No, you’re not a fraud: Tips for overcoming impostor syndrome

[I resolved to write about this a few weeks ago, and since then, three articles have popped up in my LinkedIn and Facebook feeds on precisely the same thing. Clearly it’s an issue that is occupying the thoughts of other people too. I did wonder whether I should still write this given that there already seemed to be so much out there on the topic. But then I decided I had something of my own to contribute, so here goes!]

It’s about impostor syndrome. You know, when you don’t think you’re good enough to be where you are, like your success is entirely attributable to external factors and people are just being nice when they say positive things about you and your work. When you think you’re a fraud and you’re just about to be found out. You’re particularly vulnerable to it when you start a new job or take on new work responsibilities.

impostor-syndrome-cartoon-823x1024Image © Bradford Veley

The first observation I’ll make is that you’re in good company. Apparently some 70% of the population suffer from impostor syndrome at some point. Better than that, you’re in the company of lots of very talented high achievers who are all frauds in their own heads (a quick Google tells me that Sheryl Sandberg, Leonard Cohen, Maya Angelou and Neil Gaiman were – or indeed are – no strangers to this). So it’s not just you. It’s me, and them, and more likely than not the role models you look up to.

Knowing other people feel the same way too can help with perspective, but of course you’ve still got the problem. So here are a few tips, thoughts and questions to ask yourself to help you overcome impostor syndrome.

  1. Awareness and acceptance is the first step. Accept that you’re feeling like a fraud, rather than run from it or be frustrated by it. Where’s the feeling coming from?Very often the roots of impostor syndrome lie in patterns we’ve learnt while growing up. Maybe some of these will find resonance with you: Vesting too much of your self-confidence in achievement; needing to get external proof of success because you lack internal validation; having expectations of yourself that you would tell anyone else were unreasonable.You set high standards for yourself. You want to be able to make sure that you know what you’re doing and that you’re going to do it well. That is laudable. It’s ok to feel like a fraud. But your feelings are not you. And I can guarantee that if you’re worrying about feeling like a fraud, you are almost certainly not. So stick a finger up to the feeling, so to speak, and remember you are doing a far better job than you think you are.
  2. Give yourself permission not to know. You’ve not been appointed to your post because you are an expert in everything. More likely than not, you’ve been appointed because people who know what they’re doing trust your track record and have experience in spotting talent.If you’re in a new post, don’t be afraid to start by asking questions. There’s power in the unknown. Knowledge can be a barrier to progress sometimes – people get mired in ways of doing things because “that’s what we’ve always done”. There is baggage in the past: “We can’t do that because we’ve tried and failed before”. Not knowing is freedom to think differently, and it also allows you to fully capitalise on all the strengths of your team. A great leader is not someone who knows everything; instead, they know who to ask, and how to delegate. They know how to recruit and nurture great people and how to give them authority and autonomy to do what they do best.The truth is, no one has all the answers. Even experts don’t know everything about anything. And people respect you much more when you admit that you don’t know, rather than try and bluff your way through (i.e. actually be a fraud!).
  3. Learn to treat things as experiments. Being ok with ‘failure’ can be a difficult thing to learn. The thing is, no experience is a failure if you learn from it. Experimenting is how great things in this world were created. It’s not about success or failure; it’s about a continued capacity to learn and grow.
  4. Step back and take an objective look at your previous achievements. Perfectionism is closely associated with impostor syndrome, which means that you probably put in long hours making sure you excel. What would a trusted mentor say about your competence? And your confidence? Chances are, you’re probably doing a pretty good job, even if you don’t think so right now. If you’re new to your role, it’s also likely that, because you have perfectionist tendencies, you’re assessing yourself on the basis of your peak – what you think you should be achieving and how you should be feeling as a seasoned performer – and forgetting that every expert in their field started as a beginner. Think in terms of familiarity, rather than competence. You are perfectly competent, but it will take time for you to become fully familiar with the role. On this note, it helps to keep all the positive feedback you receive! I have a little keepsake folder in which I put all the nice comments people have sent me and my own record of the achievements I’ve been proud of. When you’re feeling like a fraud, revisit these and bring that pride into your present moment.
  5. Don’t compare yourself with others. Comparison is the fuel for crippling doubt. You’re almost always your worst critic, and if you’re new to something, you’re probably comparing yourself with others who are at a very different stage of their journey. They were where you are. They’re in their time zone, and you’re in yours – and you’re very much on time, all present and correct.
  6. Focus on and celebrate your strengths. One of the fastest ways to overcome impostor syndrome is to stop focusing on all the things you don’t think you’re any good at, and start focusing on your strengths. Try one of these (free) online strengths profilers: https://www.viacharacter.org/survey/account/register and https://tools.atmybest.com/#/home?linkType=SoloTrial.
  7. Boost your confidence simply by paying attention to people. Regardless of what your strengths are, you can make an immediate positive impact simply by making people feel heard and appreciated. Lots of people don’t genuinely listen; they’re just waiting for a gap in the conversation to make their own point or to make their mark. Listen to your team and the people you work with, make them feel heard, and then make a positive difference for them.
  8. It’s not fake to “fake it till you make it”. Last month, I wrote about identity (https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/2017/12/06/identity-and-the-community-of-selves/) and how it can be helpful to think about this not as a single entity, but rather as a ‘community of selves’ that come to the fore in different arenas of your life. When you’re dealing with impostor syndrome, the problem is that there’s a bit of an identity gap between (a) the person you believe you are, and (b) the person other people see you to be. Closing the gap requires you to start internalising your achievements so you start to validate yourself, rather than doubting and second-guessing the external evidence of your success. Someone once told me, when I was battling a major case of self-doubt, to pretend until I found I didn’t have to. All I could think of at the time was that I couldn’t be inauthentic. What I’ve since realised, however, is that there was nothing inauthentic about it. I was already person (b), but my confidence was still playing catch-up. Assuming the mantle before I could identify with it wasn’t me being false; it was me learning to become familiar with a space that would let my mind step into the person I already was.

So there you have it; my tips for overcoming impostor syndrome. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do get in touch if this has resonated with you, or if I can help in any other way.

 

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