Don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back from success
Have you ever:
felt like everyone was smarter than you?
worried that people might realize that you don’t really understand what’s going on?
felt like even when you try really, really hard, your work isn’t 100%?
Do you worry:
that people will think you are a slacker if you aren’t in the office at all hours?
that people will figure out that you don’t actually deserve the job title you have?
Do you think you aren’t good enough to aim higher?
If you said yes to any of these questions, you have experienced “imposter syndrome”. Essentially, imposter syndrome happens because you believe that you are not competent enough or adequate enough, even though there is evidence and examples that illustrate how intelligent and capable you are.
A big secret to career success for working moms
Let me share a little secret – actually, it’s kind of a big secret. Three quarters of people feel imposter syndrome at some point. Think about that. Next time you are in a big meeting and start feeling insecure, look around the room and think about how 3 out of every 4 people at the table have felt imposter syndrome – you are not alone. I think this is also amplified for working moms.
Some people feel like this most of the time. For others, it can come in waves. For many years I lived without this feeling. I had a big team with 20 direct reports. I managed huge projects. I had a boss that trusted me. But when I discovered that I was paid almost 50% less than my colleague for almost the same job, I started to question a lot of things. I researched and explored my options and eventually settled on the decision to quit my job and start my own consulting company. In the process, I started to really question myself.
Did people really think I knew what I was talking about?
Would people think I was presumptuous for leaving my job? They might think I was overconfident and egotistical.
Did I actually have what it takes to run my own company – manage the money, get new clients, and do the work?
For me, imposter syndrome creeped up on me in a totally unexpected way because of things that were out of my control (i.e., discovering I was massively underpaid).
In December 2018, I was talking to a colleague, Selma. She was promoted to a more senior position, overseeing 4 staff all of whom have pretty senior roles and specialties (for example 2 of them have PhDs). She is less educated than some of them. She is younger than some of them. She is a woman and 2 of them are men. She was feeling super insecure – she was having some serious imposter syndrome.
For Selma, her biggest insecurity comes from the fact that they all have training and experience that she doesn’t have. As she opened up to me and shared her fears, I could immediately see her reflecting so many of the things I have been experiencing – except that hers were amplified. She has been feeling like this for a long time. She’s been holding it in, worrying someone would find her out and realize that she shouldn’t have this position and it would all be taken away from her.
How to overcome imposter syndrome and create a better life
I went home that night with this image of her face, holding back tears as she shared this deep seated fear. I wanted to give her a hug. I wanted to remind her that she is enough. She is enough. I am enough. You are enough. We are all enough.
After I processed my emotions, I returned to my go-to activity when things get tough or confusing – I did some research. That’s when I came across Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome. One of the first things I read was “one of the things that all imposters share in common is a distorted, unrealistic, unsustainable definition of competence.” Shit, I thought. That is definitely me. I have this overly ambitious, unrealistic, unsustainable view of what I should be able to do. I don’t impose that on others – but I think I should be able to do it all. How do you think I came up with the idea of Balancing Bravely?
So I kept reading her research and her book about imposter syndrome, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. In it, Dr. Young identified 5 different competence types. By understanding what kind of imposter syndrome you are more prone to experience, you are way better equipped to change it.
Perfectionists set really high, unachievable goals for themselves, then when they don’t reach their goals their self-doubt takes over. If you are a perfectionist you might answer yes to these statements:
You believe your work must be perfect all the time.
You struggle to delegate because if it isn’t done the right way, then you get frustrated and disappointed.
You set a super high bar for yourself, and then get disappointed when you don’t meet it.
Superwomen believe that if they work longer, harder, and smarter, no one will know that they don’t deserve to be there. If any of these statements resonate with you, you might be a Superwoman:
You feel the need to be seen at the office, even if you are done what you need to do for the day.
You find it stressful to not be working.
You don’t think you really deserve your position at work, so you need to work harder to prove to yourself and others that you are worth it.
The Natural Genius
These women believe that in order to be competent they need to naturally be good at things the first time. If something takes effort, that means they aren’t good enough. Do any of these sound like you?
Lots of things come easily to you; people have called you “smart” since a young age.
You get really frustrated when things don’t come easily.
You avoid new challenges that you are not confident you can achieve – essentially you avoid failure.
Soloists believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness.
You don’t want to ask for anyone’s help.
Asking for help is a sign of weakness.
You would rather stay super late and work lots of overtime that ask for help.
Experts believe that their value is measured by how much they know or how much they can do. Because no one can know or do everything, they believe they may be exposed for not being good enough.
You hate to be called an “expert”.
You are constantly looking for more training opportunities to build your skills, believing this will help you succeed.
You wouldn’t apply for a position unless you meet 100% of the requirements and even question whether you deserve your current position.
Understanding your imposter syndrome can help you improve your work-life balance
Do any of these resonate with you? Maybe more than one?
I’m a perfectionist, with a little natural genius mixed in (although I think I’ve been trying to battle that one for much longer than my perfectionism). To be clear, that doesn’t mean I think I’m a genius, it means I think that if things don’t come easily to me, then I must not be good enough!
Once you know which type you are, you can start to work on overcoming it. I know that I need to highlight how far I’ve come and remind myself of all of my accomplishments, before immediately jumping to the next thing. I know that I need to remind myself that hard work and perseverance are better predictors of success than being smart – I am better off trying and failing, but learning something from it, than sticking to things I’m already good at, I’m working hard on this trying to get better at failing. These things are not easy and are a work in progress, but I can see that I’m making progress. Every time I share my fears with trusted friends and colleagues, I can see my confidence building and see that I’m reclaiming my power over the imposter part of me.
I’m happy to share that I saw Selma this week and she has made unbelievable progress on her imposter syndrome. She sees her value as the leader to bring together this strong team, seeing that she doesn’t need to know everything to lead the people she manages. She is supporting them to flourish and in turn gaining confidence as a manager and leader.
What type of imposter are you? The Perfectionist? The Superwoman? The Natural Genius? The Soloist? The Expert?
Share in the comments – a neutral safe space. Just writing it down can be so liberating!