Dealing with Imposter Syndrome
Updated: Sep 19, 2019
“I come to work every day and feel like a fraud.” Since I first came across “imposter syndrome” I have found it in some surprising people and surprising places. Wider research recognises imposter syndrome is ubiquitous. It’s not restricted by age, gender, or ethnicity, and you can find it in people who are well regarded and have a long track record of success yet who live with the nagging doubt that they really shouldn’t be doing the job they do, or don’t deserve the recognition they have received. In a delightful articulation of imposter syndrome, Albert Einstein apparently described himself as an “involuntary swindler.”
You are not alone
You may be feeling that every one of your colleagues is not only highly competent, but also supremely confident in their own abilities. It’s just you who has self-doubts. You are also probably wrong. But since self-doubt isn’t something most people are keen to advertise you are unlikely to find this out. Your super-confident colleagues are probably just as adept at hiding their own self-doubt as you are yours.
Dealing with imposter syndrome – four areas of focus
A certain level of self-doubt can be quite healthy. It reminds you that you are not perfect and can improve even further. Seen in that way, it can be a valuable motivator to personal and professional growth and mitigate against the risks of over-estimating your abilities. But if your imposter syndrome is holding you back from fulfilling your potential, or just making work an uncomfortable place to be, adopt these four perspectives to put it in its proper place.
Look back, look around, look inside and look ahead
First, look back. You are where you are because someone agreed that this is a place you should be. You’ve been recruited for the job or given a promotion because you were suitable, or hired because someone thinks you are worth spending the money on. This step on your career journey builds on your previous work or academic successes. Someone believes in you. Start by agreeing with their assessment of your strengths and competence.
Second, look around. Where are you making an impact, who is noticing, and what do they appreciate about you? Find some colleagues, customers, or stakeholders that you trust and ask for feedback. To being with, just ask for comment about what you do well. You cold ask them to use the GUESS model. If you ask for constructive criticism always ask for it in terms of “What could I have done even better?” rather than a focus on what went wrong. Build up a running commentary, not only on your achievements but also on the positive impact you are having on other people.
Third, look inside. For this it’s best to get the support of a trusted and skilled mentor, coach, or colleague. This is someone who can help you resolve the nagging question of "what’s really going on?" Where is this self-doubt coming from? If it’s an issue of competence, what training and experience do you need to address it? You may be over estimating the level of the challenge you’re facing and under-estimating your ability to deal with it. An objective external view can give you the perspective you need to assess these factors realistically. Be confident with the skills and experience you have, and work out the steps you need to grow further in your personal strength and resilience.
Finally, look ahead. You have had to grow as an individual to get to the place you are now. There’s more to come – so look forward to the person you are becoming as well as addressing the challenges you have now.
Taking off the mask
The starting point for all this is take your inner dialogue, get it out of your head, and share it with someone else. Ideally find someone outside of your current workplace or business context, someone with no agenda other than than your own welfare and success. Someone who will expose the imposter and enable you to celebrate the true “you” behind the mask.