How to Stop Being an Impostor

Going Beyond Persistent Self-Doubts and Reclaiming Your Story

In May 2006, Guy Goma was sitting in the reception area of the BBC, patiently waiting to be interviewed for a job in the IT department. After a short while, a show producer called out his name and escorted him to the studio, where he was prepared with makeup, wired up with a microphone, and seated in front of cameras. All of this felt somewhat strange to him, but Goma assumed it was part of the procedure, and so he followed along, not wanting to cause a scene.

Only after the cameras started rolling, did he realize there had been a mistake. He was indeed being interviewed, but instead of applying for a job, he was being questioned for his expert opinion on a legal dispute about which he knew nothing – on national television, broadcasted live to millions of people. Meanwhile, the real expert – journalist Guy Kewney – was still sitting in the waiting area, bewildered by the unfolding event on the screens in front of him.


Although you were likely never mistaken for somebody else on live national television, you know what it’s like to feel out of place. When you believe to be unqualified for the task ahead of you; struggling with self-doubts, fearful of being found out. And even though other people haven’t caught up on you yet, they soon will and then you’ll be brandmarked as a fraud who is merely pretending to be someone they are not …or at least this is what it can feel like when you experience the impostor phenomenon.

The Story You Tell Yourself About Yourself

Becoming an impostor can happen quite naturally. In an effort to keep you safe, your mind tries to make sense of the world by gathering information and looking for patterns. All of your experiences serve as pieces of a puzzle, which your mind then uses to create a narrative – about who you are, what you are good at, what you struggle with, what you like and dislike, what your personality is, and basically everything else you believe about yourself. In other words, your mind creates the story of the true you.

This is a normal process and there’s nothing inherently problematic about it. For instance, you may have noticed yourself feeling anxious in groups of people and having a hard time socializing with others, and so you concluded that you’re an introvert who prefers spending his evenings at home alone instead of going out with friends. This is all well and good as long as your story reflects how you truly wish to spend your life. But what if you find yourself wanting for things that don’t align with your self-story?

What if, for instance, your boss asks you to give a presentation in front of a large crowd, or you need to network effectively to progress your career opportunities? In those moments, your story of being a socially-anxious introvert may actually hinder you from going after what you truly want. When you hold on too tightly to your self-stories, you are only allowed to exist within them, and any experience that doesn’t align with your beliefs about who you are and what you can do suddenly starts feeling like a threat. 

Even when your self-story is pessimistic, it’s often somehow soothing. It makes life predictable. Whatever your painful past or dismal future, inside the story of you at least you know you survived, and thus feel somewhat safe. Who knows what might happen if the story was violated?!! When you act (or even succeed) in ways that go beyond your self-story, well… then you might start feeling like an impostor; as your mind tries to keep you more limited and safe.

Everybody Is An Impostor Until They’re Not

Underneath the impostor phenomenon is a convincing lie that many people buy into. It’s the belief that there is a true you that is defined by your competence. And this true you, can either be qualified or unqualified for certain tasks and endeavors, meaning you either “got it” or you don’t (regardless of what “it” may be).

Despite what it may seem, this is not true: there is no fixed you in the content world of action and reaction. Even on a biological level, the cells that make up your body are constantly dying and replaced, at a rate of 330 billion cells each day. Who you are today is literally composed of different materials than who you were several years ago. And through psychological research, we know that people’s behavior and perceived identity heavily depends on their context, with different circumstances influencing people in quite different ways. This is why you can be kind and patient in some situations, while acting harsh and impulsive in others.

“Who you are” is constantly evolving, and has been doing so over the course of your life. Yes, you may notice similarities between your ten-year-old self and your current self, but I’m willing to bet you would describe yourself quite differently nowadays than if I had asked your ten-year-old self. In fact, I’m willing to make yet another bet: you are currently doing things with ease that at one point in your life felt insurmountably difficult – whether we are talking about getting a degree, driving a car, or even just reading these words. You can evolve as a person, learn new skills, develop aspects of your personality, become physically stronger, and mentally more resilient.

The truth is: every person who has ever achieved anything noteworthy in their life has previously not been that person on the outside. Everybody is an impostor …until they are not.

When I was in school and early on as an academic it made me mad when I got good grades or my work was praised. “Don’t they know I didn’t give it my all?” I thought. “I only did half of what I could have done. And sooner or later they will find out! I’m not genuinely deserving. They will eventually despise me for it!” 

Feeling I was not being genuine was a torment. 

All of that changed when I began to work on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 1981 after my transformational moment at the bottom of my panic disorder. “Genuine” disappeared and in a way that fits with the likely etymology of the word. I learned to own my self-doubt and let competence be a gradual process judged adequately to the demands of the moment in a step-by-step way.

“Genuine” comes from the Latin “genuinus.” Etymologist argue about where it came from but many believe it relates to the word “genu” meaning “knee” referring to the Roman custom of a father acknowledging paternity of a newborn child by placing it on his knee; perhaps linked to the word “gignere” meaning “to create; beget.”  I rather like the image even if the etymology is uncertain.

What if you took yourself and your self stories and from that the deepest and more spiritual part of you, you put your scared “imposter” self on your knee and owned it. “I see I have a story about my feared lack of competence. I own it and will allow myself the freedom to acquire competence step by step, mistakes included.” That’s not “being an imposter” – it’s allowing yourself to learn! 

Feeling Like An Impostor Doesn’t Mean You Are One

When you cling too hard to your storied self – the beliefs you carry about who you are – you are limited to act in familiar ways. This means you are likely to continue getting the results you have always gotten. If, however, you want something different, something that goes beyond your current ideas about who you are and what you can do, you need to learn how to loosen up. You can create more flexibility, by allowing more room for thinking, feeling, and acting in ways that may currently feel foreign to you, but which aid you in living a fulfilled and meaningful life.

The crucial point is this: It doesn’t matter what you believe about yourself. The story you tell yourself about yourself only carries weight when you hold these beliefs tightly to your chest, and when you subscribe to their power over you. Instead, you can view it as just a story – and whether it is true or not (spoiler: it is not) doesn’t matter, because you can still act in ways that bring you closer to what you care about.

The feeling of being an impostor may remain, or it may not. Either is fine, truly. It may disappear for a while and then return later. Or you may lose it entirely in one area of your life, but suddenly start feeling like an impostor in another. Again, this is all okay. It doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as an impostor. Instead, what matters is whether you let yourself be bound by this self-story, or whether you acknowledge it and STILL decide to act in ways that are in alignment with your goals and chosen purpose.

Whenever the self-doubts of being an impostor show up, notice and acknowledge them. They can be here, and don’t need to disappear. In fact, you can even invite them in and let them enter freely, while they witness you focusing on what you care about, and then acting in purposeful ways. Again and again. You might consider sharing them with others you trust. There is no waiting until you no longer feel like an impostor – the day may come or it may not. There is, however, a choice to be made: 

Are you willing to step up for what you care about even though you feel fearful, inadequate, and unqualified? If so, show your answer through your actions. 

Be kind to yourself and metaphorically put your fears and self-doubts on your knee and own them. That is being genuine. That is what people hooked by being an imposter can’t bring themselves to do. Then go about the life-long process of learning how to be more competent in areas you care about, one small step after the other.

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