Imposter syndrome is the lingering belief that you don’t belong, don’t deserve the accolades you receive, aren’t qualified for your job, and the next mistake you make is going to expose you as a fraud. Sound familiar? Overcoming imposter syndrome is difficult to do, but there are strategies and habits you can build that will help combat feelings of self-doubt.
Imposter syndrome is extremely common—especially among women and minority groups. Although you may disguise feelings of self-doubt as modesty or humbleness, imposter syndrome is destructive to our self-esteem. The more we tell ourselves we’re not good enough, the more we believe it, and the less willing we are to try new things, meet people, or take on that next big project.
Learn more about imposter syndrome, including how to recognize it in yourself, ways to overcome imposter syndrome at work, and how employers can help.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Signs of Self-Doubt
Not sure if you’re dealing with impostor syndrome? You’d be surprised just how many of us are. No matter how successful someone may seem in our eyes or on paper, all of us are plagued with self-doubt from time to time.
Common signs of impostor syndrome:
- You frequently speak negatively about yourself.
- You frequently criticize yourself in your own head.
- You use a lot of self-deprecating humor.
- You’re always worrying about what other people think.
- You obsess over the comments you receive online.
- You’re always telling people you don’t know how you got your job.
- You dismiss your success as luck.
- You assume people are lying when they compliment you.
- You take constructive criticism as proof you’re no good.
You believe that at any moment, people are going to find out you’re underqualified—that you’re a fraud.
Beating imposter syndrome isn’t easy. For many of us, it’s something we’ve lived with for a very long time, and old habits are the hardest to break.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome at Work
Stop Dwelling on What Other People Think
We’re not saying it’s easy, but you have to stop worrying about what other people think. Because no matter what, you can’t control another person’s opinion, and you are never going to please everybody. No matter how well you do or how successful you are, there will always be someone out there with an unkind word or negative critique.
Take the classic film Casablanca, widely considered one of the best movies ever made. Here’s what one critic had to say: “The love story that takes us from time to time into the past is horribly wooden, and clichés everywhere lower the tension.”
There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like you, and that’s completely out of your control. If it’s hard for you to tune out what other people think (real or imagined), focus on your own circle of control.
Figure out the parts of your life you have direct control over and the parts that you don’t. You can’t control what other people say about you. You can’t control what other people think. You can control what you do and how you treat other people. You only have so much energy to spend, so devote more of your attention to what you actually have control over.
Learn more in our article Circle of Control: Combating a Lack of Control at Work.
Combat Negative Self-Talk
Negative self-talk is any inner dialogue you have with yourself that diminishes your self-esteem and confidence. “I’ll never get that promotion,” “I could never write a book,” “I’ll never get into medical school,” “What’s the point in exercising; I’ll always be ugly,” and so on. It’s all those fun conversations we have with ourselves where we act as our own schoolyard bully.
Think about the unkind things you say to yourself. Would you say those things about your friend? About your children? How would you feel knowing that one of your child’s classmates is always putting them down, constantly telling them that they suck, they’re no good, and every success they have is only a fluke?
If you wouldn’t say it to your friends and family, then don’t say it to yourself.
The first step to combating negative self-talk is recognizing it. Pay close attention to the things you say about yourself—both to other people and in your head. Are you being fair to yourself? Combat the negative feelings with facts about what you are doing. Did you complete a big project? Do you always show up to work on time? Did you ask an important question in your last meeting? No matter how small, it’s important to acknowledge all that you are doing.
Put it in Writing
You may feel like you’re underqualified for your position or you can’t do something, but look at the facts. What have you accomplished? Don’t clarify or diminish your successes with any extra, self-effacing context; write down a list of your accomplishments with a pen and paper.
If you’re making an effort to eat healthier, get up earlier, learn a new skill, or change something in your life, write down what you are doing, not how well you’re doing it.
It’s important that you write self-acknowledgments down. Simply thinking about them is not enough. Get yourself a journal so you can write down accomplishments big and small, including all of the steps you are taking to achieve your goals. Continue adding to your list so that you can look back on it whenever you feel that sense of doubt creeping in.
Accept That Failure is Healthy
No one wins all the time—even if it seems that way on Instagram. One failure doesn’t mean you’re destined to fail at everything or that you’re a complete imposter.
“Strength, mastery… but weakness, folly, failure also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.” - Jedi Master Yoda
Failure is healthy, and it helps you learn. Without failure, there's no innovation or wild ideas that lead to success. You need to accept that failure is natural and it happens to everyone. A small failure, mistake, or setback shouldn’t reinforce your thoughts of self-doubt. You should see it as a sign of success. It proves you are trying, learning, and growing.
Celebrate Your Own Success
Treat yourself. Seriously. It may sound glib, but it’s important. Celebrating your own success reinforces that those achievements are real.
You can’t wait for others to notice or comment on your progress. Don’t wait for others to acknowledge you—acknowledge yourself! Celebrate every accomplishment, no matter how small. A celebration can be as simple as allowing yourself your favorite treat, taking a night off work, or buying yourself a new outfit.
What matters most is what you think of yourself. Acknowledge the very real accomplishments and milestones you are reaching. Just make sure the weight of the celebration matches the achievement.
What Employers Can Do
Imposter syndrome can negatively impact the workplace. It keeps employees from trying their best, holding them back from achieving their true potential. Foster a work environment that encourages confident innovation with steady support and regular feedback. You can’t prevent all feelings of self-doubt, but you can be a source of encouragement, praise, and positivity.
- Ensure your team knows it’s okay to fail and the benefits of learning from failures.
- Managers should book regular one on one meetings with employees to check in on progress, roadblocks, and goals.
- Communicate with transparency to ensure each member of your team knows what’s going on and how they are performing.
- Foster a workplace culture that values feedback.
- Ensure feedback is given consistently and continuously so that no one is surprised by constructive criticism.
- Make sure everyone receives and gives feedback no matter what their position in the company. Managers should always strive to improve as well.
- Watch for negative self-talk in the workplace and speak to that employee privately or in a one on one meeting if it becomes a pattern.
- Provide learning opportunities that help your team hone their skills.
- Provide clear opportunities for employees to advance their career within your company.
- Invest in team building activities that cultivate positive relationships within the workplace.
Celebrate employee and team successes together, even the small stuff.
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