The Leadership Blog

Conquer Imposter Syndrome

accountability courageous leadership growth growth mindset imposter syndrome leadership leadership advice personal growth Jun 16, 2024

This week I was working with a team member to help him get to the next level when he said, “I struggle with imposter syndrome.” I knew I had to do some research to help him and hopefully I can help you too by sharing what I learned in today’s blog.  

Who doesn’t feel at least a little insecure when dealing with all the professional challenges that come at us each and every day.  I know I sure do.  The financial pressures of leading a business, a team, or your family, during rising inflation and an unstable economy is no small challenge.  While I own my insecurity, I’m not one to believe I deal with imposter syndrome.  Hang in there with me as I explain.  I think how we define ourselves is important and over the years I’ve learned, for the most part, not to label myself.  I may feel insecure in a particular moment, but I am not an insecure person.  I may feel sad and disappointed, but I’m not depressed.  Do you see what I mean?  I want to encourage you to recognize your emotions but stop labeling yourself in negative ways.  

In his book, Do the New You, New York Times Bestselling Author Steven Furtick wrote, “You can feel discouraged, but don’t be discouraged. There’s a big difference between what you feel and who you are.  Your condition is not your identity.” He went on to write, “You don’t have to believe everything fear tells you.  You don’t have to accept every negative thought that pops into your head.”

In order to do that we need to understand the definition.  Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which individuals doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a "fraud," despite evidence of their competence. This pervasive issue affects many professionals, from entry-level employees to seasoned executives. Understanding and overcoming imposter syndrome is crucial for personal and professional growth. I want to encourage you to wipe the phrase imposter syndrome from your vocabulary.  In order to do that we need to understand it better.

Understanding Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. According to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, approximately 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. It manifests in various forms, including feelings of inadequacy, attributing success to luck, and fearing exposure as a fraud.

Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome, categorizes imposter syndrome into five subgroups: 

The Perfectionist

  • Sets excessively high goals and expectations for themselves.

Yep, I’m guilty of setting high goals for myself and my team, but I don’t see myself as a perfectionist because I’m old enough to know that it’s impossible to be perfect. Here’s the positive twist. I call it a pursuit of excellence and I believe we can each be more excellent every day. We never arrive.

The Superwoman/man

  • Feels the need to work harder and longer than everyone else to prove their worth.

This was a challenge for the younger me.  I confess to putting in some seriously long hours at the beginning of my career.  I didn’t see myself as SUPERWOMAN.  I was inexperienced and needed to learn and hone my craft.  That took a lot of time and effort.

The Natural Genius

  • Believes they should naturally excel at everything they try.

This is certainly not me.  I’ve had to work hard at everything I’ve ever done.  From high school chorus and cheerleading to being a commercial television anchor and reporter to leading a television station and writing leadership books.  None of it has come easily for me.

The Soloist

  • Believes asking for help is a sign of weakness or incompetence.

This one’s not a challenge for me either. With time, I’ve developed a LOVE for asking for help and I happily give it to those who ask.  If someone else is further along than I am, I’d be silly to struggle to figure it out on my own.  I’ll ask them how they did it every time.  Shout out to my dear friend Jenn in Orlando for always sharing her experience with me and my team when we need it.

The Expert

  • Feels they must know everything about a subject to be competent.

There are not enough seconds in our lives for this one.  Let’s just channel Elsa from Frozen and “LET IT GO…LET IT GO.”

Each type has its own set of challenges and coping mechanisms, but all share a common thread of self-doubt and fear of failure.

Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Recognize and Acknowledge Your Feelings

The first step in overcoming imposter syndrome is recognizing it. Acknowledge your feelings of self-doubt and understand that they are common. As Dr. Young suggests, "Simply knowing there’s a name for these feelings can be immensely freeing."

Challenge Negative Self-Talk

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques can be particularly effective in addressing imposter syndrome. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), challenging and reframing negative thoughts is essential. When you catch yourself thinking, "I'm not good enough," counter it with evidence of your accomplishments and capabilities.

Here’s my tried-and-true technique for defeating negative self-talk.  Put a rubber band around your wrist and EVERY TIME you have a negative thought about yourself, flick your wrist with the rubber band to cause a little pain.  After a week or so, you’ll seize and reframe those negative thoughts.  I promise it works.  Give it a try and let me know.

Set Realistic Expectations

Perfectionism is a common trait among those with imposter syndrome. The Harvard Business Review advises setting realistic and attainable goals instead of striving for perfection. Understand that mistakes and learning opportunities are part of growth. Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small they may seem. I’m guilty of not celebrating small achievements because I’m always looking ahead at what else needs to be done.  However, I’m trying to celebrate small wins quickly and then moving on to the next thing.

Share Your Feelings

Talking about your imposter feelings with trusted friends, mentors, or colleagues can provide support and perspective. The Journal of Behavioral Science suggests that discussing these feelings can help normalize them and reduce their power over you. You'll often find that others have similar experiences and can offer valuable advice.

That’s why I’m being vulnerable with you in this blog.

Focus on Continuous Learning

Adopt a growth mindset, as advocated by psychologist Carol Dweck. Embrace challenges and view setbacks as opportunities for learning and development. This shift in perspective can reduce feelings of inadequacy and enhance your resilience. As Dweck explains, "In a growth mindset, challenges are exciting rather than threatening."

Amen sister.  I have spent the last two decades focused on growth and it has truly made a world of difference in my life.

Document Your Achievements

Keep a record of your accomplishments, positive feedback, and successes. I keep what I call a “Happy File” for all the good feedback, and I’ve been known to go back and read it when I’m having a bad day.  This can be a powerful tool in combating imposter syndrome. Reflecting on your achievements can provide tangible evidence of your competence and remind you of your progress. As noted by the American Psychological Association, this practice reinforces self-confidence and counters negative self-perceptions.

Seek Professional Help if Needed

If imposter syndrome significantly impacts your well-being and performance, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Therapy can provide strategies tailored to your specific situation and help you develop coping mechanisms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, professional guidance can be instrumental in overcoming persistent self-doubt.

Mentor Others

Mentoring can be a powerful way to combat imposter syndrome. By sharing your knowledge and experiences with others, you reinforce your own expertise and build confidence. As you see the positive impact of your guidance, it becomes harder to discount your own abilities.

Imposter syndrome is a widespread phenomenon that can hinder personal and professional growth. By recognizing and addressing these feelings, challenging negative self-talk, setting realistic expectations, sharing your experiences, focusing on continuous learning, documenting your achievements, seeking professional help if necessary, and mentoring others, you can overcome imposter syndrome. Remember, you are not alone in this struggle, and with the right strategies, you can build the confidence to recognize and celebrate your true potential.

Here’s my final suggestion and it’s from Furtick’s “Do the New You” book I referenced earlier.  He suggests each of us needs to imagine we have a TSA agent at the entrance of our minds telling us certain thoughts can’t go past this point.  I think that’s an incredibly powerful visual. Go ahead and give it a try.