“Let’s have a quick call tomorrow. I have some thoughts I want to share.”
It looks like a completely normal request from a client, doesn’t it? And yet, it’s enough to get me spiraling.
“Sure, let’s connect in the morning,” I replied, trying to keep it all cool. But behind the facade, questions were bubbling up. What was she unhappy with? Could I do anything before the call? Is there something I missed?
I know it sounds silly. But I also have to admit that night, I had a dream of us fighting over the current project’s details.
Your brain on impostor syndrome
I doubt there’s any knowledge worker who hasn’t heard of “impostor syndrome” before. The best way I can describe it is a persistent feeling that you don’t belong. That at any moment people around you will find out that you’ve been deceiving them all along and discover what you really are – an incompetent fool.
The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something and that any moment now they will discover you. […] In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me…
Famous impostors and regular high-achievers
The first epiphany you’ll probably get when you start digging into impostor syndrome is that it affects many people we deem wildly successful: Charlize Theron, Viola Davis, Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama, Tina Fay, Seth Godin… The list goes on.
But this is not something reserved for world-renowned stars only. If you ask around, I’m sure you’ll find that the most successful people in your network are dealing with a raging impostor syndrome.
And impostor syndrome is disproportionately affecting women. The founding study of psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes that first introduced the name “impostor phenomenon” was focused solely on high-achieving women.
Women, minorities, and impostors
That’s not to say that men don’t experience it. But impostor syndrome is more common when a person can’t associate themselves with the typical profile of a leader – usually white, male, educated, and coming from a wealthy family. So women, ethnic minorities, and people rising from poverty are especially susceptible.
A side note I won’t cover fully here: talking about “impostor syndrome” can be used to cover-up toxic company culture and prejudice. This piece by HBR makes an excellent point:
“The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals but to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model, which Opie describes as usually “Eurocentric, masculine, and heteronormative.”
What does impostor syndrome feel like?
By now, the critical elements of impostor syndrome are pretty well-defined:
- Fear of “being found out” – feeling that you’ve achieved your current position or status not based on actual merit. People around you are bound to see they made a mistake and remedy it.
- Attributing success to luck or circumstance – you think any achievements you’ve made are actually due to a favorable situation, chance, someone else’s help… Anything but your true abilities.
- Attributing failure to personal characteristics – on the other hand, any failure or setback is actual proof that you don’t have what it takes and that you’ve reached the limit of your abilities. We don’t recognize the complexity of a situation or any external factors that might have affected the outcome.
- Quieting down and making yourself smaller – this is more of a side-effect than a feeling, but I’ve found out that it’s an easy thing to notice. Impostor syndrome is limiting your initiative and the motivation to contribute. Not because you’re lazy or disengaged in general but because you feel you don’t have the right to do it. After all, who are you to waste all those intelligent peoples’ time with your half-baked silly ideas?
If any of these seem familiar, don’t worry – according to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, you’re just average. It turns out 70% of people experience impostor feelings at some point in their lives.
With so many people dealing with impostor feelings, it’s no wonder that there are many different patterns to them. Valerie Young describes a few standard models. See if you recognize yourself in any one of them:
- The Perfectionist: any slight mistake, any unachieved goal (or a goal achieved “only” at 99%) is a sign that you lack the right skills.
- The Expert: you need to know all the answers and have all the information to feel you’re even worthy to speak on a topic. These are usually certification hoarders and training addicts.
- The Natural Genius: any struggle or bout of hard work is a sign you’re not good enough. If you need to put in more than a bit of effort into a task, then you’re surely an impostor. The Geniuses usually had it easy in school and their early career.
- The Soloist: asking for help or advice feels like you’re surrendering. You need to be able to do everything on your own – or you feel like a fraud.
- The Superman: you make yourself work harder than anyone else. That will finally prove you’re not an impostor. Of course, “harder” doesn’t have an upper limit. Supermen usually feel they need to be the best at everything – work, family, sports.
I’m personally a mix of the Expert and the Soloist. But recognizing you’ve got impostor syndrome is just part of the battle – so how do you go about dealing with it?
How I deal with impostor syndrome
There are a ton of articles with good helpful advice out there like this one. But rather than parroting the consensus, I wanted to tell you about my coping mechanisms.
They are specific.
They are tried and tested over several years.
And they managed to get me from a place of fear to a place of acceptance and action.
Fighting is useless – accept and act
Sorry for bursting your bubble. But let me tell you: you’re not going to fight impostor syndrome. And I know why you might be led to believe you might. The phrasing around it can feel like it’s a disease or some psychological anomaly. It’s not. It’s just the name we now have for something that has been plaguing knowledge workers for ages.
And having a name for it is good. Because it lets you understand what’s happening and point out when it happens.
Call it “impostor syndrome”. Call it “my inner critic”. Hell, call it “Valerie,” if you will. But giving something a name is empowering. Because now, every time you feel these feelings, you can notice “Oh, Valerie’s back!”
The better you know your inner critic, the less scary Valerie will seem – here’s how copywriter Henneke from Enchanting Marketing (check out her awesome post, too):
Noticing is the first thing you need to do. Accepting that it will continue to happen is the second. And then comes the cool part – finding the right ways to act!
Get the full picture
I see all of myself. I see an edited version of everyone else. And no matter how many times I tell myself that it feels like a revelation.
It’s harder and harder to remember that in an age of Instagram filters and self-congratulatory LinkedIn posts. Even the talk about mistakes and failures that has been very much in vogue at startup events is phony. Speakers come on stage and say, “I made this ridiculous mistake… and here’s how I recovered from it.” No one goes and says, “I made this ridiculous mistake, and I have no idea how to fix it.”
Make sure that whenever you compare yourself to others, you remind yourself that it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s an apples-to-very-well-polished-edited-and-Photoshopped-oranges comparison.
Find your role models
What are the reasons you’re not going to succeed? Make a list of your limiting beliefs and find yourself some role models who grew despite them.
I’m a woman. I come from Eastern Europe. I haven’t worked for a big company or a well-recognized brand. I don’t have an extensive network or exposure to a large international audience. I can go on and on, but you get the picture.
And I made sure I found people who are fantastic marketing professionals despite having a combination of these “limiting factors.” Some of them are in this roundup of great women marketers.
Keep a tally of your wins
Impostor syndrome makes it that much harder for you to remember that you’re good at something. Which means you need to rely on the written word.
I use two tactics to fight this off. The first is the Jar of Awesome. It’s an idea I got from Tim Ferriss, who keeps a mason jar and fills it with some of the things he’s proud of, big or small. Here’s what my Jar of Awesome looks like:
Whenever I’m feeling down, I’d take a few notes from the jar. They serve as a reminder that I rarely give myself full credit – so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself either.
The Jar of Awesome is pretty hard to fill in at the beginning. That’s because we’re not conditioned to recognize wins for what they are. The second tactic here helps with that. During my review, I make myself come up with three big wins I’ve had this week or this quarter. I write them down in the review notes of my bullet journal:
At first, it’s hard to come up with three wins. Gradually, it gets easier. And then comes the point where you can’t limit yourself to three.
This might sound like superficial ego-boosting of the worst kind. And it very well might be if it makes you over-confident and narcissistic. But if it’s just a way to keep your inner critic down and get a clear view of both the failures and successes in your life, I believe it helps.
Recognize your strengths
I still remember a one-on-one I had a few years back with the co-founder of the startup I worked for, Enhancv. We talked about leadership, and I mentioned that I didn’t think of myself as a good leader. He was immediately curious where that feeling came from. I said something along the lines of, “Well, I’m not one of these people who’ll stand in front of the army ranks and inspire everyone to charge a castle.” And his reply has stayed with me to this day.
His point was that there are different types of leadership. Sure, I might not be the type of person who’ll motivate everyone to jump on a project in one second. But I have a structured approach to work that helps people feel secure and focused enough to do their best.
Recognizing your strengths is the first step to using them more often – and this is not just a self-serving act but a way for you to make a meaningful difference in the world.
Dramatize the opportunity cost
We often think about impostor syndrome as a personal issue. But it isn’t. When people limit their input into projects or don’t contribute new ideas, this is a net negative for companies and society.
You don’t need to go that big, of course. But think about projects you’ve started that wouldn’t be there if your inner critic had interjected. And think how many more opportunities would go to waste if you let impostor syndrome rule.
Creating this blog happened before I could think, “Who am I, and what do I have to say anyway?” And it has had a massive impact – on my career, sure, but it’s also been helpful to readers.
So think what would’ve happened if you hadn’t proposed that campaign idea or spoken during that meeting or started that project. And the next time when impostor syndrome strikes, say, “No, this is more important than you, I’m bringing stuff into the world!”
Decouple self-doubt and idea-doubt
Adam Grant discovered there are two kinds of doubt: Self-Doubt and Idea-Doubt:
“Self-Doubt is paralyzing; it leads you to freeze. But Idea-Doubt is energizing; it motivates you to test, to experiment, to refine.”
Not all your ideas will be brilliant – but that doesn’t make you a fraud. I try to distinguish between these two types of doubt, and whenever I go into self-doubt, I try to stop and think. If it’s just fear of taking a leap and doing the work, I try to discard it. If I’m doubtful that something will work, I try to switch to idea-doubt and see how to make the concept better. It gets exhilarating!
No matter where you are in your professional journey, there always are people you can help. And helping is not just a great thing to do – it’s also a potent cure for your impostor syndrome.
I’ve written about the benefits of mentorship before. One of them is that the more people you help, the more confident you get in your abilities.
Of course, don’t make it all about you. But there’s no harm in reaping some benefits out of bringing value to others. It can be through mentoring, volunteer work, or something completely different. But it’s a way to do good and feel good.
Talk about it
Whenever I tell people I have impostor syndrome, they’re often surprised. “How come you’ve so much experience?” “I didn’t think successful people had it.” “I thought it was because I lack so much knowledge and skills!” These are all close approximations of reactions I’ve gotten.
And I think it’s on those people who are perceived as successful to normalize impostor syndrome. After all, if Michelle Obama is OK with confessing it, I’m not the one to hide!
It will help others. But it will help you get comfortable with impostor syndrome and deal with it, too.
It’s liberating and empowering to name things and putting a spotlight on your inner critic. So if you want to try it out, the comments section here is a great place to start practicing!
Impostor syndrome makes you daft – don’t let it
That meeting request I mentioned at the start of the post? The client wanted to tell me she was really happy with our work together and we bounced off a few ideas for expanding our partnership. It was great. It also made me feel a bit silly.
This is what impostor syndrome can do to you. Just don’t let it dictate your every step. It takes practice, but if I can do it, so can you. After all, I have no idea what I’m talking about – I’m just a fraud.