Impostor Syndrome: Don’t Go Down the Rabbit Hole

When I was first starting out in my career, I would frequently go down what I call “the rabbit hole” whenever I was asked to complete a task. You know the rabbit hole: once you question one thing, you lead yourself down a path where you question many things, most of which don’t even relate to the original question.

The rabbit hole would go like this: Can I do this well? Can I do anything well? What if I’m not actually good at my job? Do I even deserve to be here? What if everything I do is awful from here on out? What if I’m a fraud? Was Holden Caulfield right about phonies? What if I’m the phony?!

This doubt would all stem from being asked to complete tasks I knew I was more than capable of completing, but the doubt felt real to me in the moment.

Welcome to the phenomenon known as impostor syndrome.

A Primer on Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome, which was first identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes more than 40 years ago, is a phenomenon where someone reacts to a situation by experiencing self-doubt about their accomplishments. They believe they’ve succeeded up to that point because they’ve been lucky, not because of their talents or experience, and they fear others will find out they’re a fraud.

An estimated 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. Clance and Imes first hypothesized that the phenomenon was unique to women, but research has confirmed that both men and women experience it.

People can experience impostor syndrome for different reasons. Perhaps they come from a family where expectations for achievement were high. Perhaps they’re in an environment where outside sources are causing this reaction, including being in a time of change. Perhaps it stems from a continuous struggle with anxiety – a struggle with which I’m very familiar.

When someone feels impostor syndrome in the moment, it can feel like it’s anywhere from a minor annoyance to a daunting feeling that won’t go away – and it can begin having a negative impact on your career and your life if you don’t address it.

Defeat Impostor Syndrome

When we experience impostor syndrome, it can feel like the thoughts or doubt won’t pass. But researchers and psychologists have identified tactics you can try when you find yourself experiencing it. Here are some of those tactics, as well as things I’ve found helpful.

  1. Acknowledge that you’re feeling it. This sounds like a simple thing to do, but it may be the hardest step. Rather than putting on a brave face and pretending like we aren’t experiencing these feelings, we may inadvertently make it worse and prime ourselves to go down the rabbit hole. Researchers recommend that when you start to feel impostor syndrome, take a moment to stop and ask if your thoughts are helping you or if they’re hurting you.

  2. Try to reframe the negative thoughts and feelings. If your thoughts aren’t helping you, try another approach. Instead of thinking something negative (“Am I a fraud?”), researchers suggest trying to think critically about why you’re experiencing impostor syndrome. For example, if you realize you’re experiencing it because you aren’t quite understanding something in your job, ask a colleague you trust for help and make a list of steps you need to take to get caught up. By taking action, you’re not only addressing the negativity, but you’re teaching yourself to stop automatically going down the path with negativity.

  3. Remind yourself that you didn’t get here by accident. You didn’t! No one is that lucky, because it’s impossible to be that lucky. You need to remind yourself that only a few people out of dozens or hundreds or thousands were asked to come in for the final interview, or present at the conference, or get into that university or program – and you were one of them. Your talent, experience and knowledge brought you this far in life, not luck, so give yourself the pep talk you deserve.

  4. Talk about it with people you trust. If you bring up impostor syndrome with a friend, a family member or a mentor, they’ll probably tell you they’ve experienced it too and will share their own experiences with it. Talking about it with someone you trust makes it less scary and starts taking away its power, much like saying “Voldemort” instead of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” Name the thing, and talk about it.

  5. Remember that Neil Armstrong felt it, and he walked on the moon. My favorite story about impostor syndrome is a story writer Neil Gaiman shared about when he met Neil Armstrong at a party. Armstrong felt like he didn’t belong: “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” He was the first person in the history of humanity to set foot on the moon, and even he felt it! I think of this story when I start experiencing impostor syndrome, because it reminds me that if I’m experiencing it, I must be doing something right because I’m in the company of a great man.

Impostor syndrome can be scary, but it’s a feeling most people will experience in their lives and careers. You aren’t an anomaly if you feel it. If you can acknowledge what you’re feeling and try to avoid going down the rabbit hole, you’ll start to find your way out of the doubt. Keep in mind that you can always reach out to a professional to learn other tools and techniques for addressing impostor syndrome if you feel like you need additional guidance.

I’ll end with Gaiman’s reflection on his conversation with Armstrong, because Gaiman is a fantastic writer and so beautifully captures my thoughts on impostor syndrome:

“…I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an impostor, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”

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