Feeling unsure of one’s self is something most of us have experienced. In fact, if you don’t have feelings of uncertainty or doubt you might rush into decisions or behaviours that could have real negative consequences. But when feelings of inadequacy or self doubt start to become persistent and inescapable, you may be suffering from Imposter Syndrome, a phenomenon that makes people feel like their success has more to do with luck than their internal capabilities and it holds them back from accomplishing their goals in the workplace.
The irony of Imposter Syndrome is that it most often affects highly successful, hard working, high achievers who from the outside look like they have it all together yet internally they feel like frauds – constantly worried someone or something will reveal their incompetency to the world.
- It’s the new team member who brushes aside all the positive feedback and points out their tiniest mistake.
- It’s the person who works late every day, whose work is meticulous, and who always seems to have all the answers.
- It’s the experienced, talented supervisor with great leadership skills who never applies for promotions even though upward mobility has been one of their goals year after year.
Behind the scenes these people don’t think they deserve the praise or the promotion. They hold themselves to an unreasonably high standard. They often work themselves to exhaustion believing their best isn’t good enough.
Imposter Syndrome puts people in a very tough position. The cycle of negative internal messages exacerbates normal feelings of uncertainty and can cause lifelong imposter feels or can strike in particularly stressful situations like when staring a new job or taking on a new assignment. Thankfully there are strategies you can use to identify whether you are falling into the imposter trap and to keep these feelings at bay.
Challenge Preconceived Notions of Achievement
Our society’s emphasis on achievement, and a relatively narrow definition of what that means, is a strong contributor to imposter Syndrome. Do you think of yourself as the ‘smart one’ in your family? Were you under pressure to be successful and achieve from an early age? Were you told to be strong, never show your weaknesses, and find your own answers? These are some of the messages that contribute to over exaggerated feelings of self-doubt when facing new situations and they create a misalignment with personal success and feelings of self worth.
You can begin to reframe your internal messages around achievement with statements like:
- I don’t always have to know the answers.
- It’s ok to ask for help.
- My work achievements are one aspect of my overall success.
- My best is good enough!
Beware of Perfectionism
Very often Imposter Syndrome and perfectionism go hand in hand. Perfection is an impossible standard that leads to a belief that your best is never good enough – you can always do better. Perfectionists typically end up with one of two poor outcomes. Either they work themselves to exhaustion with their impossible goals or they give up completely because they don’t want to face an imperfect outcome. It’s a major roadblock to success and will exacerbate your feelings of unwarranted praise and of being a fraud.
Ask yourself the following questions and begin to challenge how well these behaviours are working for you:
- Do you set unrealistic goals for yourself?
- Do you brush off praise and positive feedback?
- Do you consistently work longer hours than your colleagues?
- Do you ruminate on your mistakes, making them the focus rather than your successes?
- Do you find avoid new tasks or projects, fearing you may not be up to the challenge?
Record Your Accomplishments
A success journal may be one of the best tools you have to combat Imposter Syndrome. It’s hard to refute what is recorded in black and white. Make a practice of becoming aware of all the successes you enjoy daily and notice too the things that make you feel good about yourself. Accomplishment is larger than what you achieve and is about how you impact others as well. When you start to see your successes more broadly it’s easier to see the positive aspects of yourself.
The following practices will help you get in the habit of paying attention to your accomplishments:
- Keep a journal and reflect on what you did well that day.
- List interactions you had with others that made a difference and had a positive impact.
- Record big wins and small victories as they happen.
- Track your goals and mark them off as you complete them.
- Keep a file (hard copy or digital) of praise you’ve earned, comments that made you feel good about yourself, important moments in your career, recognitions you’ve received etc.
- Read though these journals and files regularly to remind yourself of everything you’ve accomplished.
Learn to Frame Failure Positively
Even the best among us make mistakes. If you’re suffering from Imposter Syndrome these mistakes can take on cataclysmic proportions. To help overcome feeling like an imposter you need to be able to look at failure with a healthy perspective and understand that everyone makes mistakes and that mistakes are often the key to finding new and better ways of doing something. So while no one sets out to fail, it will likely happen at some point and you need to be prepared for it.
Keep the following in mind when things don’t go the way you expected or wanted:
- Failure doesn’t make YOU a failure – remember to separate an outcome from your self-esteem.
- Sometimes failure is out of your control – focus on what you can realistically control and let go of the rest.
- Failure can be the best teacher – be open to the experience and commit to not making similar mistakes.
- Failure build resilience – being able to bounce back from a setback is one of the best life lessons.
Talk about Your Feelings and Move Forward
Feeling inadequate isn’t something most of us like to talk about. Especially with our colleagues or mentors. By acknowledging your struggles with feeling like a fraud you will likely realize you aren’t alone and you’ll be able to get past this self defeating pattern of behaviour. And when you open up about your struggles you create a positive cycle where people take the time to point out what you are doing well, they encourage you, and they challenge your negative self talk.
Use the following techniques to open the door to a new way of interacting with your self and others:
- Confide your feelings of doubt in yourself in a trusted colleague or boss. You may be surprised to learn they suffer from these feelings too.
- Ask for their support, guidance and encouragement.
- Ask for feedback from people outside those you expect it from.
- Consider starting (or joining) a group to deal with Imposter Syndrome
- Try visualization to help you ‘see’ your success beforehand
- When presented with a new project or opportunity, shut down the voice in your head that says you can’t do it and go for it.
Imposter Syndrome isn’t shameful and it isn’t uncommon. It can however lead to dissatisfaction and a pattern of behaviour that isn’t healthy. If you are struggling with these feelings, commit to writing a new script for yourself – one that emphasizes you are good enough and that it’s ok to ask for help and support. Dare yourself to take some risks because if you wait to feel confident about everything you do you may end up doing nothing.
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