By Barb Ward from an interview with Mystie Johnson Foote, MD, MBA
You’re on your way to an important meeting where you’ll present significant findings from a study you’ve been conducting. You know you’re the most qualified person to present this information, and this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for to showcase your knowledge and talent. Yet somehow as you’re walking into the meeting with these executives, many of whom have much more experience than you, you start to doubt yourself. As you begin to present, your mouth goes dry and you stumble across the facts that now sound like irrelevant words as you speak them. You feel like a fraud and that at any moment people will discover you are not the scholar you are thought to be. Does this sound familiar?
This feeling is known as Imposter Syndrome (IS) and it’s estimated that 70 percent of the U.S. population suffers from it at some point in their lives. People who suffer from IS have feelings that they don’t belong, that they are not as good as everyone else and that they shouldn’t have been chosen for their position. IS often presents itself when a person is promoted to a higher-level position. Even though there is plenty of evidence to prove otherwise, he/she feels inadequate and incompetent.
If people are aware of their triggers, they can manage these feelings of inadequacy in several ways. Psychologist Amy Cuddy, Ph.D., suggests that people build themselves up before entering a situation they know can trigger their feelings of insecurity. By simply straightening their backs, standing taller and breathing more deeply, they can exude an entirely different energy. By preparing beforehand, they do not succumb to IS.
However, you don’t always know when IS will strike. Sometimes you enter an uncomfortable situation without time to prepare your response. In these situations, Laurie Cure, Ph.D., president and CEO of Innovative Connections, explains how to manage thoughts in terms of emotional intelligence (EI). An EI assessment can identify a person’s strengths in the areas of self-awareness, self-regulation and social skills, which are critical in managing IS. The more you can build your skills in these areas, the better you will become at managing uncomfortable situations. You will be able to recognize your inner critic’s voice. With practice you will be able to shut off the critical voice that says you are incompetent and do not belong, and you will listen instead to the voice that tells of the skills and accomplishments that have allowed you to advance your career.
Facts you should know
- It does not discriminate based on gender, race, culture, economic status, education level, or profession. Anyone can experience IS in specific situations.
- People at all career levels can fall victim to the inner critic that tells them they are not good enough.
- Highly successful people can suffer from IS, they tend to attribute their success to luck rather than hard work and determination.
- Individuals experiencing IS often put themselves under a lot of pressure to avoid failure, especially if the task is one with high visibility. This tendency makes burnout, emotional exhaustion, and depression a real possibility.
- IS can cause individuals to over-think and second-guess themselves to the point of feeling paralyzed.
- IS can cause people to mentally review what they said five seconds ago and obsess over how it was perceived, rather than staying present in the moment.
- People suffering from IS may become fixated about how they think others are judging them, which intensifies feelings of inadequacy and not belonging.
- Most people who suffer from IS do so in silence since they are constantly worried about being “found out”, increasing a sense of isolation and helplessness.
The good news
You can combat these feelings and overcome IS. Breaking the self-doubt cycle is critical in this process. By learning to recognize your critical inner voice and replace negative with positive thoughts, you can minimize or eliminate the impact of IS. This mindfulness technique is one you will need to practice to perfect. The more you practice the more mindful you will become and the quicker you will be able to replace negative thoughts with self-compassion and kindness, recognizing instead your strengths and achievements and the qualities that got you hired in the first place.
A few powerful tips to help in the journey
- You are not alone. Recognizing, acknowledging and sharing feelings of inadequacy can help you manage negative thoughts and can disrupt the feelings of isolation. Breaking the silence about your feelings can be incredibly freeing.
- Learn to separate fact from fiction. The only difference between a person who feels like an imposter and one who doesn’t, is the way they manage their thoughts. You, and only you, have control over how you feel. By learning to redirect your thoughts, you can redirect your response to situations.
- Accept that you are human. Perfectionism is unrealistic and exhausting. All of us make mistakes, it’s the way we learn and grow. Give yourself permission to not know all the answers, and to ask questions that will help you grow stronger.
- Practice self-compassion. Start tuning in to your inner critic’s voice. When you hear it, replace self-criticism with self-appreciation.
- List your skills and accomplishments. Make a list of your career successes and the challenges you overcame to get where you are. Give yourself credit for your achievements and reference this list often.
The bottom line
If you want to stop feeling like an imposter, you have to stop thinking like an imposter. Simple? No, it takes work, and diligence to change your thoughts. But it can be done! Now, congratulate yourself for all you’ve accomplished, and give yourself an extra pat on the back for learning strategies to combat imposter syndrome. Then, next time you hear that voice in your head, take a deep breath, smile, and get to work.