Recently landed a promotion? Started managing a team? Been appointed to lead a project? Feel like you don’t deserve any of it?
Yes? Welcome to the club! You’ve experienced the crippling effects of imposter syndrome. It happens to the best of us—even if you’ve never heard of it.
Imposter syndrome occurs when we feel like a fraud—when we feel that our successes are undeserved. We convince ourselves they’re based on luck, timing, or other factors outside of our control, instead of embracing the fact that we’re actually responsible for having made those successes happen. Imposter syndrome makes us think irrationally about our aptitudes and performance: We don’t believe we’ve excelled, and we don’t believe we deserve the rewards that come along with our success.
The irony is that the further you go in your career, the more opportunities there are for imposter syndrome to rear its ugly head. You didn’t get that promotion because you earned it, you got it because you were lucky. You didn’t get to lead that project because you had the most experience on the team—you got it because timing worked out.
The first time I felt imposter syndrome was during graduate school. I was a double major in two master’s programs, and if the fellowships were any sign of the quality of my work, I was doing quite well. But if you asked me, my work wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t shake the feeling that soon enough, someone would really read my papers and find all the research I hadn’t considered and all the arguments I hadn’t fully fleshed out.
If you’re reading this, chances are that at some point in your career, you too, have felt imposter syndrome. The bad news: It’s not likely you’ll ever be able to fully rid yourself of imposter syndrome. But the good news: There are ways to combat it! You can train yourself to quickly identify it, manage it, and live to rise again.
Identify What’s Shaking Your Confidence
Is it your new job title? Is it a certain senior-level meeting you’ve been invited to attend? Is it a high-stakes project you’ve been asked to lead? What is it that’s making you feel doubtful?
In most cases, the answer will be obvious: I don’t deserve to lead this project because so-and-so is more experienced than I am. I haven’t worked at the company long enough. I only aced my last project out of luck or good timing. That spot where you’re underselling yourself is likely the root of the problem. (If you can’t figure it out, try troubleshooting the issue with Post-its.)
Once You’ve Identified the Confidence Culprit, Tell Someone
Pick someone you trust to talk about your waning self-confidence. If it’s a work problem, make sure to confide in someone who isn’t your co-worker. Choose someone who sees you outside of that environment: He or she can identify when those feelings of fear are irrational and remind you of your strengths.
Remind Yourself of All of Your Achievements
If you don’t have an accomplishments box, start now by recounting your most recent accomplishments. Take a look at everything you’ve achieved, and reflect on all the hard work you’ve put in to get to where you are now. Embrace the fact that you got yourself to where you are. You’ve earned your spot—your accomplishments are proof of that.
Remind Yourself That the People Who Got You Here Are Incredibly Competent and They Did Not Make a Mistake
You did not pull a fast one on anyone. Your boss or hiring manager—who you may believe didn’t see the many gaps in your resume—is not an idiot. Don’t doubt the intelligence of those who have promoted you, hired you, or offered you opportunities. They have made deliberate choices based on your experience and potential. You really do deserve to be there.
Take a Risk
What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Write it down, say it out loud, tell someone else, and do it. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work. So what? Do the work and keep going. Don’t let imposter syndrome derail you from what’s rightfully yours.
Take a Hard Look at Your Language and Update It
Do you say “I feel” a lot? How about using “I think” to start your sentences? Have you been pitching ideas prefaced with “It might just be me, but?” Rein in that doubt! Update your language with more confident, assertive phrases, and you’ll start to believe in what you’re saying. Assume your questions are valid, and that you’re probably not the only one to have them. Try: “I have a question—and I’m sure I’m not the only one.” Champion your ideas through more assertive language.
Reframe Your Story by Writing it Down
Imagine you’re speaking at a conference and that you have to provide an introductory bio for the panelist moderator. What would you say, and how would you say it? Would you tout your accomplishments or brush them off as if they were insignificant? Take an afternoon to write out your personal story. Who are you and how did you get to where you are? (Refer back to your accomplishments box if you need a reminder.) Let yourself shine on paper. Then, accept that it’s all true.
Guess what, imposter syndrome sufferer? You have expertise to share. Share it with someone who needs it. Not only will you realize how much knowledge you really do have, you’ll also likely uncover new strengths in the process. Mentoring can reveal skills you took for granted or mistakenly assumed came from luck. It’s empowering to know you are helping someone in his or her journey, too.
Take Solace in the Truth That Imposter Syndrome Is a Symptom of Success
Famous actors, authors, artists, CEOs—the most successful people are those most likely to have imposter syndrome. If you’re feeling like a fraud, believe it or not, you are doing something right. So play your pump up jams. Say your personal mantra. Do your power pose. You’ve got this.
Illustration courtesy of Ximena Vengoechea. Photo of masks courtesy of Shutterstock.
Ximena Vengoechea is a design researcher at Pinterest. Previously, she worked at LinkedIn and Twitter. Before moving to the West Coast to work in Big Tech, she worked with several early stage startups in NYC. In a former life, she worked in the art world (museums, galleries, art fairs galore), and also had a stint in academia. She knows all about the wild world of career transitioning and writes about personal and professional development on LinkedIn and FastCompany. Follow her for career, design, and product chatter on Twitter @xsvengoechea. Ximena holds a BA from Harvard University and an MA from Johns Hopkins.More from this Author