For years, I didn’t pay much attention to imposter syndrome, though I acknowledged it existed.
Before it had a name, I heard it described by high-level executives like Sheryl Sandberg. In a 2014 commencement speech to City Colleges of Chicago grads, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook spoke about forcing herself to “sit at the table” even when she doesn’t believe her opinion is valued.
Being a low- to mid-level individual contributor for pretty much all of my career, I didn’t think imposter syndrome could affect me. After all, I wasn’t a woman in tech, someone trying to bust through a glass ceiling, or a C-level executive.
But just being “me” didn’t make imposter syndrome someone else’s problem.
For years I lived with this itch that something wasn’t right. I’ve always worried that my peers were über successful while I’ve wallowed in unfulfilling jobs at low-ranking levels. I’ve never felt like an adult even though I’m now in my 30s. (Yikes, did I just share my age?)
I figured my low self-esteem was to blame. I’ve always struggled to please myself, even when others tell me how great my art is or how much they love my writing.
I also chalked up the awkwardness I feel when I receive compliments to my upbringing. I was brought up to believe that you must remain modest and humble, which means you better shrug off compliments before you get too big for your britches.
Okay, maybe my upbringing and low self-esteem are partly to blame for that itch. But honestly, now that I have a clearer view, I can see that the real culprit was imposter syndrome. But that view was blurry until a good friend and coworker helped me clean it up with a little perspective.
This coworker and I were discussing some of the changes I recently made to our site when she began praising my knack for optimizing our pages for UX and conversion.
I started my usual song and dance, sheepishly shrugging off her praise, feeling slightly awkward, and heaping praise on my team to compensate. (Though they did deserve the kudos.)
Then things got even more uncomfortable: My friend told me how much she looked up to me and respected me.
I couldn’t wrap my head around this praise — why would anyone look up to me? I’m just another Joe Schmo doing nothing special. I told her this, and she replied, “that’s imposter syndrome!”
I did a mental double-take. I felt like an imposter for having imposter syndrome. But here I was reeling from the shock because a friend I trusted believed I had it.
This got me digging around, trying to figure out what to do about this feeling of not belonging, of never being good enough. And though I still struggle with imposter syndrome most days, these are some things that helped me boost my confidence and realize I’m good enough.
1. Know what imposter syndrome sounds like and who it affects
You can’t begin to knock down the mental barriers of imposter syndrome if you don’t first know what it is.
Do some of these common thoughts that come from imposter syndrome sound familiar? Chances are you might be just as surprised as I was if they do.
- Everyone else is good at what they do, but I struggle, and that must mean I’m not as smart as them.
- I’m not smart/good/smart/talented enough to do this.
- I owe my success to luck, not skill.
- No one’s interested in my thoughts on this topic.
- Someone’s going to find out I’m not as good at this as they think I am.
- The only reason they think I’m good at this is because they don’t see the “real” me.
It’s important to recognize these thoughts for what they are, and also keep track of when they happen.
It’s just as important to understand that imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate against race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Megan Dalla-Camina, the author of “Lead Like a Woman,” noted that imposter syndrome impacts men and women fairly equally.
And Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, wrote that, while minorities and women are most affected, “people of every demographic suffer from feeling like a fraud.”
You may still feel like you’re not successful or high-level enough to experience imposter syndrome. I know I felt this way. But just because you don’t rank among the C-level execs or run a department doesn’t mean you aren’t a successful high achiever.
While I blamed my low self-esteem for my imposter syndrome, Gill Corkindale noted in the Harvard Business Review that the syndrome is linked to perfectionism. I don’t think many of us would be surprised to uncover that perfectionism runs rampant among most, if not all, successful people. After all, perfectionism gives many of us the drive to get things done.
2. Change your script to positive self-talk
Now that you know what it sounds like when imposter syndrome starts whispering in your ear, it’s time to change the script.
One of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, said you should “talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love.” This quote resonated so deeply with me because there’s no way I’d say some of the things I say to myself to my loved ones.
All of us have that inner voice that loves to hate on us, discourage us, and tell us we’re not good enough. When it speaks up, tell it you won’t listen to it anymore.
Instead of listening to it, mentally list out what you’ve accomplished recently, big or small. Tell yourself how proud you are of you and why. Give yourself a compliment — or two, or three.
If it helps you to write it down, start a journal, stick up a Post-It, or grab a piece of scrap paper.
Relearn how to believe in yourself.
Trisha Barker, a life coach, put it like this: “There are people less qualified than you doing the things you want to do simply because they decided to believe in themselves.”
Hear that? You are qualified. Start practicing self-love and believe in yourself.
3. Confide in a mentor or close friend
Sometimes our self-love fails. We feel fake, or we refuse to believe ourselves when we offer self-love. That’s ok.
When that happens, find a mentor or trusted friend to get you back on your feet. Sometimes it’s easier to start believing in ourselves again when someone else does it first.
Friends and mentors can also help you reframe a situation where you feel fake, incompetent, or out of place. That’s what my friend did for me when she pointed out that my feelings of being just another worker were symptomatic of imposter syndrome.
And when Sara Ling, a senior manager at Veritas, felt overwhelmed with self-doubt, her mentor helped her reframe the situation by saying, “never doubt yourself if someone else thinks you can do the job.”
4. Reframe how you view the situation
Reframing the situation can be such a powerful tool I felt it needed its own discussion here.
We’ve all run into self-doubt and experienced times when we lacked confidence and wanted to run the other way. When we feel this way, our guard falters, and that’s when the negative self-talk worms its way into our heads.
But no matter how much your negative inner voice beats you up, no matter how dumb it makes you feel, remember that just because you feel stupid, useless, or fake at this moment doesn’t mean that you actually are.
If you view every challenge, action, or task as a learning opportunity, then even if you fail, you’ve still succeeded in a way. It takes a smart, resilient person to dig the gems of learning out of failure and then use those lessons to do better in the future.
5. Adopt a growth mindset
If you’re a fan of Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset,” then maybe you’ve noticed that reframing a failure into a learning opportunity is the same as adopting a growth mindset.
If you have a growth mindset, you believe intelligence and aptitude can grow throughout your entire life. Of course, this requires effort, experience, and learning.
This is opposed to what Dweck calls a fixed mindset, which is where someone believes their intelligence and aptitude are determined at birth and can’t grow.
Why is this such a big deal, and what does it have to do with imposter syndrome?
Well, if you’ve adopted a fixed mindset, chances are you believe you either can succeed in a particular area or not. And if you have to make an effort to succeed, you don’t have the ability — and you’re not smart.
Sounds a bit like self-doubt, doesn’t it? And this fixed mindset can be reinforced when we try to take on a task, project, or new role and fail. The fixed mindset tells us to give up because no amount of effort will help us succeed.
Dweck pointed out that this is an incredibly destructive belief. And it’s not hard to see how a fixed mindset can quickly lead to imposter syndrome.
But you can kick imposter syndrome and self-doubt to the curb with a growth mindset.
Dweck’s studies showed that a growth mindset leads to the belief that effort (and learning from failure) is an important requirement for achievement, and that the harder you work at something, the better you’ll get.
I’ve been pushing myself to get better at these five things. I won’t deny it’s a struggle and that some days, my imposter syndrome and self-doubt get to me. But I also know I’ll continue to grow and get better at self-love, reframing my situation, and opening up to those I trust.
After all, it’s worth it. Imposter syndrome can limit your life experiences and hold you back from achieving your aspirations. It can keep you from advocating for yourself in professional and even personal relationships. And it can hold you back from exciting opportunities.
But I’m here to tell you that the grit, determination, and skill needed to achieve your aspirations exist in you. And, no matter what, you deserve respect and self-love.