Don't Let Imposter Syndrome Hold You Back

Does this sound familiar? You love your boss, the CEO. He’s the smartest, fairest, least ego, most supportive leader you’ve ever worked for, and you trust his judgment – business and otherwise – completely.  And you love your career, which has provided many opportunities to work on cool projects, with teams of knowledgeable individuals, to create innovative solutions.

But none of that kept you from experiencing a raging case of “Imposter Syndrome” when your boss stopped by your office last week to tell you he was changing you title from manager to VP. Instead, you smiled, gulped, sputtered some inane comments like “Wow, thank you, that’s wonderful,” and then promptly adjourned to the restroom where you tried not to throw up.

What is Imposter Syndrome?
Basically, imposter syndrome is the sense that you’ve been promoted beyond your abilities, that you’re in over your head, that through some combination of luck and others’ misperceptions, you’ve landed in a position for which your skills are wildly inadequate.

It’s the career version of performance anxiety, aggravated by a dread that you might be “found out” at any moment. It may not be rational, it may fly in the face of years’ worth of accomplishments, but it’s estimated that some 70 percent of successful men and women experience this chronic and often crippling self-doubt.

And that’s probably exactly what hit you when your boss gave you what he thought was terrific news about your promotion. His rationale was that he’d worked with you for 18 months, knew your strengths and weaknesses, and thought this was something you’d be good at. Your reaction, however, might have instead been that he’d completely overestimated your strengths, underestimated your weaknesses, and you were all about to find out in the most awful way possible…In essence you were going to be “found out.” Classic imposter syndrome.

Do Any of These Sound Familiar?
Imposter feelings, that is., a sense of being in over your head, of feeling “undeserving” of success, may manifest as:

  • Feeling like a fraud who has somehow managed, intentionally or unintentionally, to deceive others as to your capabilities;

  • Assuming that your career achievements are due to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, or other external factors not based on your actual skills or value as a contributor;

  • Dismissing, discounting, or downplaying your successes to yourself and others with statements like “anyone could have done it,” “it wasn’t that important,” or “I really got lucky on that one.”

    Points out imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young, “self-doubt and negative feedback weigh heavily on the mind, but praise barely registers. You attribute your failures to a stable, inner core of ineptness. Meanwhile, you discount your successes as accidental or, worse, as just so many confidence jobs. Every positive is a false positive…..”

    Imposter syndrome is especially prevalent among perfectionists, academics, and others whose careers are based on performing intellectually. This anxiety can be accompanied by fear of success, a pressure not to fail, or unrealistic expectations in yourself in new situations.

    Coping – or masking –  mechanisms may include being overly diligent (read: working really, really hard), figuring out what behavior influential people in your career want from you and “mirroring” that – no matter how inauthentic that behavior is to the real you, or studiously avoiding drawing any attention to your strengths or accomplishments to avoid being seen as overly confident.

    The Imposter Syndrome Checklist: Where Do You Fall?
    Wondering if you’re suffering from imposter syndrome? Some of the questions experts use when assessing the presence of this condition include:

  • Do you secretly worry that people will discover you’re not as smart or competent as they thought you were?

  • Do you have a difficult time accepting praise?

  • Do you hesitate to take on challenging opportunities because you’re afraid your lack of ability will be exposed?

  • Do you avoid presenting your ideas or opinions in meetings in order to avoid exposing your self-perceived lack of knowledge?

  • Do you have a hard time taking credit for your accomplishments, instead attributing them to good luck or others’ efforts?

  • Do you see making mistakes as a personal failure, and not being perfect as a weakness?

  • Do you feel like everyone you compare yourself to is smarter, more capable, more deserving of success than you?

  • Do you worry with every new responsibility that this will be the one that unmasks you as a fraud?

    If you’ve got mostly “yes” answers here, join the club! Almost every colleague I spoke with (especially the women) who’d achieved any level of career success felt exactly the same way.

    Getting Beyond the Imposter Syndrome
    If it causes you enough anxiety, imposter syndrome can limit your life in many ways: it can stop you from taking a great new job, limit your earning power, constrain your ability to contribute all that your skills qualify you for, and quite frankly, make working much less fun than it might be.

    So what are some ways to get beyond the self-doubts and anxiety that imposter syndrome lands on (and in) our heads? Here are some tips from the experts:

    • Recognize when imposter syndrome may be driving your reactions, for example, when you’re feeling panic rather than elation at a job promotion, and work to short-circuit your emotions with a strong does of reality-check. Feeling incompetent does not equate to being incompetent.

    • Realize that what you’re experiencing is not a sign of weakness or incompetence, but rather an indicator of a conscientious nature, and a sense of seriousness about responsibility – any idiot can be overconfident, so pat yourself on the back for your thoughtfulness.

    • Accept that just about everyone else you know, in a similar circumstance, would probably experience the exact same self-doubt reaction (based on the fact that almost every librarian I know is an over-achiever); what’s important is whether you allow that anxiety to hold you back.

    • Be willing to discuss your feelings with trusted friends and colleagues, to get those feelings out of your head and into the reality light of day.

    • Learn to recognize when you are discounting yourself and your accomplishments with statements like “I was just lucky,” and try instead statements like “I worked really hard/was really on top of my game/did some great writing, etc.” Let yourself – or rather insist that you – OWN your accomplishments.

    • Check your self-doubt against reality by revisiting those accomplishments; my guess is you have, in fact, faced unfamiliar situations or roles or responsibilities and managed to figure them out just fine.

    • Develop a healthy respect for the limits of your abilities, knowing that these aren’t weaknesses, these are simply areas that you haven’t yet chosen to develop into strengths. Then be honest about those areas when a promotion possibility is under discussion so you won’t feel like you have to “hide” those areas; instead, you can ask questions openly and learn from those who have those strengths.

    • Lighten up, and unload the burden of perfectionism. Any new opportunity involves a certain amount of tap-dancing, and that necessarily entails learning new things, making mistakes, and having to ask lots of questions. This is called growth, not incompetence.

    • Trust that the people who’ve worked with you and promoted you are not idiots – for example, our theoretical CEO had seen you work for 18 months and decided that you would do a good job coordinating strategy for the company. You may doubt myself, but you probably don’t doubt him, so his confidence in you should boost your confidence in yourself.

    • Pay attention to whether you’re feeling imposter syndrome anxiety or a true mismatch between a job and your real self. If the latter, then make a change to a position that aligns more closely with who you are and what you enjoy. But be sure this change is based on positive growth rather than damaging fear.

Ready to rethink your self-sabotage? Consider a large glass of wine, an evening of soul searching, and finally a determination that you really want to take on that “stretch” challenge. Then take out your laptop, rev your confidence engine, and start making your to-do list.