Removing the Mask: How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

September 22, 2022

Removing the Mask: How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” — Albert Einstein

Have you ever felt like you are a fraud and that your accomplishments in whatever industry you do are not really a product of your skills and expertise? Studies show that 82% of people face similar feelings, called “imposter syndrome,” where they feel like they haven’t actually earned all their achievements.

It often comes with feelings of fear that “you will be found out for the fraud you are, and they will realize you were actually incompetent all along, or you are unable to replicate your past successes.” Leaders and high-achievers are especially more susceptible to these feelings.

If you felt that way, or still do, there are two pieces of good news for you: One, you are not alone; and two, psychologists say it is a normal “phenomenon.” In fact, calling it imposter “syndrome” might be making those feelings bigger than they really are.

Everyone can feel this way at some point in their careers. Experts say it can even be a good thing because sometimes it motivates us to “become less of a fraud” by actually taking steps to improve ourselves and our skills. However, constantly feeling like you are an imposter can take a toll on your mental well-being, as it comes with feelings of stress and anxiety.

How can we, as leaders, overcome imposter syndrome? And how can we build an environment that helps our teams overcome similar feelings?

The first step is in realizing that your self-doubt and sense of insecurity might be the imposter phenomenon. Putting a name on something helps us identify what it is, and how to deal with it.

The next step is knowing the facts. Step away for a bit from your feelings of “I am a fraud” and “I am not good enough, or as good as they believe me to be” and look at yourself objectively. What are the things that prove you deserve praise and recognition for your accomplishments? Where were you five years ago, compared to now, and what were the things you did that made that happen? How have you improved over time?

Some of you might say ``Oh, I did this and that “but I just got lucky.” Remember, “luck” is when preparation meets opportunity–no matter how coincidental it was that you were at the right place at the right time, if you haven’t put in the work to be prepared for when that opportunity came, you wouldn’t have been as “lucky” as you were.

Sharing our thoughts and feelings with someone we trust, like our spouses, mentors, a therapist, or partners, can help put our thoughts and feelings into perspective. Sometimes, because we’ve bottled things up for so long and ruminated on them alone for a while, it feels more magnified than it should be. Find someone who can help you look at things and yourself objectively—comparison can promote and increase feelings of being an imposter, so it is important to choose well who you share with.

Take some time to celebrate your successes, no matter how small or big they may be. People going through the imposter phenomenon tend to feel relieved that a project is over and that they managed to do it without major issues or failures. But brushing off your success can exacerbate the experience.

Pay attention to how you respond to sincere congratulations, and listen to your inner dialogue: Do you feel less worthy of your success because your self-talk is telling you so? Maybe you need a new set of inner dialogue to tell yourself. Sometimes, fear disguises itself as “humility.” We think that by minimizing ourselves, we are being humble, when in fact, we are just running away from the bigger responsibilities attached to our newfound success.

That is why affirmations often work to boost your self-confidence and morale. Self-doubt is hard to battle when you are not aware of the inner thoughts you think of yourself.

Tracking your wins, and keeping a record of your successes can help remind you that you are able and competent and that you are capable of growing, especially when you forget.

Let go of unrealistic self-expectations. Perfectionism does more harm than good, and we all need to learn when “good enough” is good enough. One way to battle perfectionism is to set a deadline and realistic metrics. When you have a time limit to do a task, you tend to think less of whether it is perfect or not and focus more on achieving the objective with the time limit you have.

Be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is talking to yourself the way you would give advice to a friend who experiences the same feelings you do. If you are able to encourage others when they feel like they aren’t good enough, why then can’t you tell yourself the same things too?

Share your failures. If you have peers in the same industry, get into the habit of not just discussing how you achieved success, but also talking about how you failed and learned to get to that success. Often, what we see, in print or on social media is just one side of the story, the glamorous side. That is why we have this skewed belief that successful people never fail. It is also hard to reconcile their “failure journeys” with their successes because it wasn’t told alongside their success stories.

Talking about the different ways others in your space failed also helps encourage discussions on future intervention plans. We can learn from the experiences of others without having to experience all their failures firsthand.

Lastly, embrace it. The imposter phenomenon is natural, and the more we open spaces to talk about it, the more it can be normalized. Feelings of self-doubt are only debilitating if left unaddressed and stewing in our minds. Accepting something, putting a name on it, and knowing that it is okay to have those feelings and it is possible to change and grow from it helps transform imposter syndrome into something productive.

When we know how to deal with these feelings within ourselves, we can be more empathetic towards the people we are leading who go through the same experience.

Studies have shown that people in minority groups tend to feel imposter syndrome more frequently than others. Providing a psychologically safe environment for your people to discuss these things, and promoting and improving diversity and equity at work, can help your organization’s culture become more inclusive and healthy.

Be kind to yourself and others, and thanks for reading A Brilliant Tribe.