Do You Have the Imposter Syndrome?

07/22/2010 05:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

No, there's not really a recognized condition called "the imposter syndrome." But it's a handy label to describe the self-doubt that many people, particularly high achievers, experience. It's that sense that you don't fully know what you're doing and that you have fooled other people into believing that you're more competent and talented than you really are. This self-doubt can plague people who are in a new job or who really are incompetent, of course, but it can also plague those who truly are at the top of their professions, the ones I describe below.

It's an uncomfortable feeling. People with this kind of self-doubt are frequently concerned that they'll be found out, that others will discover just how limited they are. This is true of Dr. A, who believes he is an adequate surgeon but not the kind of star others describe him as. His imposter syndrome affects only his mood. He's uncomfortable with praise and is frequently a little anxious in professional situations where he thinks he could be negatively evaluated. He suffers in silence, though, and it doesn't really affect what he does.

The imposter syndrome not only impacts the mood of Ms. B, an investment banker, but also her behavior. Her coping strategy is to cover up her insecurity, by avoiding asking enough questions, seeking enough help and assertively speaking her mind. Mr. C, an attorney, has his own set of coping strategies. He blusters his way through meetings, pretending he knows more than he does and gets belligerent when he thinks people are questioning his competence.

"Half the time I don't really know what I'm doing," is a typical comment I hear from people who seek help for the problem. "If people knew my weaknesses, they'd see that I'm pretty incompetent."

There are several reasons why this talented group of people (which is much larger than you might think) is so insecure:

1. They don't attribute success to their own positive qualities. "I got this far by luck." "I was in the right place at the right time." "I do well only because I have good people working for me."

2. They don't dwell on their achievements and keep raising the stakes higher. "I got that research grant but now I have to start thinking about the next one." "That performance went well but I have to do even better next time."

3. They have tunnel vision. They notice every instance where they think they should have done better or where they made a mistake. They then put a great deal of importance in what are usually minor flaws in their performance. On the other hand, they fail to notice, or fail to put sufficient importance on what they do well.

4. They discount their accomplishments. "I got a lot of applause but I didn't deserve it." "I made a lot of money but I should have made more." "I got an award but no one realizes how little I deserve it."

5. They compare themselves unfavorably to others. Frequently they pick out the most outstanding people in their office or even in their field and judge their own performance accordingly. "They would have done a better job." "They earned more than I did."

So what can you do if you're a competent person who suffers from the imposter syndrome? You can begin by working toward accepting the fact that you have weaknesses (you're only human) and if it's important (and if you can't delegate to others), work toward improving your performance. You can give yourself credit throughout the day for both major and minor successes. You can reverse your "yes, buts..." Change "I brought in accounts but she brought in more," to "Even though she brought in more accounts, I brought in many myself." You can focus on your strengths. When you finish a task, you can ask yourself, "What positive qualities do I have that allowed me to do accomplish this?" You can be on the lookout for unhelpful coping strategies you engage in to prevent others from evaluating you negatively.

The imposter syndrome can hold you back and keep you on edge. It's worth taking steps to overcome the problem.