“In the very first session of the Pinkcareers’ Incubator Leadership Development program, we discussed how women can overcome Imposter Syndrome,” I explained to Catherine Luelo, chief information officer (CIO) of the Government of Canada and ex-CIO of Air Canada.
“Richa, when you figure out how to overcome Imposter Syndrome, I would love to learn some tips, too.”
We both laugh, but the irony is, despite having a proven track record of ability and success, many of us have suffered from Imposter Syndrome at some point in our lives. I have had my fair share of feeling like an imposter, too. I graduated from the top engineering school in India, worked for the largest oilfield services company in the world, have spoken at over 40 career development events, and run leadership development programs for the Government of Canada; yet sometimes self-doubt is all-consuming.
If you too feel like a fraud soon to be discovered, it’s time to take charge and arm yourself with some practical strategies to ditch the Imposter Syndrome.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is the persistent belief that one’s accomplishments come about, not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others or having manipulated other people’s impressions. In their 1978 research, Clance and Imes found that the imposter phenomenon was particularly prevalent among a select sample of high-achieving women, who, despite their outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, persistently believed that they were not bright enough and had fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.
Who has Imposter Syndrome?
Feelings of fraudulence are often accompanied by feelings of shame and isolation. We feel that our challenge is unique, that except for us, everyone has it together. But the truth is, according to a 2018 TIME Magazine article, 70 percent of people have reported experiencing feelings of Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives. And it impacts all kinds of people in all types of professions – executives, lawyers, actors, sales executives, politicians and doctors, to name a few.
The problem is exacerbated for women from marginalized groups, people of color and the LGBTQ2S+ community. Lack of relatable role models makes it difficult for them to feel like they belong in the higher echelons of the corporate world, as they don’t see many examples of how to effectively handle the demands and stereotypes that tag along with senior leadership.
“We’re more likely to experience Imposter Syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background, who are clearly succeeding in our field.” – Emily Hu, clinical psychologist.
Why Do We Need to Ditch the Imposter Syndrome?
Take a moment to remember if you have ever felt like an imposter. What did it feel like? What did you do? What was the consequence of your action or inaction?
It is no surprise that chronic self-doubt and feelings of intellectual fraudulence result in increased stress levels. But, in the long-term, externalizing our success and failure to acknowledge our worth also lead to missed opportunities, hurt careers and lower overall financial success.
How to Ditch the Imposter Syndrome
Learning how to ditch Imposter Syndrome begins with understanding two key concepts:
1. Imposter Syndrome is not a personality flaw. You are not an imposter; instead, you have Imposter Syndrome. Once you separate the person from the feelings, you can learn and practice the strategies to overcome those negative feelings.
2. Imposter Syndrome is here to stay. Despite our best efforts, we can never completely stop feeling like an imposter. The goal, therefore, is not to never feel like an imposter but to learn strategies to push the feelings of fraudulence aside quickly and march on.
The Five Types of Imposter
Imposter Syndrome shows up differently for different people and situations. An expert on the topic, Dr. Valerie Young categorizes it into five subgroups or competence types: the Perfectionist, the Expert, the Soloist, the Natural Genius and the Superhuman. Below is a summary of each competence type and how it can show up in the day-to-day, so you can use the right strategy to overcome the feelings of “being found out.”
1. The Perfectionist
The Perfectionist focuses on “how” something is done. They are not only concerned with the results but also the flawlessness of the work done to achieve those results. Even a slight mistake will cause them to blame themselves and worry about it for days.
Two common ways it can show up are procrastination and difficulty delegating. Next time you find yourself planning something for months, push yourself to start by giving yourself a deadline and sharing it with an accountability partner. Want to strengthen your delegation muscle? Start small by delegating low-risk tasks or chores at home. Finally, practice reminding yourself that nothing can ever be “perfect.” The real joy is in acknowledging and celebrating the small successes along the way!
2. The Expert
The Expert is the knowledge version of the Perfectionist. They equate their success with “what” and “how much” they know. Since they expect to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge equals failure.
Do you constantly seek to add training and certifications to your resume, even if they don’t directly add value to your current work? Or perhaps you feel the need to learn everything about a subject before seeking help? Next time you find yourself signing up for yet another certification, ask yourself why you want to do it. Then practice just-in-time learning so you can stay market-relevant, but also have a bias for action and on-the-job learning. Mentoring is another great way to overcome this type of imposter syndrome, as it helps you strengthen your self-confidence and rediscover your inner expert.
3. The Soloist
The Soloist’s primary concern is with “who” completes the task. They feel the need to figure out and do everything on their own, and any help, no matter how small, is a sign of failure.
Do you avoid asking for help even if you are overworked or overwhelmed because you think, if you ask for help, people will find you are a fraud? And if you get help, do you externalize your success because you didn’t do it 100 percent on your own? Next time you feel guilty, remember that asking for help is good for both you and the helper. I especially like the 15 Minute Rule: If you cannot figure something out in 15 minutes, ask for help.
4. The Natural Genius
The Natural Genius cares deeply about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. For them, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed, so any struggle to master a skill equals failure.
Did you always get straight As growing up? Have you frequently been lauded as “the smart one” in the family and are expected to succeed in everything you do? And so, if you struggle to achieve something, you really beat yourself down? Next time you feel like a fraud, remind yourself of how far you have come. Also, remember that the success of every genius is backed by tremendous efforts.
5. The Superhuman
The superwoman, superman or superhuman measures their competence based on “how many” roles they can juggle and excel in at work, at home and beyond. They want to be the best leader, teammate, mom, wife, daughter, etc. If they cannot do it all perfectly and easily, they consider themselves a failure.
Do you work harder than others to prove that you are not an imposter? Do you feel the need to always be “on” and find downtime completely wasteful? Next time you catch yourself multitasking when doing chores or during a break, stop and say out loud, “My competency is not defined by the number of hours I work.” Practicing mindfulness and keeping a daily gratitude journal are also excellent strategies to overcome this type of Imposter Syndrome.
By sharing these unique strategies to overcome the five competence types of Imposter Syndrome, I hope to prepare you better to tackle your inner saboteur the next time it comes knocking. And, if any doubt remains, remind yourself of this famous quote by the British ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which she said at the age of nine while receiving a school prize, “I wasn’t lucky. I deserved it.”
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