The Ultimate Guide To Beating Impostor Syndrome

INTRODUCTION

You are woman and bloody good at your job, yet you have this niggling feeling at the back of your mind. The more you work hard and achieve success, the more you find yourself second guessing your achievements. You experience self-doubt, feel like a fraud and are terrified that people will see through you any minute.

If it makes you feel any better, you are not alone.

Sheryl Sandberg has it. And so does Michelle Obama. But Amy Cuddy made it popular by confessing to it in a TED talk that was viewed more than 3 million times!

Coined in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, Impostor Syndrome is scientifically proven and recognised as a valid affliction, mostly in women. But men experience it too.

In fact, research has shown that 70% of the population suffers from Impostor syndrome at some point in their life.

WHAT EXACTLY IS IMPOSTOR SYNDROME?

Harvard Business Review defined Impostor Syndrome as

a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success” 

Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as:

“a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.”

A few classic signs of the syndrome are thoughts like you don’t measure up, you aren’t qualified enough, you don’t deserve the success or the promotion you have and/or overthinking if you are good enough.

WHAT SPARKS IMPOSTOR SYNDROME

Ironically, it is success that sparks self-doubt and leads to feeling like a fraud.

A contradiction between who we are and what society expects us to be also leads to feelings of being caught

More recent research has proven that the syndrome is a reaction to certain events and is not termed a mental disorder.

There has been constant research into this phenomenon since it was first mentioned in 1978 in the article,  “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes.

You can read their full paper here

Dr. Valerie Young is another pioneer in the field and her blog is a gold mine of information on overcoming the Impostor syndrome.

HOW TO FIGHT IMPOSTOR SYNDROME

If you go through some of the resources I shared above, you will see that the syndrome has been examined in depth over decades and there’s tons of advice on how to overcome it.

“Evidence shows that women are less self-assured than men — and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence.” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman say in their book, The Confidence Code.

Let’s look at a few ways to fight the Impostor Syndrome:

TIP #1: ACKNOWLEDGE IT

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks says:

“Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

The first step to solving any problem is to acknowledge that it exists. Ignoring it locks out the possibility of overcoming it. Once you do, you aren’t caught unawares and can deal with it. This helps you gain power over that voice that rears its ugly head when it shouldn’t.

TIP #2: TALK ABOUT IT

Since most of the fear is in your head, talking about it can help. Make sure you open up to someone you can trust, someone who can empathise and not take advantage of your insecurities.

Sisterhood is powerful – Feminism stock photo

Once you open up, you’ll find that others among your friends, peers, colleagues might be feeling the same too. Who better to empathise with the condition than other women sailing in the same boat.

If you have no one to talk to, writing it down can help. Journaling, especially your achievements, can help you go back and see how you actually deserve the success and accolades you’ve got.

TIP #3: SHUT DOWN NEGATIVE SELF TALK

This is a toughie! The way we talk to ourselves is worse than we’d talk to anyone we know.

Michelle Obama, during her book tour to promote Becoming, an honest and candid memoir of her life, confessed to feeling like an impostor.

Photo credit: Forbes.com

Her tip is to get rid of all the negative talk going on in our head.

Her advice to young women is

“that you have to start by getting those demons out of your head. The questions I ask myself – ‘am I good enough?’ – that haunts us, because the messages that are sent from the time we are little is: maybe you are not, don’t reach too high, don’t talk too loud.”

A lot of self doubt is due to what the society expects us to be and who we really are. Michelle is a great role model for a generation of young women who are inspired by her authenticity.

TIP #4: ALTER THE INNER SCRIPT

Once you realise what your inner thoughts are, it is time to change them.

Arianna Huffington calls this voice in the head “my obnoxious room mate”.

She says,

“I wish someone would invent a tape recorder that we could attach to our brains to record everything we tell ourselves. We would realize how important it is to stop this negative self-talk. It means pushing back against our obnoxious roommate with a dose of wisdom.”

There is no other way to do it that push against these thoughts of self-doubt that make us feel like a fraud.

TIP #5: DON’T BE A PERFECTIONIST

Perfectionism is a malady that many of us suffer from. And this is one of the reasons why impostor syndrome creeps in. We are never good enough, something’s always missing, something that we could do better.

Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In says,

“Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And 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.”

High expectations from ourselves can leave us feeling dissatisfied with everything we do. Try to do your best and let it be. Trying to be perfect at everything isn’t even possible. Perfectionism is a myth and we need to let it go.

TIP #6: CREATE A PROGRESS TREE

So, we’ve looked at things that we shouldn’t be doing. This is something you should do – make a progress tree and hang it where you can see it. While you journal your thoughts and doubts, a progress chart can be reminder of your journey and all the milestones that you have achieved along the way.

Looking at facts, not feelings, that chronicle your progress can do a great deal to alleviate your feeling of not being good enough. Keep adding every accomplishment that comes your way.

TIP #7: USE AFFIRMATIONS

Positive self-affirmations can counteract the effects of impostor syndrome.

Reverse your self-talk from “I don’t deserve this. I am not good enough. I am not talented enough. I am unworthy” to

” I deserve this. I am good. I am talented. I am worthy”

Write them down everyday. Or make a list and stick it on the fridge or near the bed. Review it everyday. Repeat it in your head every time self doubt raises its head. Repeat it and believe in it – because it is true!

TIP #8: STRIKE A POSE

Be a wonder woman!

This is Amy Cuddy‘s antidote to the impostor syndrome. In her TED talk that Your body language may shape who you are – which you must watch, she spoke about going through severe self doubt.

And her research has been critical in evoking confidence in times when we need it the most.

She captures it all in her book called Presence – you can read a short review of the book here.

Find a place where you can be alone and strike the Wonder Woman pose – hands on your hips, stand straight and plant your legs apart.

Amy’s research has proven that holding a power pose for 2 minutes changes our physiology lowering the levels of cortisol and raising the testosterone making us feel more assertive.

Also read: 10 tips from Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, to make power pose a part of your every day life

TIP #9: ACCEPT COMPLIMENTS WITH GRACE

Peggy Klaus, in her book on branding, talks about how her parents dissuaded her from calling attention to her accomplishments. They wanted her to be humble and not toot her own horn.

She kept that up for a while. But beyond a point, it became imperative to talk about her accomplishments to get ahead.

She realised that it wasn’t about modesty at all. In fact, she runs workshops for women to train them in talking about themselves, feeling confident and accepting compliments with grace.

It is common knowledge that women find it hard to accept praise for their work. They tend to share credit or become tongue-tied instead of just accepting that they truly deserves a compliment.

If you ask me, the best way to respond to compliments is to say – Thank you!

Don’t share credit or blush with embarrassment. You’ll be able to do that only when when you believe that you deserve it. (Hint: think of your affirmation list!)

You can read all about it in Peggy’s book: Brag, the art of tooting your own horn without blowing it

TIP #10: FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

This is common advice – act like you are confident and competence and you will feel it.

And given Dr. Cuddy’s research, it seems we can indeed use the body to prime the mind.

There are a few things that can help you pretend like you have it all together – although you do actually have it all together!

– Dress the part: Top on my list will be to dress for the occasion. Donning a coat and slipping into heels can transform the way you feel! Looking a little taller and sharper can do a whole lot of good to your confidence levels.

– Stand tall: Body language is a huge contributor to how you feel! A straight spine, shoulders thrown back and head held high! (If you notice, heels get you into a more confident posture, anyways)

– Smile: Smiling helps you not just feel confident but also project it. You may be nervous at the beginning of an interview or a meeting. Smiling can help you defuse the tension and cover the nervousness.

Here are a few more ways to fake it till you make it

The more I read about Impostor Syndrome, the more I am convinced that a post like this can’t even scratch the surface of the topic.

But I am sure you found a lot of insight into the phenomenon and tips to overcome it.

If you found this post useful, comment below and share the post in your social network. If you are on Linkedin, say hello to me there.

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Comments

  1. Ankita Bhatia Dhawan

    This is a great article. Anyone dealing with self doubt can be in a hard place. It is especially tough when you don’t know the people around you are being genuine or not.

    1. Suman

      Thank you for commenting, Ankita! I am glad you found the post useful.

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