How to Leverage Your Impostor Syndrome

Let’s talk about impostor syndrome, gang. Because although this blog is constantly offering advice about how to do well….like most, your girl suffers with this one from time to time!

Impostor syndrome, for those who don’t know, is a phenomenon driven by feelings of failure, inadequacy or incompetence. Psychology Today describes it as “a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.”

What makes impostor syndrome different from your average unconfidence (inconfidence? disconfidence??) is that it even happens to folks with a track record of being awesome. Imagine the smartest person you know confessing they feel like a fake, and you get the idea.

And as with most things, gender matters. Research suggests women are more likely to report experiencing impostor syndrome, despite being better than men at coping with it. A fascinating concept to consider for a sector dominated by the former, yet still largely run by the latter. 🤔

But still, I’m willing to bet we all experience some form of this in our careers. When you care that much about your work and reputation, questioning yourself is inevitable!

We just need to make sure that when this unwelcome visitor does swing by, that there’s no room for it to stay.

When does impostor syndrome kick in?

Obviously, low self-esteem and stress can ignite these negative feelings. They may get so deep that even subsequent accomplishments don’t make you feel better.

So that said, I’ll point out that we fall on different parts of this spectrum. Some people can shake their impostor syndrome on their own, with practice and discipline. Others of us may need guidance in the form of professional help. As long as you recognize where you stand, that’s perfectly okay.

In my case, years of working has built up my self-confidence. But now working in a technical role, I find my impostor syndrome creeps in if I’m:

  • Beyond stressed, because everything is happening all at once and my brain can’t deal
  • Uncertain about a course of action, because it’s brand new to me or my org
  • About to propose a major tech shift, because my org is counting on me to get it right

4 Questions To Help You Take Control of Your Impostor Syndrome

Self-correcting my impostor syndrome has come through years of practice and self-discovery. If you’re newer to the working world (or new to this way of thinking), I understand that this is tougher to do!

But you’ll get there. I’ve found that the best thing is to take my uncertainty and use it as an opportunity to really grill myself. Why am I experiencing this self-doubt now? Are there any parts of it that are valid or actionable?

When impostor syndrome rears its ugly head, leverage that self-doubt by asking yourself these 4 critical questions.

1. For better or worse, are you the person leading the charge?

This is a tough-love question, because it has zero to do with your feelings. This is about reality, and whether you’re the one who needs to lead the pack on this effort/project/function that’s causing you to waver in your abilities.

If you’re not flying solo, then take comfort in that fact: someone else is around to bounce ideas! But even if it’s just you, that should strengthen your resolve to get that impostor syndrome in check – if not for your own sake, then for the sake of your staff.

Confidence is an appearance. Unless you’re stellar at faking it, that self-doubt will eventually creep into your work or interactions. It’ll also make you feel worse, and that’s simply no way to lead.

2. What specifically are you unsure about?

Word of caution; this can be a rabbit hole. But the point is to lay out all the concerns, and to get a sense of what’s legitimate, less rational, and/or beyond your control.

As for the kinds of things that should come to mind…\ there are individual factors, like your personal inexperience or lack of knowledge on a subject. There’s also historical stuff, like a similar effort having flopped in the past. And don’t forget those situational factors that may be specific to your team or org; like limited resources or uncooperative staff.

You may have the list in your head, but this lady suggests you write that stuff down for the next step.

3. Which concerns can be addressed in advance?

Venus Williams once said “in the sports arena, there is nothing like training and preparation. You have to train your mind as much as your body.”

Now. You and I probably aren’t training to become tennis pros anytime soon.

But it’s true; I’ve found it much easier to wear my confidence when I prep my heart out. Whether that’s doing tons of research on a potential new tool, or practicing a presentation 12 times (former public-speaker-fearer here 🙋), the obvious answer to uncertainty is eliminating as much of it as possible.

Even if it doesn’t completely rid you of your impostor syndrome, it improves your outputs. And the rational part of your brain will sleep better at night.

*Tip*: If inexperience is the root of your syndrome, take charge! Find a conference, establish good work habits, and start learning how to respectfully push back at work.

4. For the rest, do you have good reason to feel this way?

Maybe your impostor syndrome is rooted in having experienced a similar failure. Or maybe you lack experience in an area that can’t easily be gained, making it more likely that things blow up in your face.

Those are reasons to tread cautiously. But really, that’s all they are.

Oftentimes, I’ll ask myself this and realize that I’m only worried about ‘x’ because it’s completely foreign to me. But then I’ll recall how I navigated newness in the past, and be reminded that I’ve probably got this. (BTW, “probably” isn’t a confidence thing. In nonprofit tech, you just learn not to speak in absolute terms!)

5. Do you have a plan B?

The reality is that confidence alone does not guarantee success. It’s very possible that one of these days, my attempt to set up an integration will break our whole system. Things happen, I’m only a muggle human.

So I like to keep a cautiously optimistic eye on my work. And for those big risks, I will actually formulate (albeit loosely) the beginnings of a plan B. Should this project fall through, what does a graceful segue or exit strategy look like?

Even if the damage can’t be completely undone, you’ll feel better knowing that you’ve thought about those alternatives. And you’ll feel extra better the day you actually need to use one.

To wrap things up…

Impostor syndrome is a seed that gets planted deep in our psyche. And it’s not something most of us can just “think away” once it does take hold.

But, we can do our best to prevent that seed from growing into an out-of-control mess! By actively leveraging our self-doubt and collecting data on why we feel this way, we can turn those effects on their head by isolating and acting on those valid, actionable concerns.

Related Reading:

One big p.s– the internet really takes liberties in calling this thing impostOR syndrome or ImpostER syndrome. If someone knows the real real answer, let us know in the comments!

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