7 ways to outsmart ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Do you occasionally (or often) hear a little voice that whispers, “Today’s the day they figure out I don’t really deserve this job?”

People refer to it as “imposter syndrome.” Actually, the two graduate students who pioneered this field of study back in the late ’70s dubbed it “imposter phenomenon” – because it isn’t some diagnosable illness, it’s a feeling that happens to us, even the most accomplished, from time to time.

Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance initially focused their ”imposter” studies on women who were breaking into the workplace in those days, but over time, they and other scholars learned that anyone can be susceptible to feeling like a fraud.

Clance shares this on her website:  

“Most people who experience the Impostor Phenomenon (IP) would not say, ‘I feel like an impostor.’ Yet, when they read or hear about the experience, they say, ‘How did you know exactly how I feel?’ And how do they feel? Even though they are often very successful by external standards, they feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke or luck or great effort; they are afraid their achievements are due to ‘breaks’ and not the result of their own ability and competence. They are also pretty certain that, unless they go to gargantuan efforts to do so, success can not be repeated. They are afraid that next time, I will blow it.”

Even though the chances are slim that competent people are going to “blow it,” I hear from plenty of them who wish they could quiet that pesky voice of self-doubt.

So, let me offer a few tips to help:

  • Count your blessings. Take inventory. Don’t be humble. Make a list of every skill or quality you’ve been told you possess, accomplishments that brought you joy, problems you’ve solved, and smart folks who seek out your counsel. Keep that list in a form that’s easily accessible. Keep adding to it. Refer to it when you’re having a bad moment. Make it a touchstone for days you’re facing doubts, to remind you what’s real.
  • Tell your story to yourself. What’s the overarching narrative of your work and life so far? Something like: “I’m the first in my family to graduate college. I’ve honed my writing skills to  tell unforgettable stories. Co-workers have said the work’s better when I’m on the team.” Or “I can make order out of chaos, take nuggets of ideas and turn them into innovation and be a great parent on any given day.” You have a story. Remind yourself of it.
  • Beware of needless comparisons. High-achievers often worry that they’ve peaked and it’s all downhill from here. When others win awards, get job offers or promotions, they may reflexively wonder if they could or should be doing the same. Don’t let the lives of others trigger self-doubt. Ask yourself, “Why am I making this comparison? Is it healthy? Am I happy? What really matters to me right now?”
  • Take positive feedback to heart. We often shrug off or downplay compliments. It could be humility, a perfectionistic streak, or a feeling that people are just being kind. Promise yourself you’re going to savor the good stuff more than ever before. Thank people for their praise. Listen carefully to what they’re saying rather than finding ways to deflect it. (Yes, share the wealth if you’re pointing out a team effort – but don’t shortchange yourself.) Oh, and revisit point #1. Add it to your list, whether you’re keeping that tally in a document or in your head.    
  • Don’t turn mistakes into monsters. Mistakes – even small ones – can trigger IP. We overreact to our everyday errors or bad calls, and we let it overshadow everything else we’ve done. Take mistakes seriously, of course, but if you’ve messed up and fessed up, don’t let the situation define you. Determine why it happened, why it won’t happen again, apologize to those affected, and go back to step #1 to put things in context.
  • Ignore the ignorant. People say stupid things – and they land especially hard on people who’ve been traditionally underrepresented in organizations. “Wow, how did you get that job with just two years of experience?” or “We’re proud to say she joined us during our increased focus on diversity.” These statements can make people feel diminished, as if they’re lucky or even unworthy instead of talented. The speaker is wrong, not you. (And if you’re a person who says things like that, now you know the damage these words can do.)
  • Listen to your friends and allies. Think about all the wise and wonderful people who are on your side. How did you earn that? If you’re tempted to doubt yourself, phone a friend. The fastest way to shake the shadow of imposter fear is to bask in the sunshine of someone who believes in you.

And that leads me to my last piece of advice for everyone. Never assume that good people know that they’re good. Don’t withhold praise, encouragement, or appreciation because you assume it’s awkward to give it to an accomplished person. Trust me, whether or not they’re among the many folks who feel like imposters from time to time, you’ll rarely go wrong sharing sincere, specific, positive feedback. We all need it.

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Steve Hammel
Steve Hammel
21 days ago

As always, you are “spot on.” Good advice for rookie and senior achievers/leaders!