When I first heard the term Imposter Syndrome, I was relieved—relieved that someone had put a name to something that I had experienced for decades. For so long, I thought it was just me. I remember the first time I felt like a fraud: freshman year of college. As I looked around and compared my accomplishments to those of my peers, the feeling that I didn’t belong came rushing in. I wondered, “did the admissions department somehow put my application in the ‘accept’ pile by mistake?”
As my career in marketing started to gain traction years later, the feeling of unworthiness continued, despite validation from colleagues and a trajectory of increasing responsibility. I recall sitting in meetings surrounded by more outspoken teammates that would blurt out what I believed were self-evident insights, while I sometimes stayed silent. When those people would receive (rightful) praise for their contributions, my blood would boil. I would think: “I KNEW THAT! WHY IS ‘MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS’ GETTING ALL THE CREDIT?!” The truth was that I didn’t have the confidence to share my knowledge with the group, so I let others eclipse me.
What We Know About Imposter Syndrome
I had kept stories like these, and countless others, to myself until recently when I was asked to lead a Women in Revenue session on Imposter Syndrome last June. How ironic, but fitting, that the opportunity to drive a discussion on a topic with such personal relevance came my way organically. I figured it was a sign. So I did what any perfection-seeking, slightly neurotic GSDer would do: jumped in with both feet to research this mysterious ailment in preparation for the event.
Here’s what I discovered:
- Up to 70% of the population suffers from it, according to the Journal of Behavioral Science
- Although people tend to think of it as primarily affecting women, one study showed that men can feel the impact more heavily
- It affects people from all walks of life, from celebrities like David Bowie and Lady Gaga to business leaders such as Howard Schultz and Sheryl Sandberg, not to mention Maya Angelou, Sonia Sotomayor, and others
- The impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases remains unknown, given that early studies focused on women
The Unexpected Outcome of That June Day
My Imposter Syndrome session was attended by about a dozen women. The small group size not only tempered my fear of being outed for what I considered a lack of expertise on the topic but also created a setting where I could convince my fellow attendees that we were safe together….that we could bring our most vulnerable selves forward in service to a greater good.
And it worked. I kicked things off with a few stats that I had gathered during my research, then led into some storytelling about my long-standing battle with Imposter Syndrome. Before I knew it, we were all sharing experiences and developing solutions.
Following the event, I distributed a few insights on LinkedIn over a series of 3 or 4 posts that received light engagement and figured that would be the end of my musings on this subject.
Not so fast! Over the next several weeks, I received outreach from several connections – some close, some surprisingly removed – all wanting to talk about their struggles in feeling underqualified, fearful, and fraudulent. And here’s what I never expected: that most of them would be men. Who would have thought, given the gender biases in our society and the belief that men avoid discussing their feelings, that I would have so many fearless brethren come forward and put their trust in me? (Thank you to the people who reached out; you know who you are, and I applaud your bravery!)
I was touched, to say the least. But more than that, I felt inspired to help more people and broaden my reach to the silent majority that experiences Imposter Syndrome all alone. I still don’t consider myself an ‘expert’ on Imposter Syndrome, but I’ve learned some valuable strategies along the way that have helped me thrive at work, at home, and in life.
Tips for Coping with Imposter Syndrome
These solutions are not exhaustive by any means, and I welcome your additions to this list (via email or LinkedIn). But they’re a great start if you or someone you care about struggles with Imposter Syndrome.
Ready to take the reins on rewriting your negative self-talk? You’ve come to the right place.
- Stop the comparisons. Research has shown that the more you compare yourself to others, the more likely you will struggle with Imposter Syndrome. That’s because when we are focusing outward, all that we see are the public-facing successes of others. Without understanding the full scope of their realities, we tend to assume that the story people reveal to us represents the complete picture. It rarely does, and If you’ve ever spent a minute on Instagram, you know this is true!
- Focus on accomplishments and strengths, celebrate wins. People with Imposter Syndrome tend to spin more on what they perceive as lacking; they downplay accomplishments. Remember, there’s no reward for this! Instead, try focusing on achievements and strengths. Drive it home as much as possible and create physical representations of your unique talents. Celebrate your wins – all of them! Write them down and refer back to the list when moments of self-doubt arise. Imagine that any given goal is at the top of a ladder, and celebrations are in order each time you reach a new step. By regularly reinforcing your capabilities in a fun way, you can push yourself to become increasingly comfortable with achieving milestones.
- Lean into your skills gaps & weaknesses. When you notice a gap in your skillset, take the opportunity to learn something new. My job at Norwest is to lend my 20+ years of marketing experience to help our portfolio companies. When I first joined the firm as an operating executive, I thought I was supposed to be the all-knowing marketing guru that could answer any question. I realized (which once felt like a big secret) that I learn as much from our companies as they learn from me. It felt uncomfortable until this breakthrough revelation: it’s not my job to have the answers; it’s my job to seek the answers and share my knowledge with others. Once I stopped expecting the impossible from myself, I became better at the things that are possible.
- Understand the difference between facts and feelings. Just because you think or believe something bad about yourself doesn’t make it true. Learn to lean into your critical internal voice with curiosity and compassion rather than recoil in shame and anxiety. Notice when negative self-talk arises and ask yourself, “Whose voice is this?” If you dig in, you might find that the voice you’re assuming is your own could actually belong to a toxic person from your past.
- Flip the script. If you’ve read this far or have done any other research on Imposter Syndrome, then you already understand that those who struggle with it are disproportionately highly qualified and successful. The fact that you’re contending with this issue serves as evidence that you’re highly likely to be deserving of the successes you’ve achieved.
- Seek therapy. I’m a big believer in therapy, whether to solve a short-term issue or deconstruct the root cause of ongoing challenges. A trained therapist can help you to identify the negative thought patterns that may be limiting your potential. Virtual options like Talkspace can help make therapy more accessible for those who need flexibility related to time, location, or health insurance coverage.
- Develop acceptance. You might always struggle with Imposter Syndrome on some level, even after making progress to shed its weight. Learn to live with it and accept that it may be an ongoing challenge. I find that it helps to notice when it’s cropping up, welcome it, say hello, then put it in its place and remind yourself of the progress you’ve made and the great new skills you’ve developed!
Lisa Ames is Norwest’s Interim CMO and Operating Executive. She leverages more than 20 years of B2B SaaS marketing experience, working shoulder-to-shoulder with portfolio companies to help them thrive.