October 20, 2016
Feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, failure, and low self-esteem are common in the business world. Also known as the impostor syndrome, the inability to validate your own successes and the nagging feeling that you’re a great big fraud is more common in startup journeys than funding meetings.
The term was originally coined in 1978 in reference to research on high-achieving women, but anyone can suffer from impostor syndrome at work, although it is more common among people from marginalized groups, such as women or people of color. Impostor syndrome is also particularly common in cultures that value high achievement and among perfectionists.
The good news is that it’s possible to overcome impostor syndrome—or at least diminish its impact on your psyche and your work life. Here are five strategies that can help you do just that:
Know That You’re in Good Company
Maya Angelou, Natalie Portman, Don Cheadle, and Tina Fey have all copped to feeling like impostors despite their legendary status in their particular fields of expertise.
When you recognize this feeling is often a natural extension of success, it’s easier to see it for the fiction it is. Similarly, it can help to remember that nobody really knows what they’re doing. To some extent, we’re all faking it—which means there’s no reason to compare yourself to others or hold yourself to a standard that no other human could possibly meet. When feelings of being an impostor arise, try to recognize them for what they are and move on.
Validate Others’ Compliments
Combatting negativity starts with validating positive feedback both internally and externally. Make it a point to pay more attention to your strengths and capabilities than you do to your flaws, without tipping over into full-blown egomania, obviously.
Start by keeping a list of all the positive feedback you receive from your coworkers, managers, customers, etc. Then, regularly refer to these notes to introduce a more positive monologue within your mind. If you’re feeling like you tricked your managers into promoting you, for example, remind yourself that they’re experienced and intelligent people who have complimented you in the past and wouldn’t have hired you if you weren’t a good fit for the job.
Develop a Support System
Sometimes, simply getting “fraudulent” feelings off our chest and hearing a more sympathetic interpretation of the situation is all we need to move beyond impostor syndrome. That’s when it’s important to have people to turn to.
If you’re feeling down at work, consider stepping outside and calling a friend or family member who knows that you struggle with impostor syndrome. They can help talk you into a more compassionate, confident frame of mind. In general, try to spend time with people who help you feel more competent and self-assured, and avoid relationships that drain your self-esteem.
Interrogate the Underlying Fear
When you start feeling like an impostor, try to view it as a sign that you’re experiencing fear and then explore that fear to gain self-awareness and hopefully move beyond it. If you’re feeling inadequate in your role at work, for example, can you dive beneath those feelings to identify what’s really going on?
Maybe you’re stressed because you’ve taken on new responsibilities, or maybe you need to improve your relationships with your coworkers. Whatever it is, odds are good there’s a concrete issue underlying your feelings of being an impostor and identifying it can help you deal with the root cause so it ceases to trigger flare-ups.
Focus on Sharing Value with Others
One very effective way to validate your own capabilities is to emphasize sharing your talents and insights with other people in a way that will enhance their own lives or work. For instance, consider tutoring students, mentoring young coworkers, or offering to collaborate with a coworker on a project that’s been causing them stress. Not only will you benefit from the happiness boost that comes from helping others, but you’ll also provide yourself with an opportunity to affirm your own knowledge and abilities. Recognizing that you have value to provide to other people is a good way to affirm that you have value, period.
Above all, remember to be kind to yourself. Try not to hold yourself to superhuman standards, and be forgiving with yourself if you ever do mess up at work. If impostor syndrome continues to dominate your life, then it may be time to chat with a licensed therapist. And remember: The occasional slip-up doesn’t make you a fraud; it just makes you human.
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