What is Imposter Syndrome? Plus 5 Tips to Beat It

Anne Shaw

Have you ever had the feeling that you don’t belong, especially at work – that you’re not skilled enough, intelligent enough, qualified enough? Maybe you assume that you only got to where you are because you’re lucky and that everyone around you is superior. You think they know more than you do and that they may even find you out as a fraud. This feeling is called imposter syndrome.

Once believed to affect only high-achieving women, experts now agree that imposter syndrome can affect anyone. Those who experience it have trouble believing that they’re good enough and even find it hard to accept praise from others no matter how well-deserved.

For some people who experience imposter syndrome, it can turn into a major mental health issue, while others experience it only occasionally. As part of the latter group, I’d like to share some personal experiences with it, because once you get better at identifying the feeling, you can also develop ways to beat it.

Personal Experiences with Imposter Syndrome

In high school, I was invited to join a pipeline training camp for the U.S. Olympic Volleyball program. I was thrilled to be recognized and included, but I also felt a strong sense of self-doubt. I believed that the other athletes’ playing level would be way beyond mine, that my skills would be no match, and I wouldn’t be able to keep up. Basically, I’d be a joke – or so I thought.

This feeling crescendoed fifteen minutes before my plane touched down in Colorado Springs. My nerves had me sweating, breathing into a paper bag and trying not to lose my lunch.

Now, once I got into practice at camp, did I realize that I could indeed be a future Olympian? No, not even close. But did I stand out as a complete failure among the other players? Not at all. Could I keep up with them? Yes, and then some. I had doubted myself into a frenzy for nothing – all because I had a strong case of imposter syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome At Work

About a decade later, I sat in a conference room with other departmental leaders after being recently promoted. Our boss asked us for more detailed reporting with specific analytics in mind. I didn’t think some of the requests were possible with the technology we had, but no one else questioned it. Instead, they assured our boss that we’d get to work and get it done.

Clearly, they knew more than I did. So, I stayed quiet, fearful of outing myself as a know-nothing who didn’t deserve her promotion.

After our boss left the room, though, I finally spurred myself to ask the others how we were going to do this. I humbly played to the crowd: They clearly had expertise and knowledge that I didn’t, so would they mind explaining this simple thing to me? It turns out that no one knew how we could achieve this. They all assumed someone else in the room did. We were all “imposters,” and this feeling kept us from asking intelligent questions and finding a real solution. Imposter syndrome stood in our way, and I vowed it wouldn’t do this to me again, especially when it comes to opportunities for professional development and learning.

Since then, I’ve focused on identifying when I’m feeling imposter syndrome so that I can get better at addressing it. While imposter syndrome can be fleeting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t limiting. So, let’s cover some strategies to cope with and even overcome it.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

If you experience imposter syndrome, don’t let it steamroll you, squash your sense of accomplishment or prevent you from learning and trying new things. The feeling may not go away forever, but that doesn’t mean you can’t beat it when it rears its ugly head – and you’ll get better with practice.

Uncover Your Unique Value and Strengths

While we build professional experience and train for specific work skills, we also have intangible strengths that make up who we are and add value to our work. I like to call these “superpowers.”

Uncover your innate value – your superpower – and consistently put it to work. This will help you to not only drive more value but also feel empowered, satisfied and confident.

Not sure what your personal superpowers are? Ask some colleagues, friends and family: What are you especially good at? In what ways can they always rely on you? Some examples include:

  • Asking the right questions
  • Seeing the big picture
  • Organizing strong, balanced teams
  • Motivating others
  • Building relationships
  • Mentoring others
  • Showing enthusiasm
  • Following through
  • Communication skills

When you become aware of your innate strengths, write them down. Then start to look for opportunities to use them at work, creating more value for your employer and your team while also demonstrating your strengths to your harshest critic: yourself. That brings us to the next tip.

Notice Negative Self-Talk and Flip the Script

Many people who experience imposter syndrome have a nasty habit of talking down to themselves. In fact, that’s often where imposter syndrome begins.

Remember when my high-school self was on the plane and just knew that all the other athletes would be much better players? That’s because I’d only played volleyball for a couple years at that point. Many of the players attending the training camp had an additional three to six years’ playing time on top of my own.

As you know, I saw this as a point against me. How could I have turned off my negative self-talk? I could have acknowledged what an accomplishment it was to get invited after playing for such a short time. Once you identify your negative self-talk, consider how you might be able to flip the script too.

Quit Talking Down About Yourself to Others

What does it mean to talk down about yourself? It’s how you portray yourself to other people, especially in the way you speak. This can include obvious instances of downplaying yourself, but some of the most common ways people put themselves down are less easy to spot. These include:

  • Apologizing when it isn’t necessary
  • Downplaying your experience, your expertise or even what you’re about to say

If you have either of these habits, then commit to quit. Below are some examples to help you realize whether you do this and how you can turn it around.

Do you ever hear yourself apologizing when it isn’t necessary?

  • “Sorry, but can I add something?” Change this to: “I’d like to add something.”
  • “Sorry, but I’m not sure I understand.” Try: “Can you please clarify ____?” or “I’d like to know more about ____.”
  • “Sorry I’m late.” Try: “Thank you for waiting. My last call went a couple minutes past time.”

While that last example may warrant an actual apology, there’s still a good way to alter your language. Simply reframe your temptation to apologize into a message of appreciation for others. And remember, in general, you don’t need to apologize for having something to say. Using assertive language may help you feel more confident and will likely help others to take you more seriously as well. Finally, asking questions and seeking to learn more isn’t shameful, so there’s no need to apologize.

Examples of Downplaying Yourself Followed by a Note on How To Stop

  • “I don’t know if this matters, but…”
  • “I promise I won’t take much of your time, but…”
  • “I think…” as in, “I think it might be helpful if we send agendas prior to each meeting.”

Starting your sentences with these types of phrases immediately devalues what you have to say – both to yourself and to others. When you have a valid point, state it with confidence. Cut out devaluing phrases and begin with what you’d like to say. For instance, “It would help to send agendas prior to each meeting.” Look for opportunities to speak up and identify times when you’re feeling imposter syndrome. In those moments, practice talking yourself up instead of down. Consider how you can state your point or ask your question with confidence. Then breathe out and speak.

Practice Confident Posture

Amy Cuddy, a TED speaker who penned Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, and other psychologists have found that confident posture often translates into more confident speech. In meetings, at lunches, even with friends, pay attention to how you’re sitting and standing.

Try to use expansive posture – shoulders back, chest open, chin level – rather than contractive posture like hunched shoulders and folded arms. Some experts suggest visualizing yourself in a power pose (think of your favorite superhero), even physically holding this pose for 60 seconds to boost confidence prior to a meeting or presentation.

Find a Buddy and Build Each Other Up

While we may not always see and acknowledge the best in ourselves, our close friends and family members usually do.

Share your struggles with them and ask for feedback. Some may even tell you that they experience the same thing. Point out each other’s strengths, celebrate your successes together, and remind each other of these positive things during difficult moments.

Imposter syndrome is certainly a challenge, but even just knowing that you’re not the only one who feels that way can be helpful. Keep in mind that we’re all a work in progress. Growing and learning – including the need to do so at any point in our lives – isn’t shameful. In fact, it’s part of what keeps life interesting.

Let us know in the comments below:

Have you ever had the feeling that you don’t belong? That you’re not skilled enough, intelligent enough, qualified enough? How did you overcome these feelings and tap into your superpowers?

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