Imagine someone telling you that you’re fooling everyone. That you’re not really that good at your job. That you’re simply making it up as you go along, and soon, your phoniness will be revealed for the world to see.
What if that person was you? Enter: Impostor Syndrome.
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
First observed in a clinical setting by Dr. Pauline Clance in 1985, Impostor Syndrome triggers in people “intense feelings that their achievements are undeserved and worry that they are likely to be exposed as a fraud.” They often feel that any success in their lives can be attributed to pure luck or to the manipulation of other people’s impressions.
Turns out, it happens to the best of us. In a recent public post, Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes offers some real talk about his experience with Impostor Syndrome. For those following along at home, he heads up a global company with thousands of employees and millions of users: “Most days, I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
You might look at a successful CEO and think, “How on earth can they think that when they have had so many wins?” This is because Impostor Syndrome is not based on reality, but rather a person’s perception of reality.
Impostor Syndrome can happen to anyone. Here are four truths to practice to combat this harmful thinking:
Get An Accountability Partner
Bringing more accountability into your life does not mean you should surround yourself with people who tell you how great you are all day, every day. Instead, find a co-worker, friend or peer who can objectively help you track your goals and give you honest feedback about what’s going well and ways in which you can improve or propel yourself to that next step.
For Jenn Pedde, Global Manager of Alumni and Community at Oliver Wyman, this process is about identifying strengths and weaknesses and putting the pen to (digital) paper.
“I set up an accountability structure four years ago with one of my closest friends. We have a joint Trello board and create yearly goals in the areas of life, health, and career. We review them on a quarterly basis to make sure we're on track or need to revise, and every other week we discuss what's going on in our lives surrounding those goals.
“Having things written down and someone else to be a sound board, give feedback, or even yell at me when I need it really helps keep that Impostor Syndrome feeling in check. Just having this unbiased person as a cheerleader in my corner is the most helpful.”
Pay It Forward
What better way to overcome self-doubt than by volunteering your time? You often take for granted the breadth of our expertise, especially if you’ve been in a particular field for a number of years, and forget that there is always a new cohort of people who can benefit from your experiences. You might consider:
- Scoping out local Meetups in subject areas you’re passionate about
- Searching for groups like Girls Who Code who need facilitators nationwide
- Tracking calls for speakers at conferences you’ve attended or have been meaning to attend
- Donating your time to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program to help people prepare and file their tax returns
- Delivering a lunch & learn at your office
- Reaching out to your alma mater for guest lecturer opportunities
The “Who cares what I have to say?” voice in your head starts to become muffled when you can see the impact of your insight in real time.
Hang On To The Receipts
If you suffer from Impostor Syndrome, you may find yourself brushing off compliments or failing to acknowledge them at all in your day-to-day.
“I could receive 100 compliments but hear one person say, ‘You don’t deserve this,” and that’s the person I choose to believe,” says Tobias van Schneider, former Art Director and Design Lead at Spotify. “I’m like, ‘Right?! I was just thinking the same thing. Thanks for confirming it.’”
One solution that van Schneider and others have found is to keep a file of all the positive things people say about you. Whether it’s a list on your personal Trello board, a section of your journal or in a Google Doc, capture those comments, emails, blog posts, notes and more. It may sound narcissistic, but in reality, it serves as a tangible way to reinforce that your work is respected and appreciated.
When writer Kyle Eschenroeder is having a challenging day or second-guessing himself, he reaches for the screenshots he keeps in a folder.
“When I feel like a fraud I can go look through the stories of people I have helped,” he says. “… Those things keep me putting stuff out there. Because, honestly, it's easy to forget that writing can do any good.”
Embrace Failure to Achieve Success
Feelings of unworthiness or a consistent fear of rejection are not only harmful in the present, but they can also sabotage future opportunities. Self-handicapping, which often overlaps with Impostor Syndrome, happens when an individual impedes their own performance, thereby creating a built-in explanation for subsequent failure.
Much like how the person who fears flying will force themselves to travel more to help normalize it, the solution to eliminating this behavior really boils down to earnestly putting yourself out there and accepting failure as a potential outcome. (Seriously!)
Why? Because when you do so, you start to reframe the experience into something more positive — you’ve taken a chance and stepped out of your comfort zone. In fact, celebrating rejection is a tactic used by many successful people to cultivate a growth mindset and exercise their “grit” in pursuit of high levels of achievement.
Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard grad, Google alum and current COO of Facebook, openly talks about her tendency to underestimate herself in the 2013 bestseller Lean In, as well as how she began to face those insecurities head-on:
“I learned over time that while it was hard to shake feelings of self-doubt, I could understand that there was a distortion. … When I felt like I was not capable of doing something, I’d remind myself that I did not fail all of my exams in college. Or even one. I learned to undistort the distortion.”
- Sheryl Sandberg
There is some comfort in hearing these anecdotes from folks like Sandberg and Cannon-Brookes, to know that even those we perceive as super successful can admit to feeling like frauds. In fact, about 70% of people surveyed confessed to having bouts of Impostor Syndrome at one time or another.
Something else to keep in mind: Employers hire people based on their experience—and also for their eagerness to grow. Therefore, it’s important to celebrate what you bring to the table now and keep pushing to unlock your full potential.
“It's expected that there will be knowledge and experience gaps, and being self-aware and admitting you’re human goes a long way,” says Trello Support Specialist Steven Grady, who has experienced Impostor Syndrome.
"When I interview candidates, I'm hiring them not just for their current skills, but for their capacity to improve and learn.”
Do you have a tendency to question the truth about your successes? If so, what’s been your most effective strategy for removing those blockers? Let us know in the comments.