Imposter Syndrome and what to do about it

Some people fake it till they make it … the rest of us are still feeling like we’re faking it long after “making” it. Why is that? Even after the promotions and accolades come, we still feel completely undeserving and like it’s only a matter of time until people find out we’re complete frauds. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, it’s probably holding you back and there isn’t a quick, overnight fix, BUT the good news is that there are definitely things you can do to identify and overcome it, even take advantage of it. But first, let’s look at some contributing factors.

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1. Constantly comparing yourself to others. And if you’re not doing it, someone else is doing it for you. Hands up if you’ve wistfully looked at your Facebook or Instagram news feed full of people’s accomplishments or travel photos and wondered -- why is everyone but you suddenly getting married/popping out babies/traveling to exotic locales/starting businesses that become overnight successes/looking like they stepped out of a magazine cover/winning the Nobel Peace Prize?

Psst ... I have a secret to tell you. It’s all an illusion! No, I’m not saying those travel pictures were actually taken in front of a green screen, or that those wedding photos were actually paid actors, but what you get on social media is generally just the “highlight reel” of people’s lives. They’re not always that happy or well-groomed or frolicking in meadows with baby animals. So stop looking at people’s “best of” and comparing it to your “worst of”. For all you know, most of the people on that Forbes “30 under 30” list probably feel like they don’t deserve it either. Also, every successful person has had large failures and setbacks before they became who they were, so the next time you wonder why you’re not Elon Musk yet (or worse, someone asks you that … ugh!) refer to Elon Musk’s book, which is pretty much about how everything went wrong and everyone hated him well into his adult life. Ok, there’s some other interesting stuff in there too, but you get the point!

2. Feeling like you’re in over your head. Ok, so it’s not necessary to fit the job description 100% because it’s good to have a challenge and be able to learn and grow at your job. Is that a breeding ground for imposter syndrome? Sure! But it’s perspective, my dear Watson. There are likely two different scenarios here.

Scenario A: Let’s just call this person Oil & Gas Nammy. You’re at an amazing job which you honestly don’t know how you got. Everyone else around you seems incredibly smart or good at building a rapport with their bosses, so what are you doing there? Maybe they hired you because they had a quota to fill? Maybe they needed 1 female or short person or Harry Potter enthusiast to add diversity to the team? In any case, you’re constantly second-guessing yourself, and rather than learning the necessary new skills, you retreat and focus on only those aspects of your work you’re comfortable with. The telltale sign is that you have no motivation whatsoever to actually learn how to get better at the job. This is definitely the detrimental kind of imposter syndrome and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t think you’re qualified or that you fit in, so you don’t try hard enough because you feel it won't make a difference anyway, and that, in turn, makes you fall further behind. Don’t be Oil & Gas Nammy! Here’s what you can do:

Take a good, hard look at what aspects of your job you’re focusing on and why. And if you feel like you don’t fit in there, what’s the type of culture or job where you would feel right at home? Talk to your boss. With the things you do enjoy, ask about opportunities elsewhere in your department or within the company at large. If it still seems like you're a total mismatch, it may be time to move on and think of being in an environment where you’d actually thrive. Caution: do not quit your job as a knee-jerk reaction. This takes a lot of thinking and self-awareness, so really take the time to understand yourself, your environment, and what drives you.

Scenario B: Let’s call this person YouTuber Pavi. You’re at a big scary new role that sounds incredibly exciting. The people you’re working with seem to have a good handle on what they’re doing, but you have no idea where you fit in or what you’re good at. You do know, however, that your role excites, energizes, and challenges you. You feel motivated to put in the time to learn the necessary new skills to excel at the job and carve out your own niche. Yes, you still have no idea how you got there and you still tend to downplay your accomplishments, but you’re pumped. You spend hours researching industry trends, seeking advice, learning and implementing new techniques. This is where imposter syndrome is a good thing and can actually push you to “best your best”.

CAUTION: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A GIRL-POWER ZONE (High Five if you're a guy and still reading this. I respect you, man!)

3. Lack of self-esteem. Of course, plenty of men also suffer from imposter syndrome and low self-esteem, but it does disproportionately affect women more than men. Don’t believe me? Look at how we’re socialized. In fact, listen to this brilliant TED Talk about how girls are raised to be perfect as opposed to boys, who are raised to be brave. For men, it’s more socially acceptable to be macho and confident and toot their own horn. I see examples of this in my own life EVERY. SINGLE. DAY! Women are mostly brought up to be humble, have humility, and be perfect at what they do. So as a woman, you feel less deserving of the accolades and tend to shy away from talking about your accomplishments (because you don’t think you deserve them anyway) while your male coworkers are more than happy to do it.

Ladies, I’m about to get Spice Girls on you -- it’s high time, don’t you think? I know we have a lifetime of conditioning against us, but that stops now! Here’s what you can do.

i) It’s ok to be vulnerable: It’s totally OK to admit that we’re not 100% sure of something. Just listen to our patron saint, Brene Brown, discuss this at length in one of the most popular TED Talks of all time!

ii) Embrace the “learning” aspect: You’re a learning machine and it’s completely OK to ask questions. Rather than retreating and feeling guilty that you don’t have all the answers, approach people with an air of confidence that says “Yes, I’m asking a question because I’m smart and resourceful and interested in finding a solution.” It’s all part of your professional or personal growth. Remember Oil & Gas Nammy? She spent hours researching everything and got very little done in the process. Instead, she could have just gone to a coworker, asked a question, and gotten an answer in 5 minutes.

iii) Celebrate the small wins: Whether you shout it out to the world or write it down in your journal, take the time to recognize your wins! We all have something, at least 1 thing we’re good at. Let’s start recognizing that in ourselves and others. If someone in your life has a tough time recognizing their wins, elevate them.

Moral of the story: Imposter syndrome isn’t always a bad thing, but if it’s not driving you towards something positive, it’s time to ask yourself a few questions … in the privacy of your own home preferably … don’t be that guy on the bus.

Did you read this and think to yourself, “that’s nice, but I still don’t know what I’m good at”? We’d love to work with you to identify areas you’d truly excel in!