How Highly Successful People Handle Self-Doubt

By Anders Wallace

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Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

Many of us have an inner critic, a persistent thought pattern that tells us we’re wrong, we’re not good enough, or maybe even that we don’t deserve success. This thought may prevent you from speaking up in a meeting; from sending that important email you’ve been procrastinating about; or from sharing an important concern with your advisor or your boss; all because you feel like your thoughts aren’t worthwhile. Often these thoughts lurk in the background, in the periphery of our consciousness, which makes it harder to spot for what they are: a habitual thought process, not an accurate reflection of reality.

In this blog post, I’ll debunk some myths about “imposter syndrome”: a persistent thought pattern that tells us, in many different and subtle ways, that we’re a fraud. I’ll also discuss some strategies that high-achievers use to get around these self-imposed roadblocks that allow them to be more happy, confident, and proactive – not just in their careers but in all areas of their life.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a thought pattern that tells us we’re a fraud. Often, it makes us think our accomplishments or abilities are the result of luck, or even worse, the result of having deceived others about how intelligent or skilled we are.

Imposter syndrome isn’t a mental disorder. It’s a cognitive habit, a mental tic in response to certain typical situations or stimuli. Research suggests that nearly 70 percent of people will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their life. It can come in many different contexts, but some typical ones are when you’re starting a new job, entering a new academic environment, meeting new people, or starting a new relationship (regardless whether it’s platonic or romantic). In other words, almost everyone is vulnerable to feeling like an imposter when they’re in-between social or professional roles. Rather than feeling confident and putting your best foot forward, it can falsely lead you to hold back: to avoid following up with that professional contact; to skip applying for that job; and to feel shy when you’re networking with new people at a professional development event.

Imposter syndrome can take many specific forms in our conscious thoughts—“I’m so careless,” “I must be wrong,” “I don’t measure up,” “I don’t deserve this,” “Why would someone do this for me,” or “This must be too good to be true,” for example—but the underlying idea is the same: that we’re not actually very good at a given task, that we don’t deserve success, that we’ve tricked others into seeing us as better than we really are, and that it’s only a matter of time before we’re found out for being incompetent or just plain unworthy.

Imposter syndrome is often rooted in our life experiences. Many different factors can play into it, such as growing up with parents who pushed us to excel, and who may have been overprotective, absent, or inconsistent in their style of nurture; as a woman or as a person of color; with a shifting network of friends; with the urge to be a perfectionist and do things “just right”; or with an excessive tendency to monitory ourselves and constantly evaluate our own self-worth.

And it’s especially pertinent to graduate students. Imposter syndrome may come about when we compare ourselves with our classmates; if we feel academically unprepared (especially in comparison with peers); if we question why and how we got into the program; and when we think that our good grades, awards, or other forms of external recognition are the result of external factors rather than our ability or intelligence.

A key point is that imposter syndrome has no necessary relationship to reality. In other words, good accomplishments don’t convince us that our thoughts of being a fraud were wrong. Ironically, studies suggest that many high achievers suffer the most from impostor syndrome. Leaders in different fields – from Neil Gaiman to Maya Angelou, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and even Albert Einstein – have spoken at various times about feeling undeserving of success. The famed Roman orator Cicero said, “I turn pale at the outset of a speech and quake in every limb.” Maya Angelou said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

If it’s largely a fantasy, imposter syndrome can have very real costs. People who suffer from imposter syndrome can feel depressed, stressed, anxious, or insecure. It can persuade people to avoid speaking up or taking responsibility; to dodge opportunities that we don’t feel qualified for; to downplay promotions, accomplishments, and even other peoples’ appreciation or gratitude for our efforts; to feel guilt for perceived failings in ways that often leads to fearing success; and to avoid being proactive in any number of situations because we overestimate risks that may, in fact, be negligible.

In short, imposter syndrome can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we feel like we’re secretly undeserving, then we may give less than what we’re capable of, avoid making interesting or beneficial new connections, or carry simmering resentments that impede our ability to take pleasure in our work.

How Can We Handle It?

“Out of the 60 to 70,000 thoughts we have every day, estimates suggest 98 percent of them are the same,” writes performance coach and Hunter College (CUNY) faculty member Melody Wilding. This reveals that most of your thoughts are not necessary real nor true; rather, they’re habitual. Your inner critic is really a habit. As a habit, it’s something you can get control of.

1. Acknowledge moments you experience self-doubt

Begin by consciously noticing those times when you’re experiencing self-doubt. Recognize and become mindful of your negative thought patterns, those typical stories you tell yourself. You might want to write them down as short bullet points to help you keep track.

Then sit back and think about what underlying beliefs you have about yourself that may be driving these thoughts. These beliefs may be rooted in childhood. They’re beliefs that make you feel as though you don’t deserve your success. More than likely, these thoughts are cognitive distortions: exaggerated, irrational, or unrealistic thoughts that leave you feeling anxious or insecure.

2. Practice self-compassion

Your inner critic is there to protect you. So, the second step after noticing and naming your negative thoughts is to practice self-compassion. Don’t judge yourself harshly for having negative thoughts. Accept these thoughts and become curious about them. Re-frame these thoughts as questions.

If you think you’re not ready to start a new job, for example, then use it as an opportunity to assess your skills and abilities and identify any areas that you may want to improve. You may discover your fears have no logical basis. Once you’ve gotten more specific about what you want to improve, feel free to replace the negative thought with a positive one by noticing all the strengths and talents you bring that are unique.

Many people find it’s helpful to find others to confide in. Research suggests that relying on colleagues, friends, or family—and feeling able to confide in them about our hopes and fears—is a powerful antidote to counteract the imposter syndrome. You may also benefit from keeping a diary or a gratitude journal, noting down things you’re grateful for or times you’ve received positive feedback from others.

Recognize that your self-esteem is subjective to you. It doesn’t depend on anyone else. And it’s completely irrelevant to how you perceive others’ successes. Focusing on your own motivations, values, and reasons for doing your work can help you rediscover the intrinsic value of your efforts and extract self-doubt before it strikes.

Everyone faces worry, confusion, and anxiety in the face of change and uncertainty—whether you’re changing careers, or simply choosing a different graduate adviser for your dissertation. “It’s normal to be afraid. Our inner critic will always speak up anytime we try to do big things no matter how positive we try to be,” Wilding writes.

3. Begin to actively change your mindset

Finally, recognize your negative thoughts as a gift: they’re signposts pointing to the limits of your personal comfort zone. You can then make the conscious choice to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new. Hearing your inner critic pipe up might just mean you’re about to do something different, brave, or important to you.


I hope this blog post has been useful in bringing to light a phenomenon that affects many people but that few are willing to admit or speak openly about.

Here at the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development we’re always willing to speak with you about your career search or to help you with self-assessments at any stage of the job search process. Feel free to make an appointment with one of our career advisers to take advantage of this service.

Also be aware that the GC Wellness Center offers individual counseling for students who want a safe and supportive space to talk.