Impostor Syndrome: Five Steps to Personal Empowerment

Scientifically proven tools you can learn to take back your personal freedom and quell your fear of failure.

Leslie Santos
Aug 25, 2017 · 6 min read

All of us have experienced moments of vulnerability, perhaps as a child on the playground when teams were being chosen, perhaps while on a date with someone we really want to impress, when we’re unexpectedly asked to present our new finding to the team, or while interviewing for our dream job.

In these moments, some of us feel scared + excited — scarecited, by the novelty, risk and uncertainty, while others worry that we will be suddenly and swiftly exposed as a fraud. If you find yourself relating to the latter, you’re not alone.

Feeling like a fraud is so common there is a psychological name for it — impostor syndrome. You don’t have to live your life in constant fear of exposure. There is a path to freedom. The first step is recognizing the signs of impostorism. The second step is seeking help. Impostorism likes to hide in the dark. Liberation comes when you bring your greatest fears into the light of day.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is a deep belief that, though one is successful, one’s success is not attributed to ability, but rather to luck, relationships, good timing, or really hard work. Those with impostor syndrome are convinced that unless they continue to demonstrate extraordinary achievement and work exceptionally hard, they will be exposed for the fraud they really are. Therefore, they can never let their guard down.

Those who suffer from impostor syndrome routinely say to themselves, “soon they will really find out I don’t deserve to be here.” Said simply, high achieving individual who cannot internalize their talent, value, worth and accomplishments feel like impostors. If this sounds familiar, read on.

The Dark Side of Impostor Syndrome

Impostorism is psychologically taxing. It causes one to overthink and continuously second-guess their behaviors. Impostors worry about what they should have done differently — over analyzing the action they did take and the action they did not take.

Basically, their mind runs the hamster wheel of options day and night. They will also fixate on how others are evaluating them; and because their fixations are fear-based, the stories running through their head will be based on assumptions. Impostors replay the conversation over in their head, and worry that they said something wrong, were underprepared, or were misinterpreted. This play-by-play analysis doesn’t stop at the direct interaction.

Those with impostor syndrome will also impulsively obsess about what others will think to three degrees of separation. For example, they will replay the boardroom conversation beyond the immediate interaction with their supervisor, by extrapolating to the skip-level — the supervisor over their supervisor. Or while on a date, they’ll extrapolate to friends of friends. Impostorism steals one’s power, hijacks one’s freedom, and cripples one’s authentic self-assessment.

Dr. Pauline Clance, the psychologist whose theory is now ubiquitously know as Impostor Syndrome, had this to say 20 years after her first academic paper,

According to Clance, fear of failure is the root problem. And those who have achieved the most, fear the most. Ironically, with each new achievement, impostors don’t gain confidence. The opposite happens, success further heightens their belief they will soon be exposed.

With each success, impostors are introduced to a broader network and this, they believe, holds them to a new standard they cannot possibly meet. They believe the running narrative in their head which sounds like, “there are now more people who can see me as I truly am and expose me.” Every new situation is another proving ground, and every new conversation provokes another internal battleground.

Dr. Clance’s research shows that in high-stakes situations when the impostor is worried they’ll be exposed, they are distracted by possible outcomes and continuously monitoring their performance. While in this “monitoring mode” their ability suffers and their worst nightmare comes true. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Simply put, humans don’t have enough mental bandwidth to perform their best while also critiquing their performance. Impostors get caught in a mental feedback loop that sounds like anticipate, scan environment, read, interpret, pivot, scan environment, and reinterpret ad nauseum.

The continual question running through their mind is, “how are others judging me?” This mental hijack prevents the impostor from noticing and interpreting what is actually going on. Impostors cannot be present with reality because they are future catastrophizing then planning what they will say when their nightmare comes true. This endless mind maze is exhausting.

If you’re an impostor in hiding, what scientifically proven tools can you learn to take back your personal freedom and quell your fear of failure?

(1) Learn to regulate your emotions.

Your fear of failure is hijacking your brain and body. You have the natural capacity to regulate your uncomfortable emotions by tuning into your body’s sensations. Yep, you read that correctly. Rather than avoid, disassociate, suppress or ignore your body’s feedback, you can learn to tune in and harness.

Once your emotions are regulated, your nervous system quickly returns to homeostasis. In homeostasis, your body will feel unthreatened and safe, and your mind will stop firing messages of fear. Without the constant feedback of fear, the mind can focus on more important things. TIPI, a technique developed in France for the sensory identification of subconscious fears, is a highly effective method you can use to self-regulate unpleasant emotions permanently.

(2) Learn to monitor your thought stream.

Once your emotions are regulated and your body is operating in homeostasis, the next step is to notice when your mind has been captured. Once the impostor in you can hear your inner dialogue with more neutrality, self-compassion and kindness, you can begin to turn down the volume on your mind’s chatter.

First, you must learn to hear the story running its loop in your head. You are not the story of fear. You are the person hearing the story. Write this story down on paper. Literally. Get out a pad and pencil and write down every fear thought streaming through your head.

(3) Learn to dispute your inner critic.

Now that you have a record of your inner critic’s scare tactics, it’s time to learn how to dispute them. Rather than believe these messages, learn to question them. There are several methods you can use to find the paradox in your thoughts. The tool I teach all of my clients is The Work by Byron Katie. Her website says it all, “Who would you be without your story?” Imagine a life free of impostorism fear. It’s possible. My clients have all found empowerment. You can too.

(4) Repeat steps 1–3. Seek help if you need support.

(5) Take back your personal empowerment.

Finally, after you have completed steps 1–4, it’s time to take back your personal empowerment. When you feel powerful you feel free, and your behavior is less affected by social pressures.

One scientific method of regaining personal power is to write a self-affirmation manifesto. It’s important to note that step five is only effective if you’ve successfully completed steps 1–4. Asking an impostor to write a self-affirmation manifesto while they still suffer from impostorism, is like asking a drug attic to work in a pharmacy. Fear will feed the content of your manifesto if you don’t first regulate the emotion (step one) and change the channel (step two and three).

You can live a life of personal empowerment, free of the paralyzing fear that tomorrow you’ll be exposed for the failure you really are.

Bottom line, the impostor in you will never break free from the syndrome until you believe in yourself enough to seek help and shift self-limiting behaviors. When you decide to invest less time working to prove your legitimacy, and invest more time figuring out why you don’t believe in your legitimacy, you will find freedom. I promise. After all, if you don’t believe you deserve your success, how will you convince anyone else?


Originally published at lesliesantos.com.

Leslie Santos

Written by

Resilience Mentor and Mother.