Impostor syndrome. It sucks.
In case you haven’t heard the term before, impostor syndrome is a fear of failure that manifests as extreme self-doubt. A person feels unqualified, like a fraud amongst more talented, brilliant colleagues who have their s**t together. Plus, there’s a deep fear of being found out. Fear that a single failure will result in loss of status, job, esteem, belonging, control…
Impostor syndrome is common in high achievers and perfectionists like me. It’s more common in women than men, that’s me. And more common in underrepresented groups, me too. But it’s not just people like me. Research from the International Journal of Behavioral Sciences suggests that it’s common across the board, affecting men and women across occupations and economic tiers. 70% of adults experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lifetime.
Personally, I’ve felt it many times. For me, when it hits, it feels like a remnant of not fitting in as a kid. I grew up in Dallas, Texas where I was one of only 5 people of color amongst a thousand kids. In the middle school hallways, I saw all the curly blond cheerleaders, talking about the rugged blue eyed football boys.
I got a perm and took cotillion classes to try and fit in. Imagine me…glasses, braces, a horrible 80’s perm, in short white lace gloves and a burgundy Victoria Secret dress with upholstery flowers, learning how to waltz and set the dining table like Martha Stewart. It wasn’t pretty.
When fitting in didn’t work, I tried pleasing people. I let the cute boys copy my homework so at least they’d talk to me. When one of those cheerleaders asked me to design her student council posters I was thrilled. I made dozens of the most amazing, witty, clever posters. After she won, she never talked to me again.
Later, in my career, there were many times when I’d walk into a board room or office and feel just like that awkward little girl in the Victoria Secret dress, a wallflower that didn’t fit in.
For example, take the time in my PhD program, when I was invited to join an elite 40 person week-long training program in the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor. As people were going around the room introducing themselves, I realized that I recognized virtually every name in the room from recent journal articles that I’d been reading. (It’d be like walking into a class and discovering that the authors of the last 20 books you had just read were your fellow “students”.) I’d only published a single paper, and it wasn’t any good. I wanted to run straight back to the airplane. What the hell was I doing in this room?
When it came to my turn to introduce myself, I mumbled and hid like the wallflower I felt. For the rest of the week, I was re-introducing myself because nobody caught my name the first time around, making the impostor syndrome worse. I kept quiet most of the week because if I said the wrong thing, I feared that I would be forcibly sent home, exposed as the fraud I thought I was.
Impostor syndrome has hit me many times since. Walking into a board room to present and realizing I was the only person of color in the room, and one of only 3 women. Joining a mastermind group and discovering that everyone else made three times as much money as me and had achievements like TED talks, 100,000 followers, and $3 million dollar deals.
What to do about it
Here’s the thing, don’t get rid of impostor syndrome, get good at it. A wise coach recently introduced me to this question: Is the problem something to be solved or something to be managed? For me, impostor syndrome is a management issue. If anyone has a permanent cure, please let me know.
You see, getting rid of impostor syndrome would mean avoiding rooms where other people might outshine you. But in order to grow, it’s exactly those shining, apparently more talented, more brilliant people who will push you to become who you are meant to be.
Our natural assumption is that impostor syndrome is debilitating, making a person less likely to succeed. Sure feels that way. In fact, research by Basima Tewfik suggests that the opposite may be true. In a study of over 3,200 employees, those who feel impostor syndrome more often are rated by their colleagues as more effective interpersonally.
Wait, what?!? More impostor syndrome → better performance as rated by others. Really. It’s true.
In Tewfik’s study, financial advisors who had more impostor feelings were rated by their bosses to be better at creating effective working relationships with others and to have the same or better overall job performance. Physicians-in-training who had more impostor syndrome did better at eliciting information from patients, listening, and expressing empathy. They had better bedside manner.
But even if it makes you better at your job, impostor syndrome feels awful. How can you make it not feel so bad?
I coached three different people last week on exactly this issue. Here is what I shared with them, plus two bonus tips. Perhaps there’s a gem in there for yourself.
Know your character strengths
Begin by grounding yourself in your strengths.
For those of us not named Usain Bolt or Lin Manuel Miranda, the key to managing imposter syndrome isn’t to be the best at one thing. I’m never going to go to the Olympics, will never perform on Boardway, and will never win an international chess championship. I’ll never win a Nobel prize or Pulitzer. The amount of hard work, grit and talent necessary to achieve to those levels is just not where my skill set lies.
But every single one of us is truly exceptional at being exactly who we are. I’m good at being me. So what unique combination of strengths makes you you?
In How to Become the Best in the World at Something Tom Pueyo encourages people to seek out that unique combination of skills you are really good at (though perhaps not best in the world). What are your strengths? What are your special superpowers? By being pretty good at a combination of several things, you can be the best in the world at that set of strengths.
For instance, I’m good as a leader. I’m getting better every day as a leadership coach. I’m a darn fine teacher. I am really good at building trusting, welcoming communities where people feel seen and valued. I’m insightful, empathetic, and a problem solver. I think like a scientist. That’s my unique set of strengths. How many people in the world are good at that specific set of skills? Perhaps, just me.
To get started at identifying your strengths, take the free, short, VIA character strengths assessment. Extra credit if you ask 10 friends to tell you what they think your superpowers are. That list is your unique combination of strengths, and what you, and you alone, are best in the world at.
Celebrate your experience strengths
We’re not done with your strengths. I believe that a person’s strengths actually fall into two categories. There’s character strengths, what we normally think of as strengths – organized, smart, creative, loyal, brave, etc. That’s what the VIA character strengths assessment measures.
Then there’s experience strengths which are just as important, maybe more so.
Experience strengths are things you’ve become good at, not by choice, but by necessity. They’re the challenges you overcame, the mistakes you learned from, the hardships you’ve survived, all the many ways you’ve been burned in the inferno but risen from the ashes.
I’ve run the gauntlet of women’s reproductive health challenges – pregnancy, miscarriage, IVF, sexual assault, abortion, live birth. I’ve ridden many waves of racial identity from early prejudice, to trying to be white, to eventually embracing my Asian heritage, to joining my multicolored brothers and sisters to become an antiracist.
So what experiences in your life have made you into the person you are today?
Character strengths + Experience strengths = You, unique in all the world.
Summary and bonus tips
Now, taking yourself out of it, what’s the value of someone with that unique strength set? I mean, if you had a room full of brilliant, talented people, and in walks someone with your kind of superpowers, how might they contribute to the group? How could their presence help the group do things and be things they otherwise couldn’t?
The research on impostor syndrome suggests that one of the root causes of the phenomenon is a failure to internalize successes. Don’t fall into that trap. Once you have your list of character + experience strengths, celebrate them. Make a poster and tape it on your wall. Or go out to dinner with your best friend and raise a glass to each and every one of your strengths (catch an Uber home). Or plant a garden with a seed packet for each strength.
And when you walk into a room full of other people who outshine you in lots of other things, know that you truly are unique in all the world as the only person with your priceless combination of strengths.
And here’s the bonus tips!
You can use your body to change your mind. Confidence expresses itself with specific body language – shoulders back, head high, a real smile, direct eye contact, arms open, hands visible, and your body stepping forward to claim space. Compare that to the body language of fear and shame – shoulders hunched, chin down, eyes down, fidgeting or hidden hands, and body receding into a corner or chair. If you find yourself feeling that rush of impostor syndrome when you walk into a room, intentionally shift your body language. By forcing your body to adopt a confident posture and stance, your brain has to choose between the inner thoughts of “I don’t belong” here, versus what the nerve endings in your body are telling your brain, “I’m feeling confident.” Most of the time, body will win over mind.
Tell people you trust. “We believe we’re alone in thinking that way because no one else voices their doubts… So far, the most surefire way to combat impostor syndrome is to talk about it.” says Elizabeth Cox in this TED Ed talk. Experiences shared with others are easier to navigate. And since 70% of us have felt impostor syndrome, most people have had to figure out what to do about it. It’s really hard to speak up when you’re in the middle of it. I mean, one of the big hallmarks of impostor syndrome is the fear that one false move will knock down the entire house of cards. (“I’ll lose my job.” “They’ll laugh.” “I’ll never get a leadership role again.”) So find someone you trust and tell them. You might find that speaking up, and most likely hearing that others feel the same way, makes the burden melt and feel way easier to carry.
To learn more about Tewfik’s research on the benefits of impostor syndrome, this is a great BBC article.
Read more about the research on body language and feeling powerful and confident with this article in Forbes.
Check out this great TED Ed lesson on impostor syndrome.
If you are looking for a community of women with whom it’d be safe to speak frankly about impostor syndrome or other professional challenges, look no further than the Heroine’s Journey women’s leadership retreat! Mendocino, CA. Last weekend in September. Maybe this is the perfect room to step into in your own journey to becoming who you were meant to be?
My practice has only one spot for a one-on-one client starting this June. We start with a leadership 360 to help you see the best of yourself through the eyes of the people most important for your growth. We’ll turn those people into allies for you success as you get a white glove experience including regular individual coaching and 4 hours of custom designed team development. This is true thought partnership, not just hourly coaching. If you’re curious, reach out ASAP.
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