No one wants to feel like an imposter at work. But the truth is, imposter syndrome is a real thing. If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong or you don’t deserve your job, know that you’re not alone.
Most of us have experienced doubt and unworthiness at some point. But when your accomplishments result from your knowledge, hard work, and preparation, and you still feel inadequate, you may suffer from impostor syndrome.
Imposter syndrome can be experienced differently by different people. You might feel like an imposter, while others will tell themselves they are an imposter. However, if you’ve experienced feelings like these, where you feel self-doubt, criticism, and inadequacy, you’ve likely experienced imposter syndrome.
People who experience imposter syndrome often feel like frauds despite being smart, skilled, capable professionals who deserve whatever commendations and praise they’re given. Rather than celebrating their accomplishments, they worry that they’ve somehow tricked people into thinking they’re good enough. As a result, they fear being “found out” or “exposed.”
Impostor syndrome is relatively common: Researchers believe up to 70% of people have experienced it at one point or another. But that doesn’t make it any less damaging to a person’s confidence and career growth.
So if you feel like you’re experiencing impostor syndrome or something like it, know that there are ways to address these feelings in a healthy, proactive way. Our team at Executive Central has come together to share our top 10 tips for dealing with Imposter Syndrome.
1. Know the signs
We often overlook the signs of imposter syndrome in our day-to-day lives. However, recognising these signs is an important first step.
You might suffer from impostor syndrome if:
- You feel like you “got lucky”, when you actually prepared well and worked hard
- You find it hard to accept praise.
- You apologise, when you didn’t do something wrong
- You hold yourself to incredibly — sometimes impossibly — high standards
- You find the fear of failure paralysing at times
- You avoid expressing confidence because you think people will see it as overcompensating or obnoxious
- You sometimes feel you’re not enough
Pay attention to your language choices when talking to others and yourself, especially about work. If you find your success or the praise others give you feels uncomfortable, reflect on where those thoughts came from and what it means in your professional life.
2. Know you’re not alone
When you have impostor syndrome, some of the most important encouragement comes from realising how many hugely successful people have built outstanding careers even while regularly coping with it.
Which highly accomplished people have spoken about their impostor syndrome? Here are some quotes from The New York Times and Forbes:
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'” – Author, Poet & Civil Rights Activist Maya Angelou:
“I can see everything I’m doing wrong, a sham and a fraud.”
“All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud.” Actor Don Cheadle
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.” – Actress, Writer & Producer Tina Fey, from her book Bossypants
3. Distinguish humility and fear
There’s taking humility in your hard work and accomplishments, and then there’s feeling overcome with fear because of them. Simply being good at something can cause us to discount its value. But as Carl Richards wrote in a New York Times article, “After spending a lot of time fine-tuning our ability, isn’t it sort of the point for our skill to look and feel natural?”
It all boils down to feeling unworthy. When you feel unworthy, any kind response, positive feedback or reward feels like a trick, a scam, the luck of the draw.
Humility and worthiness have nothing at all to do with defending our territory. To be gracious, open or humble, we don’t have to feel like a fraud. But it is possible to feel worthy without feeling entitled, and overcoming impostor syndrome is all about finding a healthy balance between the two.
4. Let go of your inner perfectionist
Many people suffering from impostor syndrome are high achievers, set extremely high standards for themselves and are committed to doing their best and being the best.
But perfectionism only feeds into your impostor syndrome. When you feel like a fraud, it’s usually because you’re comparing yourself to a perfect, impossible or unrealistic outcome.
Not only can no one do everything perfectly, but holding yourself to that standard can be counterproductive. At some point, you need to step back and ask: When is good enough?
While striving for perfection is certainly noble, it’s usually not realistic, and often, it’s counterproductive and will only make you feel more like a fraud.
5. Be kind to yourself
Being kind to yourself simply means changing the way you talk to yourself in your head by practising positive self-talk. Not only can it help you become less stressed and anxious, but it can also help you build the courage to do things that’ll bring you greater rewards.
Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, suffered from what she called “impostoritis” for most of her career. While she found it hard to silence negative thoughts completely, she practised hard to add positive thoughts to her inner voice. “Now I wake up most days with a voice on the left side of my head telling me what an incredible failure I am,” she wrote. “But the voice on the right side tells me that I can change the world, and I try to pay more attention to it.”
Try to catch yourself whenever you have a negative thought. Then, turn around and challenge your claim. For example, if you find yourself thinking, “I just got lucky,” challenge that by thinking, “What steps did I take, and what work did I put in to get to this point?”
Then, you can answer your question using short affirmations and focused, positive statements about your goal. In this case, one might be as simple as, “I worked hard – and I always work hard.”
Psychologists have found that repeating affirmations like this can reduce stress and anxiety levels, perhaps because these positive statements build a bridge into your subconscious mind.
6. Track and measure your successes
When you feel like an impostor, one of the hardest things to grasp is how much of a role you have in your successes. You might default them to luck or others’ hard work when your work, knowledge, and preparation have much to do with it.
To help show that you’re doing well, keep track of your wins in a private document.
There are many different ways to track these successes, and the metrics you use will depend entirely on your job. If you’re a blogger, you might keep track of your posts’ monthly average page views and watch them increase or compare them to the team average. You might also keep a separate tab to paste kind words people have written to you via email, Twitter, and blog comments.
In the same vein as keeping track of your success metrics, keep a file on your computer of wins and positive reinforcement at work and in your personal life.
7. Adopt the habit of journaling
Journaling can be a powerful tool for exploring your thoughts and feelings and helping you better understand the inner workings of your subconscious. The best way to overcome imposter syndrome is to accept that it’s normal to feel insecure sometimes.
- It helps manage anxiety and stress
- It helps prioritise problems and concerns
- It helps alleviate fears and figure out triggers that lead to negative thoughts
- Studies show that journaling is one of the best ways to cool down when stressed.
One of the ways that imposter syndrome manifests itself is as anxiety and performance stress. Journaling can help you overcome your imposter syndrome because as you’re writing down the things that cause stress to you, you’re helping your brain process it and manage the feelings and situations better. It helps you realise that thoughts and feelings come and go – you are not your thoughts.
8. Say “yes” to new opportunities
It’s impossible to say “yes” to everything, especially when stressed. But it’s too common for people with impostor syndrome to turn down career-making opportunities because they don’t feel like they’d do a good job.
When presented with a new opportunity, it’s important to distinguish between the voice in your head saying you can’t do it because you’re not worthy and the one telling you can’t do it because you have too much on your plate. The former is your impostor syndrome speaking.
But remember: Taking on challenging new work and doing well at it can open many doors for you. Don’t let your inner impostor turn down these game-changing opportunities. They can do wonders to help you learn, grow, and advance your career.
Remember Richard Branson’s famous quote: “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then learn how to do it later.”
While it might be intimidating to take on a role you’re not sure you can succeed in, know that you were asked to do it for a reason, and there’s nothing wrong with learning new things and asking questions along the way.
9. Embrace the feeling, and use it
It’s tough to get rid of impostor syndrome completely, especially if you’ve had it for a prolonged time. The fact that hugely successful people like Maya Angelou and Don Cheadle feel that way after all they’ve accomplished proves that it can sometimes be a lifelong condition.
That’s why the best angle from which to tackle your impostor syndrome isn’t getting rid of it completely; it’s stopping it from hindering your success.
Even though Richard Branson is known for being confident and able to stand his ground when having to do critical talks, he says he still has his imposter syndrome come up. His approach is to take note of it; instead of trying to block it out, he will accept it because he has learnt how to tame its power.
“We know what the feeling is called. We know that we feel this way. We know why we feel this way. We now know how to handle it.”
Richard Branson says he’s been invited to speak about his work and career all over the world, and yet he still hasn’t been able to get rid of his impostor syndrome. He has learned to think of it “as a friend.”
Whenever he hears that negative voice in his head, he pauses for a minute, takes a deep breath, and says to himself, “Welcome back, old friend. I’m glad you’re here. Now, let’s get to work.”
10. Talk about it with a mentor and a trusted leader
No one should suffer in silence. Sharing your thoughts and experiences with someone else will make you better equipped to deal with your impostor syndrome. We recommend sharing them with a mentor or trusted leader.
Your mentor can help you talk candidly about your struggles with impostor syndrome while giving you a more objective point of view, especially if they work on a different team or at another company. When you share your experience with them, you might ask if they’ve ever felt that way or if they know someone who has.
The best mentors are forthcoming about the struggles they’ve gone through and the mistakes they’ve made in their careers, and you may find that they have some helpful stories or advice for how to deal with what you’re feeling.
By talking with a trusted leader, you are more likely to overcome your impostor syndrome in the context of your current job.
For example, you might ask them to help you find a system for tracking your successes or determine which metrics you should measure. Knowing what they know about you and your role may also help you seek more opportunities to shine and gain visibility on your team or company.
These 10 tips from our team are just the tip of the iceberg regarding the methods and practices it takes to deal with imposter syndrome and become the best version of a leader that you can be.
Our Emerging Leaders Program has been designed to provide a critical link between leadership and business performance. With new methods and practices to increase confidence, we see this program not just helping the participant integrate their imposter syndrome but we see it as providing an organisation with a culture that can keep it at bay.
Touch base with our team if you are ready to take the next step in your career.