June 23, 2016

The imposter syndrome

Let’s talk about “imposter syndrome“.

Or maybe you know it better as “that gut wrenching feeling when you know you are portraying yourself to be someone that deep down inside you, you know you are not.”

It’s that voice that is saying: “If only they would really know you… Then they would see that all you are saying and doing and pretending as one big fat lie and you will implode like a house of cards.”

Do you recognize that?

Read on.

The voice inside telling you: “If they know how incompetent and insecure you really are, they will laugh at your face, point at you and kick you out on the street. No one will want to have anything to do with you because really, you are a joke of a person.”

That my friends, is a voice being fueled by the imposter syndrome.

For a long time I thought he was real.

I believed he was me.

I believed I actually was an imposter.

Today, I am a recovering imposter syndrome sufferer (now that’s a word).

In this blog you will read:

  • #1 What it feels like when you suffer from imposter syndrome (See if you recognize these signs in yourself)
  • #2 A breakdown of how imposter syndrome actually works and what it’s doing to you (There’s a kind of system to it)
  • #3 The reason why I am 99% sure that because you are reading this you are NEVER as stupid or uncreative as you think
  • #4 And lastly, how you can use the AAT method to discover how capable and smart you truly are by changing your automatic thought patterns. (Warning: this is only for really dedicated people.)

#1 This is what a day for someone with imposter syndrome is like

What does that look like, you say? Walking around all day feeling like an imposter?

Let’s pick a regular working day for someone working in an office (probably the majority of us reading this)

Waking up like shit

So let’s start with waking up.

If you’re lucky, you got some good sleep.

But… Most likely than not, your quality of sleep was shit because you went to bed worrying… Eventually falling asleep, not because of the calming effect your bedtime had on you, but because of exhaustion.

bar chart of thoughts that keep someone with imposter syndrome awake
Credit for this image goes to Kirstin Chirico from Buzzfeed

So here we are. You are awake.

But… For a lot of us with imposter syndrome. We carry its big brother anxiety with us as well.

What does he have to say, the moment you wake up?

“Hey! You’re late!”

You listen to it and start internalizing that dialogue:

“Yeah, shit, I should have woken up earlier.”… “I have so much stuff to handle today.”… “I should have taken care of this already.”

So we start the day already feeling stressed.

Feeling underqualified at work

Then we get to work.

We started the day a little under the radar as to not be bombarded with too many responsibilities right away because man…

“I can’t handle that pressure right now. I need some time to catch up/balance out/get started/get my coffee.”

Then a client calls and asks you.

“I hope he’s not going to ask me too much. Oh, I hope it’s just something simple. Please, don’t let it be something I don’t know. I’ll look stupid!”

(Thanks again to brother anxiety for that.)

You pick up the phone and what it comes down to is that he needs your help. He needs your expertise and opinion on something big. A strategy choice. What product he should choose. Which service is best for him.

“Shit!” You think. “Now I have to tell him what’s best?! He’s looking to ME to answer that?! I hardly got out of bed this morning and now HE’s relying on ME to make the right choice?!”

You start talking. You know in your head some things about what he’s asking you.

You talk about the pros and cons of the different solutions he’s looking for.

You understand his context a bit so you can customize your answers and make it relevant for the person on the other end of the line.

In the end, you’ve racked your brain and pulled out some information and concluded that, if you were him, and given the knowledge that you have, you would go with solution C or product C and that is now the best option for him.

All while thinking: “Oh man… I… Actually, I don’t know this for sure!”

And anxiety adds his two cents:

“Yeah man! How do you know this solution is not gonna be a DISASTER for him? What if things change tomorrow and you made him pick the wrong option?! He’s gonna kill you! He’ll be so mad at you! Man, he will know that you don’t know SHIT about what you’re talking.”

The client thanks you and says you’ve been very clear and helpful and wishes you a good day.

Business guy in suit looking confused and saying "wait, what?"

Wait… What?

That doesn’t line up with the internal dialogue I am having inside me.

I was expecting a “Well… It sounds like you don’t really know what you are talking about. Thanks for nothing”

“Now he’s thanking me? And telling me I was being CLEAR?”

“I guess I just got lucky this time. And obviously it was easier because I actually work with these products, so I can talk about them a lot to him. But… Yeah, I just got away nicely here. But next time.. With a more difficult question.. I will definitely be discovered as a fraud.”

This is the imposter syndrome in full effect.

You felt like a fake.

You attributed success to luck.

And if you didn’t just get lucky for achieving success, you discount it, playing it down, to make sure that the success, isn’t actually a success.

#2 How the imposter syndrome works

Let’s break it down here using the definition found on the website from California Institute of Technology because obviously they have put more scientific research into this than any of us has ever done.

Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence (source)

It turns out, there are 3 types of feelings you experience when the imposter syndrome is bothering you.

I mentioned them a while ago:

1.  Feeling like a fake

This is the belief that one does not deserve his or her success or professional position and that somehow others have been deceived into thinking otherwise. This goes together with a fear of being, “found out”, discovered or “unmasked”. People who feel this way would identify with statements such as: “I can give the impression that I am more competent than I really am.”  “I am often afraid that others will discover how much knowledge I really lack”.

2.  Attributing success to luck

Another aspect of the impostor syndrome is the tendency to attribute success to luck or to other external reasons and not to your own internal abilities. Someone with such feeling would refer to an achievement by saying, “I just got lucky this time” “it was a fluke” and with fear that they will not be able to succeed the next time.

3.  Discounting Success

The third aspect is a tendency to downplay success and discount it. One with such feelings would discount an achievement by saying, “it is not a big deal,” “it was not important.” One example of this is discounting the fact that they made it here, which is really a big success.  Or saying, “I did well because it is an easy class, etc.”  Or, you might have a hard time accepting compliments.

pie chart with reasons why people with imposter syndrome think something good happened to them
Credit for this image goes to Kirstin Chirico from Buzzfeed

#3 This is how you know you are WAY MORE capable and intelligent than you think

As it turns out

Imposter syndrome is a common trait of highly intelligent, successful and achieving people.

Aside from more recent celebrities let’s just look at some people in history we can all agree on are super intelligent and/or talented.

These succesfull and highly respected people also suffered from imposter syndrome

“But I am very poorly today and feel very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders.” – Charles Darwin to Charles Lyell in 1861, one year after “On the Origin of Species”

“I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity…” John Steinbeck, June 18th, 1938, while writing “The Grapes of Wrath”

Also, have a look at some of Vincent Van Gogh‘s letters to his family, talking about how bad he feels about his work sometimes. (He even went to an psychiatric assylum for his depression and delusions. So… If he did all that and is STILL seen as one of the greatest… You don’t have anything to worry about.)

pie chart of the types of people with imposter syndrome
Credit for this image goes to Kirstin Chirico from Buzzfeed

Science shows that if you were REALLY incompetent, you wouldn’t even know it

When you feel like a fraud, you are highly aware of your shortcomings. This awareness in and of itself already puts you at a 99% chance of these thoughts not being true to reality.

A famous psychological phenomenon named the Dunning-Kruger effect has shown that truly incompetent people are blind to their own incompetence. (The actual study was inspired by a bank robber who rubbed lemon juice on his face, thinking it would hide his face from the cameras, just as lemon juice can be used as invisible ink that will only show when you keep it close to a heat source.)

An unskilled person will not be able to see its own shortcomings because he made several false assumptions about himself.

What skilled people usually do is think that they have shortcomings because they make false assumptions about others. (“He must think I’m not smart enough”.)

In short: If you were really not good enough for this job, or to answer that question… You would not realize it because of the cognitive bias described as the Dunning-Kruger effect. And the opposite is also true: The fact that you are highly aware of your – what you think “incompetence” – probably means that you are actually very skilled.

Here’s a funny video of only 59 seconds explaining that you wouldn’t know if you were truly stupid. (Told with a lovely British accent)

#4 How we can discover how smart and capable we truly are

Analyzing your automatic thought patterns is one of the most powerful things you can do to understand your own behaviour.

But it’s hard.

Why ?

Because to become aware of your own thoughts is a painful proces.

There are no shortcuts.

It takes a lot of focusdedication, persistence and support to uncover what thought streams are running automatically in your brain that might not be true.

I have outlined three steps below that will give you a substantial amount of work and positive results:

  1. Think of your thoughts as river streams,
  2. Analyze your automatic thoughts and destructive habits using the AAT method,
  3. Reflect and acknowledge your accomplishments (as small as they may be)

So let’s dive in with #1:

Start to think of your thoughts as river streams

I see automatic thought patterns in my brain as those river pathways worn out by the water.

They are pathways created by repeatedly taking the same route over and over and over.


guy watching a river flow in nature

A long time ago, there were a lot more rocks and stones where the river pictured above is now graciously flowing.

But one day there was a little entrance that made the stream of water flow through the middle.

Time after time, the water pushed through the middle of the creek.

What happens when the water flow through the same pathway again and again?

Very slowly, the river creates a pathway for itself, through those rocks.

After a long time of repeatedly pushing its water through the same path, it has created a nice little pathway for itself and it can now flow easily and without much force through that newly created path.

Now, the river flows through its stream AUTOMATICALLY.

It doesn’t have to push against any more rocks anymore to get through.

This is how I see automatic thought patterns we’ve created in our brain. (“I am a fraud”, “I am incapable of doing this”, “I will be found out as a loser”)

One day they started, and over time, they created a pathway that’s nicely carved out so that it can now flow freely.

Now when a challenge comes up, your brain defaults automatically to —> “I am not capable”.

How those thoughts start (how the stream started to take that route in the first place) has a lot to do with super complicated psychological stuff, and while its interesting to get into that, that’s not for now. (Hint: your social circle, culture, and family have an influence on it.)

Analyze automatic thoughts and find destructive habits using the AAT method

Something we all can do NOW is look into our minds and see what kinds of thoughts we jump to automatically. We might not know what caused them to grow, but we sure can change them to the reality that is today. (You ARE not incompetent today, even if you want to figure out how you came to think of yourself like that, TODAY, that is not true.)

A tool I learned to use through therapy was the AAT (Analyze Automatic Thoughts) method.

How does the AAT method work?

Read on.

These usually destructive thoughts have repeated themselves over and over in our minds, up to a point where it has created a neural pathway.

This means that these thoughts now have free access to bother you whenever a challenge comes up. They have been crafting that path for so long that today, you don’t even think them consciously anymore because its become a habit. (It’s kinda nice that our brain helps us save time by automating certain thoughts and behaviours – but this time, it’s harmful)

This automatic thought of “I am not capable enough” is also likely to be connected with a bodily response, however subtle, like crouching your shoulders forward and tilting your head down.

So, to analyze automatic thoughts and find destructive habits we can use the AAT method which consists of 5 steps.

In ANY situation you feel a strong emotion, like sadness, anger or despair… Take a pen and paper and write down the following 5 things:

  1. Situation: What is the factual situation you were just in? Just keep this to the facts, no emotions. Where you are, what you are doing and what happened.
  2. Thoughts: What fundamental thought went through your mind right when the above mentioned situation happened? This is where the magic lies. First, you won’t realize that a thought occured before you were overwhelmed with emotions. But this is exactly the problem. Your body skips the conscious thought process and you only become aware of the emotion you feel after the situation. In between lies the automatic thought.
  3. Feelings: What and how did you feel after the situation happened?
  4. Behaviour: How did you behave yourself after the situation happened? Or: What did you do after this happened?
  5. Consequences: What were the consequences of your behaviour after the situation? What were the results of your actions? Did it change your feelings? Or reinforce them? Change someone else’s feelings?

AAT method worksheet - 5 steps to analyze automatic thoughts and find destructive habits


Here’s a free worksheet of the 5 step AAT method you can use to help you with this. Feel free to just download it and print it out so you can use it wherever you are. (You go to “File” —> “Download as”)

This is how this analysis of your thoughts helps you:

  1. You gain insight in yourself. The AAT method forces you to become conscious of your automatic thoughts by writing down what happened chronologically like that.
  2. You discover destructive habits. By writing down your behavior at #4, you discover your habits. A lot of times, this a harmful habit. This shows by the consequences in #5. If it makes you feel worse, insecure, hopeless, sad etc… That behavior was harmful. By changing your behavior, you can change the outcome at #5.
  3. You learn to not identify with your feelings all the time. It may sound a little woo-woo but this is amazing. If you manage to understand that what you feel at #3 is directly related to what you think at #2… You change the game.. Because “emotions you can’t control”. But thoughts.. We can. And our emotions follow our thoughts. Once you get that… That is powerful. Think about that. “You ARE not ruled by your feelings or emotions. Don’t feel powerless.”

Reflect and acknowledge your accomplishments by writing them down

Lastly, this exercise helps to make you feel more aware of your accomplishments and make you more confident.

The way to do this is by writing down your accomplishments.

It sounds so simple you might have scoffed at this. (I know I did, one day).

Until you set a challenge to do this for 30 days straight, every day. Write down what went well today and how you have progressed at a task, challenge or skill today.

We’ll talk after.

Trust me, it’s hard.

And when you are done, you’ve created an insane amount of positive momentum.

Reflecting on accomplishments and progress

Download and print this free worksheet for you to help you reflect on your accomplishments.

And they don’t have to be big accomplishments.

Look, there’s even scientific proof for that claim.

Any accomplishment you focus on helps the brain to feel more competent.

Why this is only for really dedicated people

WARNING: Becoming aware of your unconscious automatic thoughts is hard work. Then changing them is even harder.

But once you realize what is going on in your brain, and you decide to consciously create healthy thought streams, you are taking back SO MUCH control over your life, thoughts, emotions and habits. It is VERY powerful.

guy watching a river change its flow in nature

(Also note my Photoshop skills in the picture above. Thank you.)

It’s super difficult. And that’s why a lot of people don’t manage to take back control over their mind.

Not because they don’t want to. But because it is too difficult and they don’t understand what’s going on and where to take action and apply pressure on their “wounds”.

I was like this for a long time.

It’s hard because you need the right mix of tools, guidance and support.

A lot of people have neither of these, or only one.

I hope to provide something valuable in those areas.

Because it’s amazing when you can stand like the guy in the picture below and thrive in life and actually enjoy challenges coming at you.

guy with open arms looking at a waterfall with rainbow as a metaphor for when you are thriving and enjoying challenges that are facing you in life

Oh yeah, one more thing:

If you are not feeling more secure at all and keep struggling with this feeling of inadequacy, please then keep this as a reminder that even with that fear you can, and should, push through.

Even though you might not be able to effectively feel more secure at moments, remind yourself to observe yourself freaking out, rather than being completely immersed in yourself freaking out.

“Because I read on mindgum that I’m probably much more intelligent than I give myself credit for, and if I’d ask the people around, they’d say so, too. It is just me who thinks less of myself, but I know that’s not real. It’s annoying for now, but at least I know.”

Thank you 🙂

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