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Combatting Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt. Even Jody Foster, after winning an Oscar said: “I thought it was a big fluke. The same way when I walked on the campus at Yale, I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back.” And Maya Angelou, the incredible author and poet once shared: “I’ve written 11 books but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now.  I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’

To combat imposter syndrome, we have a lot of learning and unlearning to do when it comes to recognizing the internal barriers we face and working to break them down. While no small task, I’ve included some ideas below to get you started.

Fake it till you make it: While this doesn’t sound like the most scientific theory, it is backed by science.  One study found that when people assumed a high-power pose for just two minutes, their dominance hormone levels (testosterone) went up and their stress hormone levels (cortisol) fell.  As a result they felt more powerful, in charge, and showed a greater tolerance for risk.  Additional research states that simply saying positive affirmations (for instance, “Catherine, you are going to rock this presentation”) have a powerful effect on how you see yourself.

Identify and change limiting beliefs: It is essential that we identify and label limiting beliefs we have about ourselves. Then, according to Byron Katie who has been researching these beliefs and their effect on our life, we must ask ourselves three questions: is it true; is it absolutely true; and who would I be without that thought? Notice your reaction to these questions. Are you fearful? If so, of what? What are you protecting yourself from? Embarrassment, failure, something else? It’s important that we examine these beliefs before acting on them so we do not limit our potential confusing feelings for facts.

Visualize your success: If you are questioning your ability to lead, present to senior leadership, or simply take on a new project, visualize how you’ll navigate the situation successfully in advance. Conduct a mental dress rehearsal of how you will approach challenges. Confidence doesn’t have to come from experience. Similar to positive self-talk, visualization can help prepare you to overcome doubts as they appear.

Impacts of gender inequality:  While anyone can experience imposter syndrome, women and minorities tend to experience it more intensely and are more limited by it. The inequalities faced over time have shaped how we see ourselves and what we see as possible. In 2019, McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace Study highlighted role-modeling and mentorship as key to engaging and promoting women and minorities within organizations. Other studies have backed this up showing role models have an amplified benefit for these groups because in general, it is hard to believe we can become something we cannot see. If your organization does not have formal mentorship or networking opportunities, look externally for ways to engage and make meaningful connections.

Supporting someone experiencing imposter syndrome: Just because you’re not currently experiencing feelings of imposter syndrome doesn’t mean you can’t help those who do. If you are reading this, I hope you will consider ways in which you can help.

  • Normalize imposter feelings. It is estimated that 70% of people experience imposter syndrome. In addition to Jody Foster and Maya Angelou, Sheryl Sandburg, Tom Hanks, and Michelle Obama have also admitted to these feelings of doubt. Simply sharing this fact and letting a colleague know that it’s completely understandable and something they can overcome.
  • Even better, share your own stories of overcoming imposter syndrome. This will continue to normalize the feelings and perhaps inspire the listener to overcome their limiting beliefs.
  • Remind them of their accomplishments. If a colleague is expressing doubts about being tapped for a new project, remind them of past successes. Perhaps a project you worked on together where they played an integral part in moving things forward or a time they received recognition from senior leaders.
  • Encourage colleagues to share their ideas. Create a safe space for discussion and recognize the value they add to the team.