Imagine this scenario: A young woman is moving up in her career. She’s ambitious, motivated and has high expectations for her life and career. She’s good at what she does, and she gains recognition for it throughout her career. She gets promoted, salary increases and more and more responsibility. Despite the reality around her, she has a nagging feeling bubbling under the surface. She’s waiting to be “found out.” Surely all of this success can’t be real; she wonders when everyone else will figure out she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It sounds silly; of course, she wouldn’t be moving up in her career if she didn’t have what it takes. This is my story and these feelings signs of impostor syndrome, which is far more common than you may think.
Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes initially coined the term “impostor syndrome” in 1978. In simplest terms, impostor syndrome refers to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments. They are unable to internalize their achievements, despite external factors to the contrary. People with impostor syndrome instead feel like they have perpetrated a fraud. They fear that their success comes from pure luck, being in the right place at the right time or others believing they know more than they do.
The scenario I outlined above is an example from my career. I suffered from impostor syndrome for many years without really knowing it. I had never heard the term before a few years ago. It wasn’t until I picked up the book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young, that I finally understood why I was feeling the way I did. I had impostor syndrome.
Fresh out of college, I started my career in New York in the media industry. My first job was with a small post-production agency, where I moved up within a few months. I moved on to a more prominent marketing role at a music library, where I had an incredibly supportive, motivating boss. Regardless of being promoted as well as the youngest employee to be given shares in the company. To the outside world, I was moving up fast! But, I continually felt a sense of anxiety that it was all going to come crashing down. I felt like everyone around me was secretly thinking that I wasn’t good at what I did and I was doing well in the company because they liked me as a person.asIt sounds so silly now, but it was my reality at the time.
After deciding to move on from that company, I landed a job in what turned out to be an extremely toxic work environment. For someone with impostor syndrome, this wasn’t helping things. It began heightening it. I started allowing my impostor feelings to stop me from speaking up, showing authority and being the leader I needed to be. The result simply reinforced the fears I was creating, and it was time for me to take control. After reading Valerie Young’s book and realizing just how prevalent impostor syndrome is among women and men, I started looking at things differently.
The thing to remember is that impostor syndrome isn’t something you can’t overcome. It’s a matter of being aware of it and actively changing your thought process. When impostor syndrome creeps in, learn to recognize what that looks like for you. Maybe anxiety senses that you’re not good enough or it could be a fear that your boss or coworkers will soon realize you’re a fraud. Once you understand what triggers these feelings, you can learn to stop these thoughts in their path.
For me, listing my accomplishments when impostor syndrome creeps in is a big help. Seeing your achievements listed out makes it much easier to reason. Would you have been able to get this far if you didn’t know what you were doing? The answer is, no. Talking about it is also a big help. Despite its prevalence, people are still wary of speaking about their impostor feelings with others. Odds are at least some of the people around you are feeling the same way. Find a trusted friend or colleague and talk it out. Don’t be afraid of judgment.
The reality is that impostor syndrome is very real and very common. The key is not to let it stop your success. Whatever stage of your career you’re in, you wouldn’t be there if you genuinely didn’t know what you were doing.
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