How to overcome the feeling that you’re not good enough

Try this advice for conquering impostor syndrome.

You step onto a college campus for the first time and think, “Everyone here is brilliant!” Are you excited about going to school with such accomplished people? Or are you terrified that you won’t measure up and everyone will realize you don’t belong there?

If you do have doubts, you’re likely experiencing the phenomenon called impostor syndrome, according to Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Impostor syndrome is a tendency to doubt yourself and to worry that your accomplishments are a result of luck, help from others, or other external factors, or that the praise you receive is undeserved.

The phenomenon was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. To determine whether you’re affected, try this test on Clance's site.

An estimated 70% of the population will experience impostor syndrome at some point, and it can hit people of any age, gender, or background. Lady Gaga, Tina Fey, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have all talked about dealing with it. Even celebrated scientist Albert Einstein worried that his work was held in “exaggerated esteem.” Younger people may be especially vulnerable because of increasing pressures to succeed and to measure up to what others are posting on social media.

Don’t give up, though, because there are ways you can overcome your anxieties:

  • Understand what’s happening. Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, vice president, finance, 1st Financial Bank USA in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, has received much recognition for her work, including being named one of the Most Powerful Women in Accounting by the AICPA and CPA Practice Advisor. When she is honored along with other successful people, she struggles to believe that she deserves the recognition, she said.

    The positive news is that spotting the problem can help solve it. “Start with becoming more consciously aware of the conversation you’re having in your head at the impostor moment,” Young recommended, including your doubts about yourself and your abilities.
  • Set reasonable expectations. Jacquelyn H. Tracy, CPA, CGMA, a partner at CPA firm Mandel & Tracy LLC, and the chair of the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee, encourages students to believe in their ability to grow. “Recognize that you do have skills that you can build on,” she said. “And don’t be afraid to ask questions. No one expects you to know it all.”

    Creating what Young calls a “Crazy Impostor Rulebook” can help. Finish this sentence: If I were really intelligent, capable, or competent I would _____.

    What are your answers based on your own expectations for yourself? Do you think a capable person should get everything right the first time? Be the best in the class? Always have great confidence? Jot down your outlandish beliefs and “you’ll see the unconscious rules you’re operating by and how unrealistic they are,” she said.

    Young notes that even the most impressive people have probably faced many setbacks or disappointments. For an example, check out Princeton assistant professor Johannes Haushofer’s CV (curriculum vitae) of Failures, which shows that not even accomplished people are successful all of the time.
  • Make a list of your strengths. Keep a record of the many things you’re good at. “Putting it all on paper can really help you see your value,” Stevenson said.

    Include specific achievements, such as awards or honors, as well as skills or abilities that are valuable in a variety of situations. “You may be very organized or good with technology or at applying what you learn quickly,” Tracy said. “Maybe you’re a good writer or researcher or an efficient worker, or you had an internship that gives you added experience.” Turn to this list whenever you feel doubts creeping in.
  • Share your thoughts with a mentor. Your mentor could be a professor or another student who has a great deal of life experience. Mentors may have surprising stories about their own experiences with impostor syndrome and good advice on how they overcame it.

    “Find a way to voice your anxieties in a safe space,” Stevenson advised. “There’s something about admitting your fears that is freeing. You may be thinking that others don’t see the hot mess you are inside. Talking can help normalize those thoughts and help you realize you’re not alone.”

    When you tackle feelings of unworthiness, you’re better able to speak up for yourself and get the opportunities you deserve. “You can make a real difference in your life by recognizing all you’re capable of,” Stevenson said. “Think: ‘I have value and I’m going to share it with others. I earned the right to be here.’”
  • By Anita Dennis, a New Jersey-based freelance writer.

    To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien.

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