Moving Through Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is one of those oft-talked about scourges of the ambitious. As a restless, introverted middle child, I’ve suffered from it in waves or years. Each step up the career ladder, while climbed with confidence, was almost always followed by a few weeks or months of squirming through destabilizing feelings of inadequacy. Did I deserve the responsibility I’d been given? Am I actually qualified to do this? Did I just give a deceivingly good interview and when will they figure it out?

Millions of people go through the same internal torment on a regular basis. Studies have suggested that as many as 70% of all people will experience such self-doubt in their lifetime. Imposter syndrome is, in essence, an incredibly human response to success, and arguably an important component of the humility necessary to keep us grounded. Nevertheless, like any self-deprecating quirk, it needs to be recognized and managed, and there are many practical things you can do to do that and increase your sense of self-worth at work:

  1. Ask for feedback from your boss It’s too easy to waste months of energy and stress on worrying about a pending performance appraisal. You repeatedly convince yourself that you’re an annoyance to your boss, only to be given two thumbs up when the time finally comes. There’s no rule that says you can – or should – only have an honest conversation about your performance once or twice a year. Instead of waiting for the appraisal, ask for feedback every now and then. It’ll settle you down and allow you to address any genuine concerns in your stride, perhaps gaining a reputation for continuous self-improvement along the way.
  2. Ask for feedback from your peers Your boss isn’t the only person whose opinion of your work should count. Co-workers can often provide a much more intuitive and informed perspective of your work. Seeking this out regularly can help you pinpoint room for improvement, but also help you realize strengths you might not have noticed.
  3. Accept it It can be tempting to discount positive feedback as lip service, or an attempt to save your feelings. Trust that the feedback is genuine, internalize it, and accept it. Then stop asking. Affirmation is a wonderful thing when sought and received sparingly.
  4. Keep a box of Thank you notes Even the least sentimental of us can find a box of thank you notes to be a wonderfully reassuring tool. There is no better way to be reminded of your own worth than reading the words of someone who has taken the time to thank you for something you’ve done for them. When I’m feeling particularly uncertain about my abilities or impact on others, I take 10 minutes to read through such notes and am instantly reminded of my potential to impact others in a positive way.
  5. Frame your mistakes as learning opportunities It is far too easy to wallow in despair and allow the imposter syndrome to run rampant when we’ve made a mistake. Instead, we should remember that just recognizing a mistake was made is a good thing. It means you’re self-aware and have potential to grow. The chance you’ll make the same mistake again is relatively low, and you’ll be a stronger professional as a result. Defiantly optimistic self-talk can be healthy for the subconcious in such situations – instead of telling yourself “I’m so stupid,” try “that’s not like me. It won’t happen again!”
  6. Trust your decision-making Especially for those with years of experience in a certain area, many of the decisions made in the workplace are second nature, even if it might feel in the moment like we’re flying by the seat of our pants. Trust that second nature is informed, a sign of the subconscious expertise you’ve developed over time. Trust decisions you make with your head and your gut, but be wary of those made by the heart, especially when you’re experiencing self-doubt. Emotional decisions can be a sign of immaturity, and are often a result of worrying more about how the decision might look as opposed to what’s going to lead to the best possible outcome. If you’re riled up, take a day or two before executing a plan. If it’s a good, logical decision, you’ll still feel the same way about it when you’ve calmed down.
  7. Conduct a skills audit Sometimes, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of what we’re great at. Depending on your field of work, there might be several skills audits that you can take to establish your individual strengths and contributions. Remind yourself regularly of the unique traits that make you a great professional. If you work in a field that doesn’t have a specific skills audit, consider using a global tool such as StrengthsFinderâ„¢ to give you a more informed and objective outlook of your own strengths.
  8. Know and utilize your strengths People have a tendency to compare themselves to others they see as being successful, and despair when they exhibit strengths or qualities that we don’t see in ourselves. Sure, you might kill for the confidence and public-speaking ability of Ashley from Sales, but secretly she might wish she had Janice from Accounting’s analytical skills. A strong organization is filled with people who collectively exhibit a diverse range of complimentary skills. Instead of wishing you could be like your colleagues, focus on your own individual strengths and seek out opportunities to make best use of them. Again, StrengthsFinderâ„¢ is a fantastic tool for learning about where our efforts might be best focused based on our individual strengths.
  9. Create a professional development plan Instead of dwelling on how much you think you don’t know, take a deep breath and plan out a process to learn new skills and gain knowledge that might increase your value in the workplace. Analyze exactly what it is that you’d like to learn, and put together a written professional development plan that breaks it down into short and long-term learning experiences. Not only will a good supervisor appreciate the proactive approach, but you’ll probably learn that you’re not far away from the professional version of yourself that you think you’re only pretending to be, if that distance exists at all. Also, don’t limit yourself to conferences. While most pro-dev budgets might be built as such, you can often get much more bang for your buck by taking an online class, 0r spending funds on a book that will help you develop your knowledge base.
  10. Go on vacation Nothing feels more absolute than the present. Similar to taking a walk before sending an angry e-mail, a short break from work might help you realize that those anxious feelings of self-doubt were really just a product of stress and exhaustion. Take some time for yourself, grab some rays, and you might find yourself feeling much more measured and confident upon your return.

What are some of your experiences moving through imposter syndrome? What tips would you add to the list above?