Ever looked around and felt it's just a matter of time before someone finds out you’re faking it, that you're not as competent as you appear?
You're not alone. The feeling is so common it even has a name — and a Wikipedia page. Imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon, is experienced by both men and women alike. It can be crippling. But there are ways to cope with overwhelming self-doubt.
Would you hold anyone else to your own standard of perfection?
Caroline Holt, a consultant and career coach in London, worked with a woman in a senior position at a Big Four accounting firm who was in line for a promotion to become a director. The partners at the firm were pursuing her for the position, but the woman resisted, even though she wanted the job. She feared the company "would find out that she is not as good as it thinks she is," Holt said.
As the sole breadwinner for her family, the stakes were high for Holt's client. Holt helped her explore her fears. And, crucially, accept her accomplishments as the fruit of her talent and hard work. The woman had struggled to understand her own value and worried that being "found out" would mean she could lose her job and be unable to support her child.
If you’ve ever felt like Holt's client — a pretender in your own skin — you're in good company. Academy Award winning actress, Kate Winslet, has been there, too. She's been quoted as saying: “I’d wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud.” Facebook executive and author of the bestselling book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, has also said she has felt the same way, according to an article in the New Yorker.
Most likely, your imposter syndrome feelings are unfounded. But, psychologists suggest if you’re growing and learning, you'll occasionally step outside your comfort zone. And your natural reaction is fear.
So, how can you learn to switch off the voice inside your head if it begins to feed those fears? Can you move to the next level despite your doubts?
Recognise self-doubt as part of personal development
When uncertainty in your own abilities arises, it's your inner "pirate" talking, according to Toulouse-based life and leadership coach Angela Negro. That pirate dialogue is part of the normal process of expanding your competence and skills. By learning to recognise your pirate, you can put him in his place.
I thought I was going to be found out.
What makes the pirate so convincing? He feeds on your fears of letting other people down, of coming across as arrogant, and being stigmatised.
Negro experienced this first-hand when she landed a job in Paris at UNESCO for which, she admits, she had no experience. At 25 and far from home, a friend in France introduced her to her boss. "I got the job straight away, consulting in education. Then I thought I was going to be found out for not being as good as I was making out to be."
The voice of the inner critic is honed during childhood, and it's designed to protect you, Negro said. The dialogue is not always implanted by parents. It can come from peers or teachers, too.
It keeps us "safe" by making us hang on to the status quo — whether that's a current job or relationship, or the inability to take the next step to live out a dream.
Are some people more susceptible to self-doubt than others?
Researchers say that people who suffer tend to be atypical in their field, such women who have succeeded in a male-dominated industry, people with high-achieving parents or those who achieved success early in their careers.
As well, some experts believe women are more affected by imposter syndrome because they tend to internalise failure more than men.
Margaret Collins, at Lemonade Life Planning, said men may attribute failure to events outside their control while women tend to look inside themselves for the reasons. "They say, 'I should have been up to that. I should have anticipated that,'" she said
Do you have impossible standards?
Margaret Collins, who runs Lemonade Life Planning, a professional coaching and career development services company in the UK, helped a client come to terms with fast-track success. The client had been promoted to professor at a UK university at an early age, was participating in advisory boards in her field, and had been acknowledged internationally for her expertise.
"In the coaching, the only reason the woman could see for her position was that she was the token woman in a male-dominated profession," Collins said. For instance, the woman argued that even though she had published widely in peer-reviewed journals, she had to work exceptionally hard to do so.
Consider the difference between confidence and self-esteem.
"And men don't?" Collins asked the client. "What is 'good enough'? What would it look like? And would you hold anyone else to your own standard of perfection?"
The woman realised that she was stopping herself from enjoying her success. "You could almost see in her face as the scales fell away," Collins said. "She understood that her definition of being 'good enough' is being Wonder Woman."
Understand your value
Do you struggle to own your own achievements? Do you brush aside compliments by suggesting, "I just got lucky, it was a team effort, or that was nothing?" That might be a clue that you suffer from imposter syndrome, or elements of it.
Consider the difference between confidence and self-esteem. Collins distinguishes between the two: "Confidence is saying, 'I believe I have the ability to do something, whether it is lose weight, learn a new language or climb a mountain.' Whereas self-esteem and a sense of entitlement are about believing you are worthy of something."
Both are important traits but self-esteem might be the one that's harder to teach yourself.
Experts, including Negro and Holt, encourage people to build self-esteem by focusing on their strengths. Be specific “about the value you bring. Write down all your strengths and skills and experience, and ask others what strengths they have noticed in you," said Holt. Negro calls such an inventory of your own abilities your "victory list."
Having your own personal victory list can help you understand if you're being too hard on yourself, for example, holding yourself to impossibly high standards.
With that understanding, you've taken the first step in silencing that pirate within.
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