5 ways to overcome impostor syndrome

Too often we see working parents with a real fear of putting themselves out there in case they’re wrong. Or too scared to put their hand up for a promotion in case they don’t get it. Or for asking for something just in case they are told ‘no’. Does this sound like you? It could be impostor syndrome, explains recruitment, leadership, talent, and HR specialist, Shannon Lyndon-Lugg.

When I was a new manager, I participated in a wonderful leadership development program that changed my view of myself and the world around me. One of the things I learned was that everyone (OK, most people) suffer from a level of impostor syndrome — that nagging doubt that what you have achieved is a result of good luck, good timing, or is in fact a mistake and it’s just a matter of time before the world around you notices that you are a fake.

In the years since I have met many high-performing executives who display this persistent fear of being exposed as ‘not good enough’, and despite clear evidence of their competence, they seem convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have achieved.

The research on this phenomenon tells us that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, and my personal experiences working with numerous female leaders reinforce this.

Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes have written a wonderful paper on The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women^. In it, they tell of numerous amazingly credentialed, high-achieving women who suffer terribly from thinking of themselves as impostors. One story that particularly struck me was a woman with two master’s degrees, a PhD, and numerous professional publications (awesome, right?!) who considered herself unqualified to teach remedial college classes in her field!

One woman they studied stated:

“I was convinced that I would be discovered as a phony when I took my doctoral examination….In one way, I was relieved at this prospect because the pretense would finally be over. I was shocked when I was told that my answers were excellent and that my paper was one of the best they had ever seen.”

Now, these are extreme examples, but the underlying issue is all too common. The fear ‘of being discovered’ is ever-present so the person works incredibly hard, over a long time, to prevent discovery. This pays off in excellent performance and approval from authority, which reinforces the cycle. Exhausting preparation rituals often guarantee overt success, but the feeling of satisfaction or comfort is short-lived because the underlying belief of pretense remains. How exhausting.

So if you have a case of the ‘not good enoughs’, here are five ways to get out of your own way and overcome impostor syndrome:

Tune in to your rituals

What do you do to prepare for important meetings, and what are you telling yourself? How many hours of pre-work are you putting in? Are you trying to cover every single question that could be asked of you? Are you looking for perfection?

Choose your mindset

Shift to a strength-based mindset: I will do well in this meeting, rather than the fear-inducing: I may fail. After a successful meeting where you have used your strength-based mindset, use this data point to help you in the future to undo your fear-based ritual of predicting failure.

Think about all of the people you think you have ‘fooled’

Write a list and then (out loud) tell them how you fooled, conned, or tricked them. Then (yes, again out loud) respond in the way you honestly think each person would respond. Would they agree with you that they were fooled, tricked, and had the wool pulled over their eyes? Or might they think that you’re actually giving yourself too much credit and that they, thank-you-very-much, were in full knowledge of your limitations but thought you were ready for your next challenge/project/promotion despite your imperfections?

Write down the positive feedback you have received

And then write down how you feel about it – in your old way of thinking. You will probably find ways of not genuinely accepting this feedback, thinking it was luck, the situation, the team, and many other factors. Then do the opposite, take in the positive feedback and get as much nourishment as possible out of it. Consider all the things you did to deserve the feedback, honestly believe that the giver meant what they said and understood the multiple factors at play. Bask in the sunshine of the feedback and really let it into your defences (cue: Let the sunshine in). Again use this as data points of your success when you need it in the future.

Reach out for help

Everyone has a support network, you just need to reach out to engage it. It might be your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a trusted friend or coach, or, in some cases, it may be professional psychological intervention and support if your fears and doubts are impacting your ability to function well. Be brave and reach out for the help you need.

Written by Shannon Lyndon-Lugg. Shannon is a mother to two lovely children and Head of Resourcing and Workforce Planning at Allens. With expertise in human resources, talent, leadership development, diversity, and performance, Shannon works with individuals and companies to support career transitions and grow talent.

^Clance, P. R. & Ament Imes, S. (1978), The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women, Georgia State University

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