What to Do When Imposter Syndrome Sneaks In

Imposter syndrome is experienced by over 70% of workers, and affects women twice as often as men. If you've ever felt like you didn't deserve the promotion or were going to be discovered as unqualified for your position, you are not alone.

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Imagine that it’s your first day of a new job. You get there early, excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. You’re dressed in a smart new outfit and ready to take on this challenge. As you walk through the door, it hits you – for the first time in your professional career, you are in a position of leadership. What were you thinking? You’re not ready for this. Nevermind your history of achievements and promotions, your stellar work record, the relationships you’ve worked so hard to cultivate, and the successes you’ve enjoyed along the way. Those things don’t matter. You don’t belong here. You haven’t done enough to earn this job, you just got lucky. You’re a fraud and everybody is going to find out. Panic sets in.

You are experiencing imposter syndrome.

If you’ve ever thought these things, you aren’t alone; it is estimated that over 70% of us will experience imposter syndrome at some point in our lives. No one is immune, although it does affect women nearly twice as often as men. Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, and Natalie Portman have all spoken publicly about their struggles with imposter syndrome. Maya Angelou once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find me out now.’”

Imposter syndrome is a term first coined by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. They studied approximately 150 high-achieving women and found that the women in large part did not feel any sense of accomplishment. “Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

What Causes It?

Imposter syndrome is born of a vicious cycle of gender inequality – stereotypes cause young girls to stop believing they are the smart ones as young as six years old. This leads them to stop pursuing careers thought to be typically reserved for men, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. With fewer women represented in a field, new generations of women are further deterred.

Adding to this cycle is the fact that our workplaces are still very masculine and cater to the success of men. As Shelley Zalis reminds us, “The rules of work were written 100 years ago for men and by men, because women simply weren’t in the workplace.” We continue to reward masculine traits (dominance, control, and reason) over feminine ones (decision-making, empathy, and intuition). All of this combined creates the perfect environment for women to doubt their worth and question their success.

How Can Employers Help?

Many employers are aware of the negative effects imposter syndrome can have on their employees and are working to reduce its prevalence. One of the most helpful things an employer can do is to provide women with strong female role models/mentors. Implementing a mentoring program with regular check-ins between women in leadership and female employees is a great way to encourage women to pursue positions of leadership and feel comfortable and confident in their abilities to achieve that goal. Companies can also work to create a culture that discourages imposter syndrome. This culture should encourage creativity and innovation; failure should be celebrated as having had the courage to try something new and learning valuable lessons from the experience. Finally, an employer should always admit his/her uncertainty. By admitting nervousness and being open about his/her own doubts, company leaders will have an incredible impact on their employees, making it possible for them to step out of their own comfort zones and move beyond the feelings of imposter syndrome.

What Can You Do?

Are you struggling with imposter syndrome? There are some easy ways that you can lessen or even prevent these feelings.

  • Write it down. Journaling may seem juvenile, but it has been proven to lessen worry and increase your ability to concentrate when you write down your concerns. It’s also a great way to release the emotional stress that often accompanies imposter syndrome.
  • Remind yourself of your success and value. Come up with a mantra and repeat it to yourself whenever you feel doubts trying to creep in. It can be something as simple as, “I can do this” or “I was made for this.” Say it until you believe it.
  • Pause. There is no shame in pausing for a moment, taking some deep breaths, and refocusing yourself. Take five minutes to breathe and relax. You’ll often find that you’re more productive after you take a break.
  • Dress for success. Put on a power outfit that makes you feel successful and powerful. Research supports dressing for success as a way of increasing self-confidence and productivity.
  • Strike a power pose. Amy Cuddy delivered a powerful TEDtalk on this subject. She says, “The whole body-mind thing comes into play, when you are feeling that self-doubt and your body is not going to help you if you’re not paying attention. Your body’s going to go with the self-doubt and make you feel worse, so by making the adjustments – pulling your shoulders back, standing up straight, walking in a more sort of expansive way – all sorts of little things will help pull you out of that self-doubt.” Body language is important. Stand like a leader even when you don’t feel confident.

Imposter syndrome is something that most of us will experience during our careers, but it doesn’t have to be something you live with.

You deserve that job just as much as anybody else!

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