How to stop feeling like a fraud at work

Don't let impostor syndrome do serious damage to your career and your mental wellness

For entrepreneurs, the typical workday is filled with hundreds—if not thousands—of pressing thoughts, each taking precedence over the last. But if you’re like a lot of hardworking, high-achieving people, some less-productive ideas creep in. Sometimes they’re even about your ability to do your job or whether you really belong where you are.

Those thoughts are impostor syndrome in action, and they can do serious damage to your career and your mental wellness. Though not an actual disorder, impostor syndrome—coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978—affects an estimated 70 percent of the U.S. population, according to a clinical research paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Science. WeWork Labs spoke with three experts about what impostor syndrome is, and how you can combat those naysaying thoughts.

What is impostor syndrome, and how can it affect you?

Scientific American defines impostor syndrome as being a “pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” Though people of every demographic experience impostor feelings, this psychological phenomenon is most pervasive across minorities and women, and is also often accompanied by mood disorders, like anxiety or depression.

“It’s generally experienced by very high-achieving individuals,” explains Audrey Ervin, Ph.D., academic director of the graduate program in counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. “[People experiencing impostor syndrome] can carry around this persistent feeling of being a fraud or a phony.” Good news about your business brings the suspicion that you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Rather than feeling excited about a new challenge, you worry that this will be the project that exposes you.

This may stem from the standards to which people hold themselves, explains Valerie Young, Ed.D, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. “They have unrealistic, unsustainable expectations for themselves around competence,” she says. “It’s like a director who expects to win an Academy Award every time they make a movie.”

Continually doubting yourself isn’t exactly a recipe for success, but there are other, more surprising ways that impostor syndrome can affect your work. For one, it makes success a double-edged sword. “Success gets framed as luck,” says Brad Johnson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the U.S. Naval Academy. “It triggers the thought that people are now expecting even more from you, and you’re not up to the task of producing.”

More crucially for entrepreneurs, it can even make you dread work. “So much of what you’re doing is taking chances and proposing novel things,” says Johnson, “so if you have impostor syndrome, you might be inhibited from doing the very things you need to do.”

How can you combat professional impostor syndrome?

The only way to stop feeling like an impostor, says Young, is to stop thinking like an impostor. The experts have some suggestions:

Name the thoughts and normalize them. Instead of trying to ignore impostor-syndrome thoughts, call them what they are. “Once you name it, you can start the process of managing it,” says Ervin. This is also key to the normalization of impostor feelings in the workplace. “Some of the brightest people on the planet have these feelings, and they’re often a normal response to a situation,” says Young. “Anytime you’re doing something for the first time, of course you’re going to feel like an impostor—you’re doing something new! You have to take the shame out of it.”

Rethink your definition of “competence.” If you experience impostor thoughts, you might expect to be able to figure everything out on your own and feel that the need to ask for help is a sign that you’re not up to the task. “But people who don’t have impostor thoughts realize that the wisest people seek information, advice, help, mentoring, and coaching,” says Young. “They know they’re never going to know everything or be able to figure it all out by themselves; that’s the equivalent of trying to get to the end of the internet.”

Instead, Young defines true competence as being able to identify what you’ll need to get the job done, and then marshaling those resources. Stop expecting yourself to have all the answers, and seek help from those who can fill in the blanks.

Challenge the voice in your head. So your inner critic claims that you’ll never secure any of those investors for funding? Call its bluff. “You can always challenge your thoughts,” says Johnson. “The beliefs we have about being impostors can be fairly irrational, because by any measure, odds are you’re quite accomplished and competent.” When impostor thoughts do crop up, pause your internal dialogue and ask yourself for the evidence.

“You have to push back and get good at countering your own catastrophic thinking,” says Johnson. And when you come to the likely conclusion that your impostor thinking has no basis in reality, push it to the side.

Talk it out. There’s no prize to be won for dealing with impostor syndrome by yourself, so reach out to trusted friends or colleagues. “Many people struggle with impostor syndrome, but it’s usually a big secret,” says Ervin. Use those people in your circle of trust as sounding boards for your own impostor thoughts.

“Instead of having it be this shameful, secret thing, talk about it in a normalizing way,” says Young. “If you gave a big presentation and were feeling like a fraud while giving it, say to the people around you, ‘I had such an impostor moment when I was making that presentation today.’” You can start a conversation that not only helps you but anyone who may very well be dealing with the same thing.

Move forward, despite what your inner critic says. “People often wait to feel more confident before they move forward or make a decision, but that’s not how it works,” says Young. “Feelings are the last thing to change.” For entrepreneurs especially, it’s crucial to realize that fear goes with the territory; all the “fear symptoms” you’re experiencing—stomach knots, sweaty palms—actually may be just excitement. Lead with action, and the feelings will follow.

This story has been adapted from a piece of exclusive content originally published on WeWork Labs’ members-only platform. Read more about effective ways that entrepreneurs can lower their anxiety levels and manage their stress.

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