4 Ways to Combat Impostor Syndrome
Impostor syndrome and I go way back. A few years ago, when I received a job offer to become the marketing director for an education company, I thought they had confused me with someone else. I had applied and interviewed, but did they really believe I was qualified?
Sure, I had done marketing before. And I had an MBA. And I’d managed people. But I wasn’t ready for this, I thought. There had to be a mix up.
When I realized there was no mistake—they wanted to hire me—my emotions turned from confusion to terror. I took the job, but worried it was only a matter of time until they figured out that I had no business being in this role.
But that didn’t happen. After the first quarter, I was shocked when the CEO attributed the sales growth to my work. Naturally, I thanked her, but said I couldn’t take credit. The sales team had been working tirelessly, and I was just getting my feet wet.
But it wasn’t beginner’s luck. I excelled in that role for over five years before leaving to become a leadership and career coach.
Today, when I reflect back on my feelings going into that job, I can see what was happening: I was qualified for the position, and, while luck may have played a role, so did hard work and experience. My thought pattern going into the role belonged to the “Impostor.”
The Impostor Syndrome
The Impostor is that ugly, nasty voice in our heads that holds us back when we try to do something big. The more significant the change, the louder the voice. It says things like:
“Why would they hire you?”
“You don’t have the experience.”
“You’ve just gotten lucky.”
The impostor phenomenon first came to light in the 1970s when psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Clance and Imes studied over 150 highly successful women and found that, despite their impressive experience and accolades, many lived in fear of “being found out.” One woman—the chairperson of her department—said, “Obviously I’m in this position because my abilities have been overestimated.”
For years, the scientific community believed that impostorism was largely a woman’s issue, but research (including additional research by Clance and Imes) now shows that it’s a universal phenomenon. In my experience as a leadership and career coach, I’ve seen it can actually be more problematic for men. Men who openly express self-doubt are often ostracised for failing to conform to societal expectations, and so many struggle in silence.
The Impostor Keeps You Small
Regardless of gender, impostor syndrome can have devastating effects on your ambitions, happiness, and health. Symptoms include stress, fear of failure, anxiety, stagnation, and loss of confidence.
It causes you to agonize over tiny mistakes and not take credit for your accomplishments, chalking them up to luck rather than skill. It halts your progress—you think you’re not smart enough, so you stop trying.
Before I became a coach, I once managed a young woman who suffered from a debilitating case of impostor syndrome. She was creative and brilliant, but she couldn’t see it. She would say things like, “Well, it was just an idea, probably stupid, we don’t have to do it.” When I credited her ideas and said that I’d like to hear more, she doubted my praise and thought I was just being nice. Over time, I too began believing her impostor, doubting her own potential. Her insecurities and failure to act rendered her incapable of performing to her potential.
Even if you’re doing the best work, if you’re constantly putting yourself down publicly and not owning your success, others will believe what you believe. And even if you keep your impostor feelings to yourself, you’ll still internalize your self-limiting and self-sabotaging feelings and undermine your decisions. Either way, the Impostor makes you live small.
The good news: There are strategies to combat the pesky Impostor. There’s lots of science behind impostor syndrome, particularly around brains and hormones. We could talk about when the amygdala is activated or the size of our anterior cingulate cortex, but my guess is that you’d rather take a look at some practical solutions.
Tip 1: Get to Know Your Impostor and Take Back Control
Remember the old saying, “Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer”? The truth is, you’ll never fully get rid of the Impostor. New challenges stoke old fears and insecurities, and that Impostor will be right there with you. So why not embrace it?
Start by recognizing your Impostor, getting to know its voice, and even giving it a name. I call mine Ursula, after the sea witch in The Little Mermaid, who stole Ariel’s voice and sabotaged her at every chance with an untrue narrative. The better you know your Impostor, the more you can communicate and operate around it. Think of it as a game of whack-a-mole: The more you know when and how those moles pop up, the more you can knock them back. Decide how you want to play with your Impostor and set the rules.
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It took some coaching, but I now lean in to my Impostor. I know that not trying and not taking risks will lead to stagnation, and I won’t stand for that. I invite Ursula to try to get between me and my next big thing. When she takes me up on the invitation, I thank her for her concern but then leap in, trusting my own abilities.
Tip 2: Find Comfort In Others
Know that you’re not alone. Sheryl Sandberg, Katy Kay, and Maya Angelou admit to experiencing the impostor syndrome. In a recent study of 116 CEOs, the number one fear was being discovered as incompetent.
And it’s not just CEOs and celebrities. Try talking to your friends and colleagues; you’ll find out that others face similar struggles. There’s nothing your Impostor hates more than being brought into the light, and it’ll bring you comfort to know you’re not alone.
Tip 3: Use the Facts to Prove Your Impostor Wrong
The Impostor hates your accomplishments, so one of the best ways to put it in its place is to bring the facts of your success to light.
Try creating a humblebrag file. List the challenges that you’ve faced in the last five years. For each, write down how you overcame it and what you learned. Include results and accomplishments. For each brag, note the skills, capabilities, and qualities that contributed to your success. (Bonus: this will come in handy the next time you’re updating your resume!)
Capturing these wins will reveal patterns of flawed thinking and help you uncover contributions that you might have otherwise dismissed or attributed to others. Your humblebrag file is a living document that you can update and come back to whenever your Impostor comes to visit and you need a hit of confidence to put it in its place. The facts of your greatness are undeniable, even by the most serious of impostors.
Tip 4: Let Go of Perfect and Just Do It
Action is the best antidote to your Impostor. Putting action ahead of thinking can change ingrained thought patterns and behaviors. It shifts the way our brains operate and makes them more confidence prone.
To take action, you’ll have to let go of perfect. The challenges you face won’t always be easy, and you will stumble. Know that mistakes don’t make you less capable—they mean you’re taking risks and you’re human, not an impostor. Failure is not only ok, it’s necessary to succeed and experience life at its fullest.
In some cases—like mine—you may need to work with a professional to overcome your Impostor. A coach or therapist can help you work with your Impostor and focus on where you #shine.
While impostor syndrome can be debilitating, you can overcome it. By learning to let go of perfection, internalizing accomplishments, and taking a “just do it” attitude, you will cultivate more useful patterns of thinking and put that Impostor in its place.