How to fight off imposter syndrome to keep your career momentum and personal growth going strong
Self-doubt is something that many people suffer from at times and it often holds us back from embracing new opportunities. Some people describe this situation as “imposter syndrome." It’s helpful to identify what is behind these feelings and develop a strategy to push through them. I’m going to share a few examples of where I’ve battled the feeling of being an imposter along with a simple, three-step mindset to help you get through it.
Stop comparing yourself to others
Push your boundaries
Be true to yourself
What is imposter syndrome and who gets it?
Before starting out, I want to stress that I’m not addressing clinical issues in this article, such as depression or other serious conditions that require the advice of a behavioral health professional. I just want to talk about that nagging voice that we all have at times that tells us not to jump at a potential opportunity.
Imposter syndrome can happen at any career stage, but I think it generally occurs more frequently when you have less experience and are not fully comfortable with your strengths and weaknesses. This is a useful definition and some history on the term:
Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context. To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony—you feel as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don't belong where you are, and you only got there through dumb luck. The term was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. When the concept of IS was introduced, it was originally thought to apply mostly to high-achieving women. Since then, it has been recognized as more widely experienced.
Strategy one: Stop comparing yourself to others
Shortly after becoming a marketing director for the first time, I was invited to apply for a board of directors opening at Transition Projects, a non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon that helps people transition from homelessness to housing. There were two concerns that caused me to almost not pursue the opportunity.
I knew very little about homelessness other than my general observations of it as a major problem affecting the city.
When I reviewed the board roster I noticed four names of people I recognized, and it wasn’t because they were friends or acquaintances. It was because they were public figures whose names were often in the news. At that time, members of the board included the city’s chief of police, a former county commissioner and a former city mayor who is practically an iconic symbol of Portland.
My first hesitation wasn’t a huge barrier as I was sincerely interested in the issue of homelessness and wanted to make a difference. In addition, I didn’t have a problem committing some time to learn more about homelessness and applying my professional skills in a way that would help the organization.
The second issue was the HUGE barrier. I started asking myself a lot of negative questions. “Who was I to even cast my name in with this group?” “What could I add or do that would even compare to the group’s impact on the city where I lived and the issue of homelessness?” “Why would these people even take me seriously at all?” Nevertheless, I applied to join the board and was accepted – much to my surprise.
What I learned is that I had skills that were unique and valuable. My professional background and experience helped round out what the entire board could bring to the organization and closed knowledge gaps. The big names on the board played a role I couldn’t – opening doors and influencing political leaders – and I provided technical expertise. During my two terms on the board I led a number of important projects and helped developed several policies. I led committees and even served as the board's vice chair in my final year. It was a valuable experience, and I believe that I helped play a significant role in the organization’s expansion and success.
None of that would have happened if I had stopped the process and declined the offer to apply after reading the board roster. I was definitely intimidated to attend my first board meeting, but it got easier every time and after less than a year I grew comfortable with the others.
Strategy two: Push your boundaries
Applying for a new job is almost always stressful, especially when you review the position description and see a list of requirements and skills that almost no single human could fulfill on their own. The inclination is often to simply not apply and thus avoid the chance of rejection. We box ourselves in by what we have done in the past and not what we could do in the future.
A few years ago, I was leading the marketing function for Providence’s Oregon region when a decision was made to combine all of the marketing and communications teams throughout the system and create a consolidated department. Everyone knew that major changes would happen due to that realignment and reapplying for your current job was likely to be required.
However before that happened, a few totally new jobs were set up immediately to help build out the structure of the future system department. One of those positions was a senior director of operations that would assist the core leadership team with planning and implementation. When the job was posted, I looked over the position description and it was interesting, but it was not a direct fit with my past experience. My mind started generating questions like “what makes you think you can do this?” and “who are you to work with the senior leaders?”
I pushed past those negative thoughts and applied for the job. What surprised me most is that I was the only internal candidate who applied. I talked to other colleagues who were on the fence about applying, but they wanted more clarity about what the role would do and wanted to see what other positions might come open in the near future. They didn't want to take a risk.
I took the chance and was selected for the role, which was a promotion. More importantly, it gave me months of direct exposure to the leadership team and a significant role in building something new from the ground up. That was invaluable experience.
Again, I had to push past the imposter syndrome barrier to take a chance on something new, different and scary. The first month in that role was confusing as I picked up some of the initial work that had been done, much of which made no sense to me at all. However, I learned quickly and began contributing from that point forward.
Strategy three: Be true to yourself
Only you know what your life and career goals are, and how much time and effort you want to put into achieving them. Part of your process should be identifying stretch goals and pursuing opportunities that interest and challenge you. One way you can do this is by trying to avoid the negative questions like I asked myself and focusing instead on positive thinking when you are presented with an opportunity:
“Why not me? I have value and expertise.”
“What’s the worst that can happen? If this doesn’t work out now, maybe it opens a door in the future.”
“How will I know that I can do this if I don’t try.”
The most important thing to remember is that almost everyone questions themselves and their abilities from time to time. Doing that is natural for many of us, but it can hold you back from accomplishing your goals. Don’t let it.
Here is a short Ted Talk that's a great resource on this topic.