“Impostor Syndrome”: Understanding the 1 Key Driver to Overcome the Feeling

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Starting a new business comes along with its own challenges. From financing to operating to selling, the work never ends.

For many achievers, even mild success begins to trigger a psychological phenomenon known as the “Impostor Syndrome”. This phenomenon is a result of incongruence between your accomplishments and your self image. These achievers feel like a failure even when there is contrary evidence. They may lack self confidence and feel lots of self doubt or low self esteem. Many of their behaviors are influenced by the fear of failure and attribute any of their success to luck.

Dr. Valerie Young, in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, unraveled 5 behavioral differences and categorized them into the following groups:

  • the Perfectionist
  • the Superwoman/man
  • the Natural Genius
  • the Soloist
  • and the Expert

The folks at The Muse did a good job summarizing them so I won’t dive into that here.

What is the Key Driver of the Impostor Syndrome?

Instead, I want to focus on the meta-pattern prevalent across the 5 categories of the impostor syndrome.

The key driving force that people with impostor syndrome experience is a glitch in their self-image.


Your self-image at any time should reflect “you”, at present, with all your capabilities, experiences, and accomplishments. Let’s call this your “healthy self-image”. This means you don’t feel less than others or better than others. No feeling of one-up or one-down is needed. There isn’t a need for external validation or stamp of approval from others. And you have the ability to accept constructive criticism and recognize it as feedback for your personal or professional development.

This also means your self-worth or self esteem isn’t tied to external factors but rather built on your capabilities, experiences, and accomplishments. Note, accomplishments reflect both what you may define as success and failure. Either way you have accomplished something. Success and failure is a label placed on the accomplishment based on meeting or not meeting the specific criteria or expectation with which you started the task. The key is to have an internal bar or metric based on internal experience rather than operating off of only external comparisons. External evidence is helpful to a degree.

Many achievers may be hesitant to seek out a mental health professional to help tackle the fraudulent feelings of the impostor phenomenon. Their achiever attitude may prevent them from getting the help they need. But then again a good hack may be exactly what is needed especially when it can be experienced from the comfort of your own home.

Take the Self Assessment to Gauge the Health of Your Self Image

Now let’s go through a brief exercise to see how healthy your self-image is. This self assessment will help you gauge your own baseline.

    1. Take a moment and close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
    2. See an image of yourself. Sometimes it helps to say your name out loud and notice what image comes to mind. Note if you go by multiple names or have nicknames, each one will have its own self-image. So pick one for now.
    3. Notice what you look like in this image.
    4. On a 0-10 scale, with 10 being the highest, how would you rate this “you” you see in this image on capability. Does she or he look very capable or not so capable?
    5. On a 0-10 scale, with 10 being the highest, how would you rate this “you” you see in this image on experience. Does this image of you reflect all the experiences you have had or does it fall short?
    6. On a 0-10 scale, with 10 being the highest, how would you rate this “you” you see in this image on accomplishments. Does this image of you capture all the accomplishments you have had or are there some missing?
    7. Based on the three scores above, give yourself an overall self-image score. 0-10 with 10 being the healthiest. No special math formula needed. This is subjective. Go with your gut.
    8. Write down your score.
    9. Now, go back to the image and add 3-5 capabilities, 3-5 experiences, and 3-5 accomplishments that you may have overlooked or left out.
    10. By adding more of each of these, check how each of them scored individually. Did the scores go up?
    11. Now gauge a new overall score. Did it go up? Did it stay the same? Did it go down?
    12. Repeat the above as needed until you are happy with the score and feel the congruence between your sense of self and your achievements.
    13. When you are done, open your eyes again with a new feeling of certainty and solidness, ready to tackle any challenge that comes your way.

Going through the above exercise will help you establish your baseline self-image and even boost the health of it. Feel free to anchor this in. If after this self assessment, you are finding any lingering feelings of self doubt or lack of confidence and see the impostor phenomenon as a key impediment to your professional success, explore additional mindhacks that may help.

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