you play it all the way out, suddenly your worst fears seem not only unlikely to happen but also—dare I say?—manageable.

Imposter syndrome fights with fear. So, fight fear with logic and preparedness.

4. Do scary stuff

Recognizing and labeling imposter syndrome, getting support from others, and planning for the worst are critical steps. But fear, terror, and self-doubt? They can all thrive even after you've done your best to eliminate them.

There's no shortcut—you simply have to do the scary thing.

So what’s the solution? There's no shortcut—you simply have to do the scary thing.

When I look back to my first deliverable as a newly-minted entrepreneur, I can still feel the fear of stepping into that room in front of nine people. Only a year later, I gave my first keynote to a room full of 250. Since then, I’ve spoken at numerous conferences, posted raw videos of myself on LinkedIn, and I even host a podcast that's downloaded each week by more people than I could have dreamed of.

I can attribute all that I’ve accomplished to bucking up, facing my fear, and doing it anyway. Victory begets victory. Once you have that single win under your belt, you won’t believe what you’re suddenly capable of!

5. Be patient, practice, and persist

Your imposter syndrome has had years of practice. It’s deeply embedded in your brain’s wiring. You won’t defeat it overnight. And although you may tame your imposter syndrome, wrestling it back into submission when it acts up may always be an ongoing process.

Next month, I’m speaking at a virtual conference with a really big name in my industry. I do know I’ve earned the right to be there. Even so, I have my moments of thinking, Wait—did they really mean to select me ... to present with him?

And then I just remind myself—yep, they did.

Conquering imposter syndrome takes time, patience, practice, and persistence. So, hang on in there. You deserve your successes. In fact, you've earned them!

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.