Impostor syndrome and overcoming feelings of inadequacy.

Do you ever feel like an impostor?

Feel like you don’t deserve the praise you are receiving, or the results you are achieving? Wondering when the others will realize you’re a fraud.

Do you ever feel you’re not enough?

Well, you’re not alone.

In fact, you may be surprised just how many people feel the same way you do.

Recently, I was caught off guard when a performer I particularly admire spoke to me about certain insecurities he’s felt as an artist. In particular, that he found it very hard to accept praise for his work, as he could only see the holes in his performance, and all the areas where others were stronger than him. He was always quick to point out flaws in his technique, however small, or to find an example of someone who could do it better. At least, as he put it, “somehow I’ve snuck my way into Cirque du Soleil”.

It was fascinating. Here was someone I considered to be exceptionally talented, telling me he really didn’t think he was that good.

How could someone at that level begin to doubt whether he was worthy of his success?

Then again, having struggled with similar feelings of inadequacy at various times in my career, I understood all too well.

You’ve probably experienced it, too.

Introducing: Impostor syndrome

What my friend and I were experiencing is known in psychology as “impostor syndrome”, a phenomenon whereby people cannot seem to internalize their successes, dismissing them instead as the result of luck, good timing, or almost anything else other than their own hard-work and abilities.

Those affected consistently feel as though they are frauds; that they have to work extra hard to make sure others don’t “find them out”. It’s not officially considered to be a mental illness, but it can seriously affect your life. Chronic feelings of self-doubt, and dwelling excessively on failure and negative feedback, can bring about extreme stress and even depression.

Impostor syndrome isn’t some rare form of paranoia reserved for high-achievers either. Some studies estimate that as many as 70% of all people experience this feeling at some point or another.
If I were a betting man, I’d guess that means you have, too.

But why do so many people feel this way, and what can we do about it?

What is it that causes people to believe that they are undeserving of success or praise, despite clear evidence to the contrary?


Imagine a pond full of ducks, all gliding effortlessly along the surface of the water.

Now imagine yourself as a duck on that pond; your feet churning the water furiously below you as you move about.

You watch the other ducks slip blissfully across the pond, effortlessly. But not you; you have to struggle to keep up.

After a while, you begin to think maybe you’re not as good as the other ducks…

Then again…

To the other ducks you also appear to be coasting without effort.

Only you can feel the motions of your legs below the surface; these are invisible to everyone else.

Just like their own churning legs are invisible to you.

Just like you can’t know what you, yourself, look like from across the pond, to the other ducks.

I don’t presume to understand all the factors that contribute to feelings of inadequacy relative to our peers, but I do believe that a large part of the problem is the simple fact that we are unable to directly experience the way others feel in similar situations to our own. Instead, we create our own stories about the lives of those around us, often distorting the truth due to lack of information.

Keep this in mind as you compare yourself to others. What you see is only a sample of what is there to be seen, and most often a carefully curated version of the truth.

If you have a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Every time you share a picture, video, or story, you’re making a decision that affects the way others will see you. How often will you choose to post, or not post something, based on the thought of how others will see you as a result?

Do you wish to show that you are struggling and uncertain, or strong and capable?

Most people will choose the latter. Myself included.

We much prefer to present the “highlight reel” version of ourselves, to the “uncut” version. Let me ask you this:

How accurately do you think your friends’ Facebook profiles reflect their lives?

How accurately does yours?

It’s all smooth sailing above the surface; churning feet below.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it’s a bad thing to put your best foot forward on social media, or otherwise. I simply wish to stress how important it is to be aware of this reality so as to avoid unnecessarily inflating the expectations you put on yourself, as this is a sure path to stress and discontentment.

Strategies for dealing with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.

Most people don’t realize just how common this experience is, and may be surprised to find out that others around them suffer the same feelings of inadequacy at times. I know I was surprised when my friend opened up about feeling like an impostor in the circus world, and honestly it was comforting to realize that I wasn’t the only one. Sometimes, just knowing that you are not alone in your experience is enough to considerably reduce the stress that it produces.

Simply talking about these feelings with someone close to you can be a great step toward regaining your confidence in your abilities and worth. And you never know, by opening up you may also help to free someone else from their own struggle with “impostorship”.

Another technique that can help you to internalize your successes is to sit down and create a written list of accomplishments. It sounds very simple, and it is, but the fact of writing accomplishments down, rather than dismissing them internally, helps you to associate them with reality. Plus, you can return to your list again and again whenever you feel the need for a boost.

Finally, remember the ducks on the pond analogy. What you see around you is not the whole picture. Keep this in mind as you navigate the world of social media, and other daily interactions, to avoid creating unrealistic ideas about the lives of others, and of what’s “normal”. If you’re ever feeling insecure about where you sit, remember that we are all just ducks on the same pond, and our experiences are, in general, much more similar than they are different, even if it doesn’t always appear that way.

You’re doing fine. Keep going.

If you’ve ever experienced feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, especially chronically, I hope you found this article to be of some help. It hasn’t been a chronic problem for me personally, but I have struggled through periods of self-doubt and discouragement before, so I know what it can feel like and wish that I had been more open to talking about it in the past.

Please share this article on social media, as you never know who might need to read it. And if you’d also like to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, I would love to hear from you.

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2 Replies to “Impostor syndrome and overcoming feelings of inadequacy.”

  1. Wonderful thought provoking article that sums up my day to day work life as well as my athletic career.

    As you alluded to in the article some days I feel like i am the only one that feels this way and it is good to know there is a larger population that struggles with this on a daily basis.

    1. You’re definitely not alone, Josh.
      So far this post has been getting a tremendous response, and I’m continually surprised to see who else shares these same feelings of self-doubt. It seems like everyone struggles with this at some time or another.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

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