Do others think you have it all together, yet you often feel like a fraud? That you're just fooling everyone into thinking you’re more than who you really are and worry that eventually, they'll find out otherwise? Believe it or not, most of us do. It's called Impostor Syndrome. Here are five ways it may be showing up in your career and how to conquer it once and for all.
Rebecca seems to have it all together. She appears competent, accomplished, and very much in control. Yet, Rebecca has a secret. Deep down, she feels like a fake, hiding behind a facade. While Rebecca holds an enviable leadership role in her company and has many impressive accomplishments under her belt, they offer her little self-assurance or bona fides. She believes she got to where she is in her career, not because of her abilities, but mainly lucky breaks and good fortune. She’s just fooling everyone. At any moment, she'll be found out. Rebecca’s secret has a name. It’s called “impostor syndrome.”
Do you experience impostor syndrome too? If so, you’re in good company. It’s a common occurrence among high achievers. Consider how often you tell yourself:
I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m just faking it.
Everyone else is far more capable. I don’t measure up.
I’m not unique or talented. I just work really hard.
Others will soon realize I’m not as good as they think I am.
If I put myself out there, I won’t have the goods to back it up.
If any of these sound familiar, know you are not alone. Many of us share this secret. Impostor syndrome is about feeling you aren’t good enough and undeserving of where your career has taken you. It is not about how capable you really are. While others may see you as competent and accomplished, you feel like you’re trying to pass as a better, more worthy version of yourself. And, if (when) you eventually fall short, you’ll be exposed as the fraud you believe you are.
Why Women Leaders Often Feel Like Impostors
We are all susceptible to experiencing impostor syndrome, especially women and other minorities who inhabit predominantly white-and male-dominated workplaces. As such, women of color may be particularly vulnerable due to ingrained systemic bias and racism that reinforce their sense that they are "impostors" and, therefore, don’t belong.
“I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my professional jobs, not feeling completely part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder, wondering if I measure up.” - Sonia Sotomayor
Nagging insecurity and self-doubt fuel impostor syndrome. This feeling of not being good enough compels you to overperform to shield yourself from being found out. Maybe it shows up for you as crippling perfectionism or the tendency to always work harder and longer than necessary. Conversely, it can lead to chronic procrastination or a tendency to avoid taking on challenges that could expose your shortcomings.
You may think these coping strategies protect you from experiencing shame and judgment, but they’re actually holding you back from reaching your full potential. Rather than alleviating your feelings of self-doubt, they reinforce your need to overwork or avoid more risky goals altogether. This sets you up for a vicious cycle of stress, anxiety, and eventual burnout. The irony is that the more you succeed, the worse you feel because the immense effort and pressure to maintain these high standards never end. It's like trying to run a race with no finish line.
I am pretty sure you aren't an impostor. You’ve just convinced yourself you are. The problem isn't you; it's how you interpret your feelings of fear and self-doubt. A key to overcoming impostor syndrome is critically evaluating the limiting beliefs you have about yourself and shifting your thinking.
Here are 5 common scenarios where impostor syndrome may be showing up for you and how to let it go.
1. Comparing Yourself to Others
Sarah’s impostor syndrome rears its ugly head when she meets a new colleague. Without any evidence to the contrary, she jumps to the conclusion that they are more talented and capable. In her mind, she just doesn’t measure up.
Stop Comparing and Despairing: We often compare the worst part of ourselves with the Instagram-polished version of our peers. Underneath this façade, others are similarly comparing themselves with you. They, too, feel that they are coming up short. Resist the tendency to use others as a measuring stick for your self-worth. Like with social media posts, you only see part of their story.
2. Believing You’re Just Winging It
Have you ever convinced yourself that you don't really know what you are doing? That you're just winging it and have faked your way to where you are now? In your mind, everyone else is managing fine and has it all figured out. But you don't.
We are all winging it: None of us really know what we are doing. In fact, many very successful women leaders, including Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington, Michelle Obama, and even Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, have admitted to falling into the trap of impostor syndrome at some point during their careers. It's normal to experience insecurity and self-doubt, especially when doing something important. It doesn't mean you're an impostor. It means you're human.
3. Feeling Self-Doubt When Taking On a New Challenge
Earlier in my career, I felt like an impostor when I was promoted to a senior leadership position at my law firm. Even though I was qualified and well-prepared for this new role, I recall thinking to myself, "Finally, everyone is going to realize I don't know what I'm doing!" I believed they would soon realize I wasn't as competent as they thought I was.
You're Moving Outside Your Comfort Zone: We often assume we should feel completely confident and comfortable when taking on a challenge or accepting a new role. When we experience insecurity and self-doubt, we misinterpret it to mean that we aren't adequately prepared or qualified.
Instead of interpreting self-doubt to mean that you aren't up to the task, recognize it as a sign of growth. It means that you aren't complacent. You're just pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.
4. Experiencing Criticism
Reflect on a past performance review when you may have received some critical comments from your boss. Did you view this information as useful feedback? Or as further evidence of your shortcomings?
Constructive Feedback Is a Gift: Many of us interpret criticism as evidence that we don’t measure up. More likely, it's just valuable information on how you can improve. Not an indicator of your self-worth. Research on Latina attorneys found that the ability to receive (and even solicit) candid feedback is a critical success factor. Interestingly, the more you actively seek it out, the less emotionally charged it becomes. So be proactive and ask for it.
5. Making a Mistake (or Failing)
Sarah’s keynote presentation didn't go as well as she hoped. She noticed attendees frequently looking at their phones. Several even left before it was over. She interpreted these reactions as evidence that she wasn't a good speaker. She turned down future speaking engagements to avoid confirming this fear.
Failure Helps Us Learn and Grow: Like criticism, we see our failings as evidence we are not up for the task. If we were truly competent and capable, we wouldn’t be making mistakes. Life is full of mistakes. It’s how we grow and learn. What holds us back and keeps us small is playing it safe.
To move forward and reach your full potential, take appropriate risks and give yourself permission to fail. It's the best way to build confidence and resiliency. It’s like kryptonite for impostor syndrome!
Want to Finally Overcome Impostor Syndrome?
Are you tired of feeling like a fraud? Are you ready to start seeing yourself as the talented and capable leader you really are? Then stop listening to that bully in your head who routinely whispers in your ear that you aren’t good enough and don't have what it takes to succeed! Imagine what your career and life would look like if you could let that go?
The best way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like one. If you’d like to change how you view yourself, reach out to me and learn how I can help. You are welcome to schedule a 30-min consultation call with me. Learn how coaching can help you "get out of your own way" to achieve your goals and realize your full potential.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, PCC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Facilitator