Do you ever feel like an impostor — and is the pandemic making it worse?

Experts say anytime you’re facing a new challenge or you’re out of your comfort zone, you're more susceptible to impostor syndrome. Here’s how to deal.
Why you're feeling imposter syndrome more during the pandemic SQUARE
Many of us are questioning whether we’re doing a good enough job “keeping up.”Charlotte Gomez / For TODAY

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By Sarah DiGiulio

COVID-19 has thrust many of us into new roles. Some of us are now full-time remote workers, some of us are stewards of virtual education, some of us are unemployed, some of us are bakers, some of us are Zoom aficionados (some of us are not) — and a lot of us are questioning whether we’re doing a good enough job “keeping up.”

Feelings of self-doubt can sometimes trigger impostor syndrome — a sense that you’re not really as smart or capable as people think you are, despite clear evidence to the contrary. For example, a prize-winning novelist experiencing impostor syndrome may think he just got lucky that people liked his first book or a medical student may worry that it was a fluke she made the cut for her class.

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The impostor syndrome

Psychologists say that of course we might be noticing some impostor syndrome-type feelings of self-doubt; it’s a perfectly natural response to what we’ve been going through during the pandemic. Lisa Orbé-Austin, a New York City-based psychologist and career coach, explained that anytime you’re in a new role, facing a new set of challenges, facing a high-stakes situation, or you simply find yourself out of your comfort zone, there’s a lot of pressure to perform well. That can trigger these impostor feelings of “I’m not good enough to do this,” she said. “This situation we’re in has created a lot of high-stakes moments for people.”

Orbé-Austin, who is also the author of "Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life," explained that the messages you got in your childhood (being labeled “the smart one” and not feeling like you're meeting expectations), the field you’re in (especially if it’s a competitive one like medicine or the arts), being in a new situation and not having others around you to exchange self-doubts with can all contribute.

But perhaps more important than pinpointing a cause of why you may or may not have more impostor feelings than someone else, is recognizing it can be a really common phenomenon. Some of the studies that were evaluated as part of a systematic review of 62 studies published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in December 2019 suggested that up to 82% of individuals may experience impostor-type feelings.

“Internally, we all feel doubts, apprehensions, ambivalence and insecurities,” said David Dunning, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who researches human misbelief and self-doubt. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, he explained. It’s just that we don’t typically reveal those doubts to other people — and they don’t typically reveal theirs to us, and therefore, we don’t necessarily see that a lot of people are going through the same thing as we are, Dunning said.

Valerie Young, the author of "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome," suggested that impostor syndrome becomes problematic if your doubts and insecurities get too big and hold you back from performing at your highest potential.

One example of this, said Young, would be if you don’t speak up in meetings for fear of not having something “smart enough to say.” You might develop potentially self-sabotaging coping strategies, like procrastination or substance abuse. You might constantly feel pressure to work harder than everyone around you, which can drain your time and energy.

How to deal with impostor syndrome

The good news, said Young, is that impostor syndrome isn’t a clinical condition. And if these feelings are holding you back, whether it’s now during the pandemic or at any other time, recognizing these feelings and changing your response to them can help.

“The goal is not to never feel like an impostor again,” said Young. “The goal is to have the tools to talk yourself down faster when you have a normal impostor moment.”

Here’s how to overcome impostor syndrome and keep impostor-like feelings in check so they don’t hold you back.

1. Normalize your impostor feelings

It’s normal to feel self-doubt (or to feel like an impostor) when you’re walking into a new situation or facing a new challenge, said Young. “You’ve never done this before. Why wouldn’t you feel like an impostor?”

2. Reframe your thinking

Become consciously aware of the conversation you’re having with yourself in your head — and reframe it. Young recommended focusing on the skills and experiences you have that make you capable and competent, and figuring out how to meet whatever challenge you’re facing. Rather than thinking you have no idea what you’re doing coming into a new job, tell yourself: “I’m really going to learn a lot. I can figure it out.”

And after enough experiences figuring it out, the confidence will come, said Young. “The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.”

3. Track your successes

Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin who is currently researching the impostor phenomenon in education, suggested keeping a weekly record of your accomplishments and successes, and then reviewing your list monthly. “(It’ll) remind you of all the successes you had that (you) may have minimized or discounted,” he said.

4. Value self-care

Another tip from Orbé-Austin was to think consciously and systematically about what habits you need to get in to feel energized and confident. She suggested asking yourself: “What are the activities that replenish me?”

5. Don’t go at it alone

Having a team around you who can back you up and remind you of your successes and competence when you need it, said Orbé-Austin. “Start to tell people you’re struggling with this,” she said. “Share it.”

And if your impostor feelings are intrusive or causing you distress, Cokley advised seeking help from a professional mental health expert.

6. Don’t let fears and impostor feelings stop you

Remember, said Young, if impostor syndrome is holding you back, making you play small or burning you out, everybody loses. “Sometimes you have to get out of your own way, not just for you, but for your organization, for your customers, for your community or for your family and friends.”