When you passed the CPA Exam, did you think it was a lucky break? When you got hired, did you wonder if it was a mistake? Was there ever a time you didn't ask for a project or assignment because you didn't think you were good enough?
If so, you may have battled "impostor syndrome," a psychological phenomenon in which people have trouble believing their success is legitimate. Instead, they feel that they do not measure up to others and that they are frauds on the verge of being exposed.
Impostor syndrome is not a diagnosable psychological condition but rather a term that describes a persistent state of mind. Nevertheless, it can still undermine your confidence. It can be "a very sly monster," said Marinelle Reynolds, a licensed clinical social worker with 18 years of experience in the mental health field. "It slithers into our minds and whispers lies. It hisses that there is someone more qualified and deserving."
But impostor syndrome is often not based on facts, said April Klimkiewicz, owner of Bliss Evolution, a career-coaching business based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In fact, she noted, people who suffer from it "are equally as qualified as their peers, or even more qualified."
Impostor syndrome can strike at any age and at any point in a career, but there are ways to battle it. Here are some tips:
- Identify it. The first step is recognition. "Most people don't realize that the feelings they experience are more common than they think," said Klimkiewicz. When someone seems to be struggling with impostor syndrome, she introduces him or her to the concept and asks whether the idea resonates. "People often experience feelings of relief when they begin to understand that they are not alone," she said.
- Change the way you speak to yourself. Once you know what to look for, start working to change your internal language, replacing anxious thoughts with affirming ones. Instead of telling yourself that you can't do a project on your own, for instance, say something like: "With minimal supervision and proper training, I am able to complete difficult, complex projects," suggested Klimkiewicz. Or, if you find yourself thinking that you'll never be as good as your mentor, try telling yourself something like: "With the support of my mentor, I have been able to build on his or her work and add positively to the profession."
- Chart your successes. Keep track of your successes to help convince yourself that you deserve them. Reynolds, who is based in Kathleen, Ga., suggested keeping a "celebration journal" that records accomplishments and other things that make you proud. "Celebrate accomplishments and positive feedback you get from others," she said. "When impostor syndrome creeps in, go back to your journal."
- Accept praise. Meanwhile, work on how you respond to praise. Many people who deal with impostor syndrome need to learn to accept a compliment. "Every time you're about to brush off a compliment or accolade, stop yourself and just say 'thank you,'" Henry said.
- Talk about it. While impostor syndrome thrives on secrecy, don't be afraid to discuss the issue with others. Close friends and trusted colleagues are a good start, but you might also need to talk to a therapist. "People don't realize they're not the only one that feels this way unless they understand what they're experiencing and are able to talk to someone about it or work with a professional through it," said Klimkiewicz.
Ashley Hampton, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Birmingham, Ala., noted that changing your inner monologue is a tactic that can work well. Once someone has experienced success with it, "feelings of impostor syndrome will likely fade," she said, adding that the syndrome could resurface with a new task or promotion.
Nikki Henry, chief executive of Ladies Leading Ladies, a Fresno, Calif.-based organization that works to make women stronger leaders, said that listing your successes is one way to banish impostor syndrome — as long as you keep the list positive.
Don't write down the reasons you believe that you accomplished [something] or bring your feelings of impostor syndrome into the writing," she suggested. "Just start listing accomplishments. You will find rather quickly that this list grows and grows, and that there is no way that your success can just be a mistake, coincidence, or dumb luck."
The ultimate goal is to recognize and respect your talent. "The more you talk about impostor syndrome, the more you can start to see it for what it is: a harsh part of your imagination," Henry said.
Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-vien.com.