How to Overcome Your Big, Exhausting Case of Imposter Syndrome
We’ve all felt some version of imposter syndrome—that nagging sense that you’re an imposter in your own life, you don’t deserve the attention and responsibility you’ve been given, and that you’re about to be outed as a fraud. It’s exhausting. This warped view of our own merit can rob us of confidence, prevent us from advancing in our work, and cause a cycle of chronic negativity that can make us physically ill or depressed. The irony is that if you’re feeling like you’re unqualified or not-quite-competent, you’re not an imposter! According to Denise Jacobs, author of Banish Your Inner Critic, “Imposters don’t get imposter syndrome!”
Commonplace or not, imposter syndrome is too draining and painful to take up permanent residence in your psyche. I’m offering eight life-tested tips for overcoming imposter syndrome, so you can welcome new challenges with confidence.
- Remind yourself how little you know about what’s easy for other people. You may think “She’s a better writer than I am” or “He’s quicker at data analysis than I will ever be.” But be honest with yourself. Your assumptions are just assumptions. You don’t really know how many drafts it takes your colleague to write that press release. And you’re just guessing about how long it takes your manager to complete the monthly data analysis. Stop torturing yourself by thinking things are easy for other people when you just don’t know if that’s true.
- Ignore your feeling of being an imposter. This might seem like dumb advice but bear with me. At one time or another, we all have big feelings we choose to ignore. You may feel resentment toward your manager for asking you to let yet another intern shadow you, but you ignore that resentment because you believe in mentoring undergrads. You may feel nervous about attending a networking breakfast, but you go anyway because you need to meet professionals in your field. The point is, you are probably capable of ignoring your feeling of being an imposter, so you can successfully lead that project or make that presentation. You’ve ignored a big uncomfortable feeling before!
- Reject your imposter syndrome the way you reject other types of all-or-nothing thinking. There’s no subtlety to imposter syndrome: “I’m completely unqualified to be in this role. I don’t have any of the skills required. I’m definitely going to fail.” Reject this absolutist thinking about your own worth just like you’d reject it on other topics, such as sexism, for example. You’d never tolerate a comment like, “No women are qualified to be leaders in tech” or “Men make poor preschool teachers,” so don’t allow this type of thinking about yourself.
- Out yourself as inexperienced. Maybe you feel like an imposter, but it’s not because you’re unqualified. You’re just not qualified…yet. You’ve been tasked with writing a proposal to win a government contract, and you have a bad case of imposter syndrome because you’ve never written this type of proposal before. You’re afraid that all your colleagues are about to discover that you have no experience with government proposals and dire consequences will ensue. So, beat them to it! Without dwelling on it, out yourself as inexperienced. During a meeting, you could mention, “This is the first proposal for a government contract I’ve taken from start to finish, so I’ll be drawing heavily on my experience writing nonprofit proposals in my previous job.” Now you won’t have to worry about being exposed as unqualified. You’re inexperienced, and that’s temporary.
- Commit to replacing the word “imposter” with a more accurate term. Whether your inner voice is using the word “imposter,” “fake,” or “fraud,” these negative words are hurtful and inaccurate. If you’re a career-changer, think of yourself with that term. If you’re a recent college graduate, think of yourself that way. What we call things matters. Replace “imposter” with neutral, more accurate words like “novice,” “trainee,” “new hire,” “newbie,” or even “first-timer.”
- Be scrupulously honest about your experiences and credentials. Live cleanly. Don’t exaggerate on your resume or anywhere else. Be truthful about what you’ve done, who you know, and how much you’ve accomplished. Instead of claiming to have a “degree” in project management, explain that you earned a project management certificate online. Instead of obliquely mentioning that you were “responsible for the company’s finances” in your previous job, say that you handled payroll for 200 employees and contractors. If you never claim to be more than you are, no one can call you an imposter, and you shouldn’t call yourself one either.
- Accept the idea that luck plays a role in success. Sure, you may have landed an interview because your mom went to college with the CEO of the company, but you landed the job because you have the right credentials, your interviews went great, and the hiring manager considers you the right person for the role. Good luck doesn’t cancel out merit. You can be lucky and worthwhile at the same time. You were lucky enough to make a connection through another alum of the university you attended, but you were chosen to be on the conference program because your session proposal impressed the conference planners.
- Don’t let anyone else treat you as an imposter. Your case of self-doubt may not be home-brewed. You may have a colleague who’s doing their best to dim what others think of you and what you think of yourself. Do not absorb someone else’s low thoughts of you. You know who you are and what you can do. Speak with this person privately and explain that their minimizing you must stop.
In my career as a consultant and entrepreneur, I’ve learned that self-confidence isn’t a steady commodity. Sometimes I’ve had a lot, and other times I’ve been lacking. I’ve trained myself to focus as much as possible on what I have done and can do. And I’ve strictly avoided exaggerating my qualifications or experience. After all these years, none of my clients have referred to me as an imposter and I (usually) don’t think of myself that way either.