7 Tips to Embrace Your Success (and Stop Feeling Like A Fraud)

embrace your success

Success will never be a big step in the future; success is just a small step taken now.  ~Jonatan Mårtensson

Can you feel that twist in your belly?

That fear in your heart?

The voice in your head that tells you you’re not up to the job?

It shouts that you don’t know what you’re doing at work.

That you’re making it up as you go along.

That you’re faking it.

Do you feel like an impostor most of the time, a fraud who’s always on the verge of being found out?

Good.

Because many other people are too.

A Rude Awakening

I first learned of impostor syndrome while attending career talks with management consultancies.

Some 15 years ago, male company representatives usually tended these events, but at one such event, I zeroed in on one of the female representatives, a woman a few years into her career who’d given part of the presentation and done it well. She appeared credible,  knowledgeable and was on the fast track.

But during our discussion later – over wine – she told me she was anxious every day that she’d be found out. That she was winging it most of the time. That she felt like an impostor.

The conversation made a lasting impression.

At the time, I felt the same way she did. After getting a top grade at my university (which, when they gave me the result, I asked them to double check), I applied for a scholarship for a Masters program and was offered one of only six that existed in the UK in my chosen subject at the time.

I was floored. Why on earth would they give the scholarship to me? Hundreds of candidates were better than me, surely.

Another year spent feeling like an impostor.

But I still thought it would pass.

I still thought that once I got a job and worked for a while, like the consultant I was talking to, I’d become confident. Skilled.

Like I belonged.

Like I was supposed to be there.

Like I knew what I was doing.

The conversation with the consultant — who was employed by one of the most sought-after consultancies in the UK and was confident, knowledgeable and experienced — exploded this myth in my face.

Bugger.

(No, I didn’t apply for the job.)

Could You Be Suffering from Impostor Syndrome?

Becoming a Chartered Occupational Psychologist (think of it as understanding people in the workplace) gave me clarity about what I was experiencing.

Impostor Syndrome.

But…

I wasn’t alone.

Impostor Syndrome, coined as far back as the 1970s by Dr Pauline Clance  and Dr Suzanne Imes, refers to somebody who does her job effectively and efficiently – that is, she does it well – but thinks she doesn’t.

Instead, she thinks she’s an impostor, a fraud, a charlatan who will see a giant finger come down from the sky at any moment and point her out with a flashing sign that reads faking it.

Impostor Syndrome seems to affect high-achievers especially, and it’s more common in women than men (which is not to say men don’t feel it too). It’s exhausting and is underpinned by a constant and unwarranted fear of being found out: that you’re not as good as others think you are.

Sufferers have a lack of self-confidence and find it difficult to enjoy their own achievements, believing that these must have been one-offs or accidents, and that soon people will realize what they’re really like. They have both a fear of success and a fear of failure, and may even opt for easier career challenges in order to manage this.

It’s common, and all kinds of people we would consider highly successful may suffer from it.

Move Past Impostor Syndrome

You can create a more realistic, healthy version of reality that will serve you better and let you embrace your success. How? Read on…

1. Start with where you are

Is this a real issue for you? There are some lucky souls unaffected. Use the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale Test to see how much the Impostor Syndrome is – or isn’t – interfering in your life.

For some, just having a label for this secret fear will help them feel better, and less alone.

2. Connect with other “Impostors”

Now you have a name for that unpleasant feeling inside whenever anyone compliments you. And more importantly, you know that others suffer from it too.

Share your fears with trusted friends or colleagues, and experience the reality that you’re not alone in this. Listen for others who downplay compliments, or sound as if they feel like they don’t belong, and open up a conversation about the issue. Share your thoughts, feelings, and strategies for how you might overcome it.

3. Stick To Just The Facts Ma’am

Look at reality. What’s actually going on? What are the observable facts about the situation? Are you paying attention to your inner critic or your direct experience?

Do you commonly attribute your success to luck, and your failures to your own abilities?

Say you’ve given a big presentation. What’s the feedback from others? If they give you good feedback, accept it; don’t assume that they’re hiding their negative opinions from you.

Use the feedback formula, “What did I do well, and what could I do differently?” to get balanced feedback. But ensure you don’t ignore the positive feedback for the negative.

Create a positive feedback file. Whenever someone pays you a compliment or gives you good feedback, pop it into this file. This way, when you’re doubting yourself, you can dip back into this file to remind yourself of the reality of the situation.

4. Knock Perfectionism on its Head

You are allowed to make mistakes. To be human.

Many sufferers of Impostor Syndrome feel this way precisely because, knowing their field so well, they’re acutely aware of all the things they don’t know about their area of expertise or topic.

But perfection is impossible. It’s an unobtainable ideal. Work on managing your perfectionism by relaxing your own standards, being realistic about the consequences of failure, and perhaps even making the odd deliberate mistake, and then seeing what happens. Does the world end?

5. Take Care of Self-Care

Looking after your basic self-care needs is crucial for getting on top of Impostor Syndrome.

When we’re hungry, tired, or in poor health, we’re more susceptible to listening to our unhelpful thoughts of Impostor Syndrome.

Step back and look at yourself. Are you taking care of yourself? This could include eating, sleeping, not exercising, overusing stimulants like coffee, and not getting enough time alone or time with others.

6. Be Realistic About Others’ Achievements

We tend to compare our own insides – the deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings about what we “know” about ourselves – with others’ outsides – the face they carefully present to the world.

This has only worsened as social media proliferates, and we have an even more skewed version of people’s true selves.

When we do this, we’re not comparing like with like.

If, as in number three above, you look at external validation, and you compare what others say about you with what others say about your colleagues or friends, you are likely to find a lot more consistency.

Whereas if, as in number two above, you compare your own inside thoughts and feelings about success with other “impostors’” inside thoughts and feelings about success, you might be surprised at how much consistency exists between the two.

But comparing your inside with their outside? You’re not even comparing apples and pears, but apples and chairs.

7. Decide to Thrive

There’s a great TEDx talk by Tanya Geisler that reminds us that we can, indeed, decide to thrive. Ariana Huffington’s book, Thrive, talks about her ‘obnoxious roommate’ in her head, and how she’s managed to relegate her to ‘only occasional guest appearances,’ in order to live a life that matters.

Whatever you call your inner critic, we don’t have to be held prisoner by what are just another set of unhelpful thoughts – of which we will have many every day, and most of which we manage to ignore. But some of us give far too much time to our inner critic.

We don’t choose most of the thoughts in our heads; they just show up – but because we don’t choose them, we can decide not to take them seriously.

We don’t have to consider our inner critic a voice of truth.

Instead, tune in to your direct experience of life, as in number three, rather than your mind’s running commentary, and empower yourself to move your life forward in the direction you choose.

Take Back Your Power

Impostor Syndrome can cause emotional self-sabotage and stymie us with self-doubt.

But the very act of recognizing it will diminish its hold on us. Give us the opportunity to truly embrace our success.

I no longer have the same levels of anxiety about others finding me out.

I’m comforted by the fact that no-one can see inside my head, just as I can’t see into anyone else’s.

My compliments file helps me ground myself in the reality of what others think about me. And I can look back at my tangible accomplishments, including: professional testimonials clients have written for me; awards I have won; living in several different countries; working as an international consultant in many more; presenting to 200+ people; keeping strong friendships despite barriers of thousands of miles; and just being able to write and share this sentence!

You can choose your reality, mainly because there is no one single reality. We will always be different to different people. And that’s just fine.

So, go, now, and act like Sarah in the classic film Labyrinth.

Kick your Impostor Syndrome in the butt and yell:

“You have no power over me!”

About the Author:

Ellen Bard’s mission is to help you shine more brightly in business and life. She has a fancy degree, works with those who are too tough on themselves, and loves all things that sparkle. If you want to know more about being kind to yourself, click over to get her self-care cheatsheet at EllenBard.com.

Image copyright: 123RF Stock Photo

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  1. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is common among less-beloved children; George Washington was one.
    These unmothered men and women often believe that they must perform and perform flawlessly in order to be accepted.
    But when they give their performance and it brings affectionate congratulations, it all feels somehow ‘wrong’ to them.

    • Ellen Bard says:

      Thanks for this interesting insight Owen. It’s also common among high-achievers; I was lucky enough to have two parents who loved me very much, but it’s still something I’ve experienced. Looking at the research it seems that more people experience it than any of us realise – hopefully sharing like this will help us all realise it’s not unusual, and that we can all create a more realistic picture of our success. Wishing you a lovely week.
      Ellen Bard´s last blog post ..On vulnerability, imperfections, and how to shine brightly

  2. Scott says:

    Great post Ellen! Imposter syndrome is insidious in the way that it often keeps us from taking those critically important first steps toward achievement. I have to counteract these thoughts every day. I keep them (mostly) in check through daily journaling—acknowledge the feelings in writing, and then knock them down with fact. That’s pretty much helped me stay grounded through some major changes.

    • Ellen Bard says:

      Thanks so much Scott. I think insidious is a great word for it. I use morning pages and write 1000 words every morning too, and I think as you suggest, exploring and acknowledging feelings like this is a really helpful thing to do. The more we can paint a true picture of reality the less likely we are to let impostor syndrome get in our way of achieving the things we want from life.
      Ellen Bard´s last blog post ..On vulnerability, imperfections, and how to shine brightly

  3. MURAD says:

    Thank u very much, Your artical are very useful for my life, This is true I’m feel better after read this artical.

    Thank u for mail.

  4. stephen says:

    Thanks Ellen for these inspirational words

  5. Jay says:

    Didn’t know it had a name.

    Good, now I know what I’ll call the thing I try to kick in the face every morning to not let it creep up on me.

    Thanks, Ellen!

  6. Hi, Ellen,

    LOVE this article! I had this problem when I was first promoted to manager back in the 90’s. I’m a recovering perfectionist and I wish I had known about your ideas sooner.

    Thanks for helping the other women who may be suffering with Imposter Syndrome.
    Sue
    Sue Anne Dunlevie´s last blog post ..How to Grow Your Twitter Following and Blog In One Fell Swoop

    • Ellen Bard says:

      Thanks so much Sue! The more people understand they’re not alone, and that this is a natural part of the challenges of growth, the less likely it is to be a ‘secret shame’, and weigh on them. As you say, when it’s combined with perfectionism, it’s even more poisonous. Share it widely and let’s help as many people as possible to choose a better reality.
      Ellen Bard´s last blog post ..On vulnerability, imperfections, and how to shine brightly

  7. Thank you for this wise post, Ellen. I don’t suffer with Impostor Syndrome exactly, but I am always working on allowing imperfection and remembering not to compare my “beginning” to other peoples’ “middle” or “end”. 🙂

  8. Elle says:

    This is soooo true Ellen. So many people have this fear that they’ll be ‘found out’ that they’re really a fraud. The great news is that we are the thinker of our thoughts and we get to choose more uplifting and inspiring ideas about who we are.

    Loved this.
    Elle´s last blog post ..Surefire Ways To Find And Keep Love

    • Ellen Bard says:

      Thanks Elle! Yes – we have to take back the power inside our heads, for sure, and remember that we can shape our thoughts, and therefore our reality. So often we forget that we do have some control over this.

      My top tip for those who don’t think it’s true? Go to the cinema and watch something that you really love. You’ll emerge blinking a couple of hours later, and your mood will have shifted with the film, at least for that time. Of course meditation and a more applied practice can change things much more deeply, but the cinema test is a good one for those who truly believe we’re at the mercy of our thoughts.
      Ellen Bard´s last blog post ..On vulnerability, imperfections, and how to shine brightly

  9. Mark says:

    Ye gods, I scored an 86 on that test. Seems I have a bigger problem than I expected based on those criteria.

  10. Ann says:

    Ellen, Another great post from you. Well explained-Imposter syndrome. Keep up the good work.

  11. Nicki Lee says:

    I need to give the praise file a try! Great article, Ellen 🙂

  12. Linda says:

    Ah yes, the impostor conundrum…doing really good but not being able to enjoy it because you feel it’s not your own doing…I’ve escaped it for now but am always aware it might pop up again. Thanks for the wise words!
    Linda´s last blog post ..The 4 Life Lessons I Learned From Fully Embracing ‘Being Me’

  13. Jessica says:

    Ellen,
    This is very well put and broken down. #3 and #6 really resonate with me. I have a tendency to look at very successful people and minimize my own achievements–secretly in my own mind.

    • Ellen Bard says:

      I so glad it resonated Jessica, thank you. I think it can be hard to be realistic about our own and others’ achievements. Gathering evidence in a compliments file, and even asking people you trust for feedback can be a really good way of unearthing some of those ‘secret’ beliefs that can undermine all the other good self-development and spiritual work we’re doing on ourselves.
      Ellen Bard´s last blog post ..On vulnerability, imperfections, and how to shine brightly

  14. Thanks for the great post!

    I suffered from impostor syndrome a lot in grad school. It was not good. But eventually meditation and relaxation helped, along with reading Nietzsche. I think he had it too and if so, his solution was to say yes to life and get on with things. 🙂

  15. Mark Tong says:

    Hey Ellen – I can really relate to this – only wish I’d read the post all those years ago!

  16. Great and informative article!

  17. Sari Cecilia says:

    Thanks for posting this informative article. I am new to this community and it’s great to see the collective knowledge and support everyone contributes to the group. Ellen I really resonated with # 3 ‘Stick to the Facts’ and # 5 ‘Self Care’. These have really helped me to stay grounded and realistic, especially in my thoughts and mindset. Also thanks for the Ted video you recommended. Inspiring Xxxx

  18. Pat says:

    I didn’t realize the true impact of impostor syndrome until recently, when after having accomplished what others would consider big, something to be proud of, I didn’t. I felt the absence of the pride and joy that should’ve been there. And when I took inventory of the countless times when I felt this way, I realized how much joy and happiness I have lost. Thanks for such a great post, Ellen!

  19. Ellen says:

    Well done Pat on identifying this challenge for you. Noticing the insidious (and incorrect) voice in your head around this issue is half the battle. I wish you more joy and happiness from now on – be proud!
    Ellen´s last blog post ..On vulnerability, imperfections, and how to shine brightly

  20. Dea says:

    Very interesting insights indeed. However, I believe such a syndrome exists in a world where people ‘rate’ themselves based on ‘success’. What does ‘success’ actually encompass? Why someone with a PHD and numerous published books would be more ‘successful’ than a stay at home mum? You would never feel as an ‘impostor’ if you don’t participate in the ‘system’ which rates people based on education and material achievements. When you don’t compare to others, but rather focus on finding your true self and realizing we are all one, and each and every single person is as important as the others.
    Dea´s last blog post ..Interview with undefeated ultra-runner Alice Hector

    • Ellen Bard says:

      Thanks Dea, and you are right, impostor syndrome does tend to affect people who have grown up feeling like they need to ‘achieve’ and do well in the world, and what that ‘success’ does look like has been inculcated by what’s going on around them.

      I think you’re right, it’s good for us all to decide on our own version of success – but that can, and should, mean different things to different people. For one person it might be to bring up wonderful children, for another it might be a PhD or academic success. Neither should be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other, it’s more about what is right, and *consciously chosen*, rather than just accepted, for that person (without education it would be a different world indeed).

      But none of this negates the fact that impostor syndrome does exist, and is wearing and debilitating for those who suffer. Perhaps part of their moving past it can be to redefine success, and certainly to stop comparing themselves to external factors, but another important part is knowing that they are already doing just fine as they are, and recognising that they are most likely achieving more than they believe as their inner critic attacks them.

      Wishing you a most wonderful week, and thanks for a thought-provoking comment, Ellen
      Ellen Bard´s last blog post ..How to End Negative Self-Talk

  21. sherill says:

    Thanks for sharing a very informative post. I’m sure your readers will benefit from this beautiful article. Great Read.
    sherill´s last blog post ..The True Cost of Procrastination

  22. Maryam says:

    I really needed this reminder!I’m in the process of professional school applications and having to sell yourself by sharing all of your accomplishments is daunting. Thoughts about needing to have accomplished more, comparing myself to my peers, and being judged from the selection committee during interviews are frequently on my mind.
    But reading your post and everyone’s comments made me realize that I’m probably not the only student with this fear during the application process.Yup, it’s time to rid myself of the Goblin King as Sarah did, lol (loved the reference by the way!) Thanks for sharing this!

    • Ellen says:

      Thanks Maryam, and so glad you found the article helpful. You are *definitely* not the only student with this fear during your application process – I don’t know any of the others but I can still be pretty confident! The more we realise that others feel just like us, the more connected to humanity we can be, and the more self-compassionate. Wishing you much luck with the process (and so glad you liked the reference!) 🙂
      Ellen´s last blog post ..On Love, Death, and No Regrets

  23. tarun says:

    nice blog thanks for sharing thisinformation

  24. Benay says:

    Thanks Ellen – great article! Love how you tie in reality like food, exercise, alone/social time – my husband is great at helping me remember that emotions are heavily linked to the physical stuff and that the world is not actually going to end if I don’t do that one extra thing. -B

  25. Ellen says:

    Thanks Benay, really glad you enjoyed reading and sounds like you have a supportive partner to help you at looking after yourself. We’re definitely all one integrated system – what we eat affects our emotions, our emotions affect our thoughts, our thoughts affect how our physical body feels and so on! Complicated 😉 Hope you managed to say no to something this week and remember how great you are!

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