Imposter syndrome can make you doubt your abilities and feel like a faker. Find out how to overcome it.
‘…every time I didn't embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.’
- Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
As we saw in Feeling like a fraud at work? It might be imposter syndrome, imposter syndrome tells you that you will be uncovered as a fraud at any minute, even if you have climbed a steep ladder to get where you are, gained multiple qualifications and proven yourself many times over.
Imposter syndrome can be a driving force that propels some individuals to prove themselves and excel, causing them to over-compensate for imagined shortcomings to such a degree that they become extremely high achievers. But this comes at a cost. This unrelenting drive can often lead them to burnout over time or neglect other areas of their lives. Then at any time that they are unable to prove themselves, their low self-worth and inner critic are still there waiting, ready to be exposed.
If imposter syndrome is affecting your wellbeing, causing you anxiety or holding you back in your career and goals — for instance, making you avoid applying for promotion or exhausting you with unrelenting pressure to keep everyone fooled — then it needs to be dealt with. You might not eliminate it entirely, but you can at least learn to manage it and recognise that undermining voice in your head for what it is.
Here are a few smart ways to deal with imposter syndrome:
1. Notice your achievements
Sometimes, when we are overly focused on our perceived inadequacies and failings, we can forget just how far we have come. We’re primed to focus on things that could become issues or threats rather than things that have gone well.
So make a list of everything that you have achieved, both in your current role and before. This could include everything from education to training to awards. And don’t forget to include ‘softer’ skills such as learning how to be a better listener, leader or team player.
Once you have written down everything you can think of, read your list aloud and let yourself feel proud of every single thing on it. Next, either pin it somewhere visible where you can see it each day, or carry it around with you so that you can glance at it when you need to.
Sometimes, just putting pen to paper and listing everything you’ve done can help you to see that you aren’t a faker at all. Instead, you are a person who has earned their position and deserves their success.
Also, to give yourself an added boost, why not create a ‘daily success jar’? It’s simple — get into the habit of noticing one thing that has gone well each day, write it on a piece of paper and put it in a jar or box (you can also include praise from others). And on those days when you are wrestling with self-doubt, take out the jar and remind yourself of how well you’re actually doing.
2. Connect with memories of doing well
Related to the above, you can take things a step further by revisiting past successes, big and small.
Think of a time when you felt a real sense of achievement then take yourself back to that moment. Let yourself feel how you felt right then. Now notice any pleasant sensations in your body, as well as your posture. Are you holding yourself straighter? Is your body language more open? Do you feel added strength in any part of yourself?
Try to take a mental snapshot of how you feel in your body at this moment. Once you have done so, you can revisit this state any time you’re feeling unsure of yourself.
3. Learn to quieten the inner critic
As we’ve explored, that nagging voice in your head can be a big factor in imposter syndrome. But thankfully, there are various ways to manage it, including becoming more aware of what its triggers are. For instance, do work evaluations from your boss set it off? Or comparing yourself to a colleague? Or losing a pitch to a rival? Or perhaps your critic is at its worst when you are tired, stressed or working to a tight deadline? Or maybe it becomes more active when you spend time with a certain family member or friend? Once you become aware of your triggers you can start to anticipate any situations that might cause them, forgive yourself when you react and take time out to self-soothe.
You could also start experimenting with challenging the critic when it shows up. For instance, are you really ‘stupid’ if you make a single mistake? Or a ‘faker’ if you aren’t an expert on every single facet of your industry? Or a ‘fraud’ if you feel a bit nervous in a meeting? The next time the critic tells you these things, ask yourself ‘is this true?’
Another powerful way to counteract the critic is by cultivating a more compassionate inner voice. Try reminding yourself of your various achievements, that no one is perfect and that you are doing your best. It can take practice but in time, you might find that this more caring voice starts to drown out the critic completely.
Finally, learn to be aware of ‘perception bias’, which can cause you to compare yourself unfavourably to others at work. This can skew your outlook on things, causing you to magnify your own shortcomings while minimising those of your colleagues. So ask yourself — is that ‘perfect’ colleague really so perfect? And are your flaws really as huge as you think?
4. Find others who share your experiences
Are you a woman in a male-dominated tech or science field? A person from a working class background in an organisation filled with Oxbridge graduates? Or an individual from an ethnic or cultural group that is under-represented in your profession? All of these situations can potentially cause or worsen imposter syndrome.
However, connecting with other people who share your experiences — via niche networking groups, social media or workplace advocacy — could really help. This is because you might find that some of the feelings that you are having are not unique to you, they are also felt by others and in fact, are very common.
Also, depending on your career stage, you might want to consider either mentoring, or being mentored by someone who has faced similar challenges to you. Because by receiving support from others and supporting others in turn, you can start to tear down some of the thick walls that imposter syndrome might have built around you.
5. Try being open about it
In The Impostor Syndrome: Becoming An Authentic Leader, clinical psychologist Harold Hillman suggests that learning to be vulnerable can be key to beating these feelings. He argues that vulnerability doesn’t just reduce your imposter syndrome — it can also help others to see you as more authentic too. This can strengthen your relationships with them, helping you to feel less isolated as a result. In his words, ‘All of our imposter stories give rise to a powerful insight about the importance of finding and being our authentic selves.’
Of course, vulnerability has to be shown appropriately — there may be times when you have to step into the role of confident, unflappable professional. But at other times, admitting uncertainty or worry to other people can actually be liberating for them, as it can release them from their own feelings of being an imposter. Sometimes it is okay to say, ‘I don’t know’ and in doing so, you make it okay for others to say it too. In turn, this can help to create a safer, more supportive workplace.
6. Work through it with a therapist
If you feel that imposter syndrome is affecting your wellbeing or stopping you from achieving your goals, then talking to someone could make a big difference.
In fact, various types of therapy can help with this issue. For instance, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you to manage and counteract unhelpful patterns of thinking about yourself, gradually replacing them with new ones, while Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) can help you learn self-kindness while also managing difficult emotions and triggers better.
Or if you think your imposter syndrome might be related to your upbringing, then Psychodynamic Therapy can help you to explore the origins and Schema Therapy can help you connect with and care for the younger part of you that feels a failure.
Finally, if you think that your imposter syndrome could be linked to trauma — for instance, incidents of being shamed or growing up in a stressful or unsafe home — then both EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can help you to process and move on from these difficult experiences.
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