Do you have a nagging feeling that you’re not as smart as everyone thinks you are?  Are you pretty sure your gifted label is just a house of cards, ready to collapse as soon as everyone else catches on that you’re a fraud?  That’s called Impostor Syndrome, when you’re actually smart, but you think you’re not, and today let’s talk about how to change your internal monologue and reclaim your self confidence. 

    Impostor Syndrome is a fairly common issue among gifted adults, especially when they haven’t found a path or a place where their skills are valued.  It’s a real paradox that we find ourselves in – you’d think that a person who learns quickly and solves problems creativity would clearly be viewed as an asset in most situations, but unfortunately, our society leans toward an anti-intellectual bias, where smart people are viewed as nerds, who are the opposite of cool and popular, and as threats, when they’re lumped in with the “elite” who have come to take your job or tell you what to do.  So when a gifted adult is marginalized in their career or in their situation, held back or pushed into a corner by people who don’t understand them, the cognitive dissonance there is very hard to overcome.  We start to believe that we may actually be bad, we may actually be the problem, and we start to doubt that we are actually smart at all. 

    In addition, a lot of #formergiftedkids were identified when they were young, promised (directly and indirectly) that they were destined for greatness, but because they never reached the heights of wild success that they expected a gifted person should reach, they feel like they are failures. And I’ve talked about this before, but we are each allowed to choose our own goals and create our own definition of success, and you’re not a failure if you haven’t reached someone else’s definition of success … but when you’re immersed in this situation and this feeling, it’s very hard to see that. 

    And there are actually four more reasons why measurably smart, provably accomplished people are actually convinced that there must have been some mistake and they’re not gifted at all, but before we get to those, let’s talk about what the voice of Impostor Syndrome sounds like inside your head.

    • When someone says you did a great job, do you immediately say, “Oh no, it was nothing to do with me,” and come up with reasons that your success was due to some other factor, like luck, or someone else’s hard work? 
    • When you’ve clearly done something well, do you automatically compare yourself unfavorably to someone else, and get discouraged that they do things better than you?
    • When you’ve made a minor mistake, do you obsess over it, to the point that it ruins your enjoyment with the overall success of the whole project?
    • When someone praises you, is your gut reaction to assume they’re lying and wonder what their ulterior motives are? 

    Impostor Syndrome is like an insidious snake constantly hissing in your brain that you stink, and these unceasing negative messages, that are actually untrue, not only prevent you from enjoying your actual successes, but they prevent you from appreciating your significant skills and feeling confident enough to use them for good in the world. 

    So why do so many gifted folks suffer from Impostor Syndrome?  Here are five reasons why gifted adults can get stuck in this cycle of pressure to meet unrealistic standards, perceived failure, and plummeting self-doubt. 

    1. Early experiences – When we’re young, and starting to show signs of being very smart, we get a lot of praise, but we also tend to get a lot of oversimplified messages about what giftedness really is.  Giftedness is not how much you know, but how your brain works.  We experience the world more deeply, understand quickly, and make connections that other people don’t see.  That’s what we have going for us.  We’re not born knowing the alphabet, or understanding how to do brain surgery.  All those skills and talents come later, after we apply our unique way of learning to a subject.   BUT, many of us heard our parents or teachers saying things that SOUND like we should already know everything, understand everything, and succeed without trying, like, “Oh she taught herself to read when she was three, she can figure out anything,” or “He’s been doing advanced math work since he was seven, he hardly needs to study.”  What we don’t realize when we’re young, is that these messages are not the whole story – life is a lot more complicated than that. These simplified narratives were not meant to explain everything that giftedness is – they’re very small pieces of a very large puzzle.  Giftedness means your brain works differently, and you can learn very quickly, but it doesn’t mean that you never have to try hard to learn something or you never have to practice to achieve mastery of something. Looking back with an adult’s perspective of those messages, we can see that those casually tossed out comments had another purpose, most likely because the parent was proud or was amazed at one piece of the puzzle that’s your brain.  But because we heard these messages so early, at an age where we didn’t understand the nuances around the subject, we internalized them as-is, and they’re so ingrained in our personal narrative that we don’t realize that we’re basing our adult conclusions on a very simplistic, limited, childlike viewpoint.  We don’t realize that we’re still judging ourselves by a standard that we didn’t fully understand.  Just because things came easily to us at one point in our lives doesn’t mean they must always come easy or else we’re not gifted.  Life is more complicated than that.

    2. Cultural expectations – Our society uses an inaccurate definition to explain giftedness.  Despite decades of study and hundreds of experiments and research papers and experts who have been trying to explain our particular type of neurodivergence, the popular description of giftedness still sounds like, “Gifted people are smart in every subject, they never make mistakes or have to work hard, and everything comes easy to them.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone who fits that description.  But it’s easy to see how I might start to feel like I’m not gifted if I buy into that definition.  Giftedness makes it easier for us to understand new information because we can see and absorb it in more detail, and make connections between new pieces of information more quickly, but that doesn’t mean that we never have to think, or review, or test theories, or practice, or get additional detail, or ask for explanations.  We still have to work and put effort in to learn and understand and accomplish things.  You can hand someone who’s musically talented a violin, but if you don’t teach them to play it, and if they don’t practice, they will not automatically become a virtuoso.  Giftedness does not equate to immediate proficiency, but again, you can see how if I’m listening to society’s messages that it does, I might start to doubt myself.  

    3. Fear of failure – Sometimes, we’ve internalized these messages from our past and from the world around us to such a degree that we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re not allowed a single misstep, and that all our worth is based on maintaining this veneer of perfection.  We’ve convinced ourselves that smart people never make mistakes, and that to prove that we’re smart, we must never make a single error.  And when we do inevitably make a mistake, because everyone does, regardless of how smart they are, we start to beat ourselves up and that Impostor voice starts saying, “If you were actually smart, you would have done this perfectly, so that gifted label must have been a mistake.”  But it’s believing this voice that is the mistake.  Imagine, if you were helping a child learn how to read, and they were cruising along and really getting the hang of it, but then they read the word “read” as (R-E-D) instead of (R-E-E-D).  That wouldn’t surprise you at all, because the fact that two words can be spelled the same but pronounced differently isn’t something a child would know unless he had been taught that, so that mispronunciation isn’t a mistake, per se, but a step in the learning process. When we’re struggling with Impostor Syndrome, we don’t judge ourselves by the same standards – we don’t give ourselves the same grace.  And that little voice is telling us that if we make a mistake, we have failed, and to the little voice, failure is the same as erasing the entire gifted label.  Which is patently untrue. Those are two different things.  You can have an intensely perceptive brain that learns quickly, AND you can make mistakes. 

    4. Toxic achievement culture –  This is a tricky one.  Our society has evolved into an environment that places an excessive emphasis on success, achievement, and productivity, at the expense of well-being, mental health, and work-life balance. The societal definition of success has become this cutthroat race for high status, huge money, prestigious jobs and careers, and the inaccurate view of giftedness has merged with this toxic achievement culture to create an expectation that the top scholars in any class must automatically aim for these intensely competitive fields or they’re “not living up to their potential.” Now, logically, every gifted person isn’t going to be temperamentally suited for a career in medicine, law, engineering or finance.  There should be no limitations on what area a gifted person chooses to focus her talent on … but if you’ve been trained to believe that your value lies in what you do, not who you are, and in your experience, you only receive praise and support when you operate within these narrow confines and expectations, you are very likely to launch yourself onto a path that’s not right for you, and now you’ve just set yourself up for a very long struggle.  If you’re pursuing someone else’s goals, and the steps to the top aren’t coming easy for you, it’s not that you’re not talented, or you’re not smart enough, it’s that you’re on the wrong journey.  You’re not an impostor, you’re just on the wrong path. 

    5. High performance is our only source of connection – Growing up as a gifted person, we often find ourselves the odd ones out.  Maybe we’re the only gifted kid in our class, or in our grade, or maybe we’re having trouble finding friends who understand and accept our gifted quirks.  It can be very lonely being a gifted kid.  Then, once we start our careers, we’re often hoping that our achievement can be the key that unlocks the door to finally being accepted.  If we do well in a job, maybe we can become the person that everyone looks to or likes or wants to be around.  So we set up a situation where we start to believe that we must do everything as perfectly as possible, so we can get the appreciation and connection that we crave.  And when we do stumble, as normal people do, we worry that we just blew our chance, and we redouble our efforts to be as useful and reliable and perfect as possible, which just makes things worse.  We need to let go of the fallacy that being the absolute smartest, faultless person in the room isn’t our ticket to acceptance.  

    So there are a lot of reasons why gifted folks can suffer from Impostor Syndrome. What do we do about it?

    You can overcome Impostor Syndrome with these steps.

    1. Revisit your origin story, and look at your core beliefs about giftedness with an adult’s vantage point.  Think about where you learned your ideas about what gifted people are like, and why those messages might have been inaccurate.

    2. Understand your triggers.  Sit down and think about WHEN you feel the most like an impostor.  Is it when you hear criticism?  Or when someone challenges your conclusions?  Or when you’re assigned a new project, or when you see someone else’s success?  Knowing what sets off your own cascade of doubt will help you figure out what tools you need to stop that before it starts.

    3. Think about what kind of Impostor Syndrome you have.  Do you feel like you need to be perfect, or a natural genius, or that you can never ask for help?  When you have this piece of information, you want to take that and think about people you know who you believe are smart, and ask yourself whether they are limited by the same expectations you’ve been putting on yourself?  Was Steven Spielberg always perfect?  Did Walt Disney build his empire completely alone?  Now you can start to bring a dose of reality to your inner monologue.

    4. Remind yourself that you are actually smart.  List off your accomplishments, celebrate your wins, and remind yourself of the things you’ve done that you never thought you could do.

    5. Put a name to your fears, then surround yourself with support.

    6. Remind yourself regularly of life’s truths, like there will always be obstacles and no one is perfect. 


      If you’d like some help with the process of overcoming Impostor Syndrome, I’ve linked my downloadable toolkit here.  This is a 20-page PDF of worksheets and exercises that take you through the six steps I just listed, along with printable affirmations to stick on your mirror to remind you of your value, self-confidence prompts, and printable journal pages to help keep you on track.  

      Impostor Syndrome is an illusion, and it’s well within your power to break that illusion, and feel confident again and ready to go share your gifts with the world. 

      And while you’re at it,  I’d like to invite you to join my private Facebook group. Wayfinders is a supportive online community of former gifted kids who are all trying to find a path where our gifts and passions align with our purpose.