Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

I have been told that my success at work is because I was lucky. I know many people who felt they were not smart enough to be where they are in their career and their success was by accident. At one point or another many of us have considered asking a question in a work meeting, but a voice inside our head tells us that could be a stupid question. This is likely imposter syndrome at play. 

The definition that resonates with me is the idea that your success in life is only due to pure luck, accidental circumstances, or someone else’s mistake, and not due to your competence, talent, hard work, or qualifications. Feelings of inadequacy, not being good enough, smart enough, or tough enough can be signs that lead to your self-doubt and you question your abilities. In the workforce, many of us have experienced imposter syndrome where we feel like a fraud, devalued our work, undermined our accomplishments, and beyond. 

When I was in my mid-20s, I had leading communication for a very experienced Fortune 500 tech CEO. When I stepped into this job, I was nervous and scared. This role required new skills, was high-pressure and brought a new level of visibility that I had not experienced before. At first, I was intimated and did not ask many questions or provide much commentary because I felt like I was not worthy to be there. I certainly was not the smartest in the room since I was surrounded by some of Silicon Valley’s brightest minds.  

However, I know that I had deep experience with PR and that is why I was picked for the job. If I didn’t speak up and give my point of view, that was a lost opportunity for the company, my  CEO, and me. So gradually, I spoke up and shared my thoughts. It was not an overnight change, but I felt a renewed confidence in myself and saw my exec looking to me for guidance. While I didn’t always get everything right and my CEO certainly said no at times, it was not about having all the right answers all the time. I knew I had to be heard to make an impact, even if the voice inside my head held me back at times. Fight that voice and speak up.

These, and many factors, contribute to imposter syndrome. While anyone can feel imposter syndrome, a recent KPMG study concluded it’s especially prevalent for females. The question I have been thinking about is: is it possible to overcome imposter syndrome and maybe even go as far as viewing it in a positive way to achieve personal growth for you and your team? Here is a TED Talk that poses the question: what if imposter syndrome is a good thing?

How to Conquer Imposter Syndrome 

Once you’ve identified situations where you are experiencing imposter syndrome, here are a few tools to deal with it.

  1. Know the Warning Signs

Have an honest dialog with yourself about this situation. Do you find yourself in a downward spiral of taking on more work, always saying yes to projects, which have created unsustainable work habits for you? The opposite can also be true of disengagement, not completing assignments, making excuses, and retreating into yourself. Is self-doubt at the root of these behaviors? Are you feeling more isolated and not engaging socially or able to talk with others at work and ask for support?

  1. Facts versus Stories

In a previous blog, there was a section about the stories we tell ourselves. These stories can work for or against us. When the stories are filled with negative talk and self doubt they can be very detrimental. Take one step back and look at the work and life situation you are in. Are you examining the facts? Are you being too hard on yourself? Are you expecting perfection, when others are just looking for progress? Check-in with a trusted colleague, or your boss and have a straightforward conversation about the situation to make sure you have an accurate view of what is happening who will give you an objective opinion.

  1. Your Mindset

I’m always amazed at how different people view the same situation. A few years back I was on a jury and during the two-week trial, we had wildly differing opinions about how the jury, defendant, and witnesses viewed the situation. My recommendation is that you bring a positive mindset when you are looking at the evidence in your imposter syndrome case. While this is your life and something it is hard to be objective and not be too hard on yourself, give yourself a break. Don’t let voices in your head tell you something different from reality. No one is successful 100% of the time. Focus on the big picture and not any one-off mistakes. Remember to look at your full body of work as a reminder of the good things you have accomplished and the positive development during your career. Write down two or three things that you have completed this week or this month that you are proud of. 

  1. Silence Your Inner Critic

Have you ever been in a meeting at work and the discussion went beyond your comprehension of the subject? There are many ways to react – sitting there silently and telling yourself you are stupid, or did you raise your hand and ask questions, or did you leave that meeting and say I’m going to learn more about that topic? Even if your first reaction is that I’m not smart enough, I should have studied harder, I should have already been proficient in that topic, and you can step away from that meeting and commit to learning more. Don’t belittle yourself, but instead dive in and learn more, especially if it is a topic you are passionate about and can help you in work and life. 

  1. Be Vulnerable and Ask for Help

People suffering from imposter syndrome have a hard time asking for help or even expressing to trusted colleagues and friends that they have areas they need to grow. We all do. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but instead a sign you want to get better. Go to a trusted colleague and sit down with them. You have achieved much in work, but we all have growth areas. Find a mentor. Determine if a coach is right for you. I have found more often than not when you ask for help, nine out of 10 times people will be there for you.

  1. At the End of the Day, Let it Go

To root out imposter syndrome, face it head-on. If you did something wrong, acknowledge it and let it go. I would imagine that whatever mistake you made, you will learn from it and not make it in the future. Don’t let a step back rattle you. Your last speech bombed, learn from it, and move on. You didn’t get the promotion, focus on the positive steps forward you have made. Dwelling on the negative can send you into a tailspin that is hard to recover from. When you face imposter syndrome down, you can look back and say I did it and be ready to do it again. Be proud of your work, your life, and your accomplishments. You have come far on this journey, but you still have a long way to go. At various stages in your career, imposter syndrome can rear its ugly head. Starting a new job is a prime example. You’re not expected to know everything. One of the ways I frame a new role is by looking at the CEO. She is very unlikely to have help with all roles that report to her, the CFO, CMO, CRO, CHRO, CIO, etc. The CEO is going to hire the best-of-the-best people and work to have expertise in these areas, but likely not the deep experience that her direct reports have. Approach with a growth mindset and be honest and open and you will be able to beat the imposter syndrome in each situation.

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