Magazine

Imposter Syndrome Is Real. Here’s How to Manage It.

By Gala Jackson

Grab your latte and let’s have a real conversation. I’ve got something to tell you.

Going to work every day, looking over your shoulder thinking that today will be the day they will figure it out — that they’ll know you’re a fraud — has got to stop.

Oh, you didn’t think I know? I do. I know because I’ve been there, too.

What you are experiencing is known as imposter syndrome. Doubt and even downright disbelief of your skills, talents, abilities, and accomplishments is something 70% of people will experience in their lifetimes, especially high achievers.

An illustration of a woman looking at herself in a mirror. She sees a reflection of herself wearing a mask with a Pinocchio nose on it.

Don’t believe me? Here are some real-world examples:

It’s totally natural. But it can harm you in your career … so I’ll say it again: It’s got to stop. Here’s how to recognize it, understand why it happens, and find a way to manage it when it comes for you.

What does imposter syndrome look like?

Imposter syndrome can be sneaky, because it’s all about how you’re experiencing those feelings of disbelief and trying to solve for them. So it can express itself as not ever letting anything slide … or as giving up after the first try. It can look like having to do everything yourself … or it can look like micromanaging because you’re afraid of failure. It can show up as you jumping on a task before you need to even though you have a full plate already … or it can show up as you waiting to start a task because you don’t feel ready.

Maybe some of these behaviors sound or feel familiar:

  • You overwork and overprepare.

  • You focus on one wrong thing instead of all the right things.

  • You downplay your achievements.

  • You blame your success on luck.

  • You self-sabotage.

  • If you fail on the first try, you’re done.

  • You think “anyone could do what I’ve done.”

  • You believe something must be difficult to be worth doing.

  • You fear failure — not occasionally, but nearly all the time.

  • You feel addicted to people pleasing.

  • You’re really dissatisfied at work, like nothing’s good enough.

  • You constantly fear you’ll be fired, even though your performance reviews or feedback are positive.

Why does it happen?

Imposter syndrome can strike at any time, but it often comes when you’re outside your comfort zone or navigating something new. It can also appear whenever we define success, or when success is defined for us (like in promotions, raises, performance reviews) with a flawed metric.

The roots of imposter syndrome can also be found in the seemingly never-ending cycle of comparison. It tends to show up in highly competitive environments, where people are being compared against colleagues. And it can hit BIPOC people harder — the thinking is that the overt and covert stigmas, stereotypes, and biases can translate into feelings of being “not good enough.”

But it can also come from comparison against your own expectations. Sometimes, it stems from the belief that success must be hard, challenging, or almost impossible to obtain. And when we find out that it’s not as hard as we thought, we think, “Well, surely there was a mistake.” Or maybe, “That was sheer luck.” Sometimes, when the recognition or success we achieve is more than what we were aiming for, that can kick imposter syndrome into overdrive.

How imposter syndrome can hold you back

As you may have experienced, imposter syndrome can take up a lot of space in your mind. It can even feel like a vicious cycle: you feel like a complete fraud, so you work harder and achieve some success. Then you start feeling like you just got lucky, or downplaying your achievements, or feeling like they’re just not enough. Then you’re back in that mindset again. And the cycle goes on.

But what you may not be aware of is that you’re losing your sense of self-compassion and letting a fear of failure get in the way of taking the next steps toward your hopes and dreams. Yikes!

Acting on all those thoughts and feelings can mean you’re working all the time — which can be a fast track to burnout, especially because imposter syndrome is correlated with depression and anxiety.

How to manage imposter syndrome

First things first: There is no quick fix for imposter syndrome, but the good news is that you can manage it and even stop it before it starts.

There is a narrative on repeat when it comes to imposter syndrome. We replay over and over again a fear-based rhetoric — essentially affirming why we don’t deserve our success and / or perpetuating the *false* idea that we are a fraud. We have to stop that narrative in its tracks with the truth.

Strategy #1: Take time to acknowledge and celebrate your wins

Own it! It’s easier to feel like an imposter if you don’t own your accomplishments. Make a list of all that you’ve accomplished so far in your career. Give yourself some credit — and even an objective review. If you were looking at your experience and skills with an unbiased view, would you recommend “that person” for the job you have now? I bet you would!

Strategy #2: Start your day with affirmations

If worry and anxiety are part of your experience of imposter syndrome, try daily affirmations. Remind yourself daily and clearly who you really are. You are not a fraud. You are a hardworking professional who deserves everything you’ve accomplished.

Struggling to come up with affirmations? Take the compliments you receive from others and turn them into “I am” statements. For example, “You always do a great job managing projects” can become “I do a great job of managing projects at work.”

When you hear the voice of the imposter during the day, extend those affirmations into your day by taking a moment to remind yourself that you’re a badass.

Strategy #3: Start talking with someone you trust

Isolation can intensify the stress and the negative feelings we experience. Whether it’s your best friend, a close colleague, or a therapist, find someone to start talking with about what you’re going through. You might be surprised to learn that they’re experiencing similar feelings or have felt that way in the past. This can help you normalize your experience and might lead to some great tips to help you manage your own imposter syndrome.

Strategy #4: Ask for feedback

One way to counteract imposter syndrome is to replace it with a more accurate, objective metric for success. Asking your direct supervisor for feedback on your performance can help give you a more realistic understanding of how you can manage your work performance to adjust your expectations and align them with your role (not your inner critic).

Strategy #5: Stop seeking approval

Sometimes, imposter syndrome shows up as seeking approval, then dismissing it. Accept compliments and let them settle into your skin. Allow them to feel good and validate your work. Practice saying “thank you” instead of ignoring or downplaying the fact that someone made a point to acknowledge your hard work. Let it serve as a reminder to take time to celebrate your accomplishments.

Feeling seen and heard? Take a deep sigh of relief and a sip of that latte. You got this! But if you need a little extra help, you can always sign up for an Ellevest member workshop or coaching session to learn more about managing it.


Disclosures

© 2020 Ellevest, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The information provided does not take into account the specific objectives, financial situation, or particular needs of any specific person.

All opinions and views expressed by Ellevest are current as of the date of this writing, for informational purposes only, and do not constitute or imply an endorsement of any third party’s products or services.

Information was obtained from third-party sources, which we believe to be reliable but not guaranteed for accuracy or completeness.

Ellevest Membership fees are as follows: Ellevest Essential is $1 per month, Ellevest Plus is $5 per month, and Ellevest Executive is $9. Other fees as described in Ellevest’s Wrap Fee Program Brochure and the Ellevest Membership Terms and Conditions Agreement will continue to apply.

Gala Jackson

Gala Jackson is Ellevest’s lead executive career coach. She is passionate about helping women+ advance in their careers with clarity, courage, and confidence. Learn more about Gala here.