“You’re doing great!”
That’s what everyone tells you at work. And there’s plenty of evidence to back up the claim: Your co-workers like you, you get positive performance reviews, there’s even been hinting that you might get a promotion soon.
But here’s the problem: Despite the adulation, you’re feeling less than great. You may project confidence, but underneath that self-assured veneer, you’re certain that any day now, someone will find out that you’re not actually cut out for your job, that you only got where you are because you’re lucky. You’re worried that you’ll stumble and reveal how supremely untalented you really are.
If so, you may suffer from a phenomenon first identified as “the impostor syndrome” by two researchers at Georgia State University in the late ’70s to describe an experience common among a select group of high-achieving women who felt like “intellectual phonies” despite their “outstanding academic and professional accomplishments.”
“I think the best way to know if you do have the impostor syndrome is if you have low-level fear or high-level anxiety that you're going to be ‘found out,’” Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, told me. “You downplay your accomplishments and think, if I can do it, anybody can. You look for reasons outside of yourself to explain your success.”
This kind of chronic self-doubt, while unfortunately common, may prevent you from taking on worthwhile challenges and realizing your potential. With that in mind, here are three tools to begin quieting your inner impostor.
Redefine Competence and Success for Yourself
Dr. Young explains that impostors have an “unsustainable definition of competence.” For some, the word “success” might not even resonate because they feel they’re not smart enough to be accomplished. For others, this might mean that they only deem themselves successful if they’re awarded the equivalent of a “gold medal” at work: a perfect performance review every time, the right answer to every question, or knowledge of every single facet of their field. For others still, they may only feel accomplished if they get ahead without any help at all.
Getting away from this kind of mentality requires a huge shift in beliefs. To do this, you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re never going to be perfect all the time and that, if you equate success with perfection or not failing, then you will prevent yourself from learning and growing from worthwhile failures.
Easier said than done, right?
To start making this shift happen, Dr. Young suggests changing the tone of your self-talk. When confronted with a challenge, if the dialogue in your head tends to be something like, “Oh my God, I’m in over my head! People are going to find out the truth about me,” Dr. Young says to instead try reminding yourself, “Wow—I’m really going to learn a lot.” It will take time, but fostering this kinder voice can do you wonders in the long run.
Validate Your Skills
Even though she had earned an Ivy League MBA and become the first female African American Vice President of Global Marketing for Avon Inc., Joyce Roché felt like a fraud and constantly feared she was going to stumble.
In her book The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success, Roché explains how she discovered she was dealing with the impostor syndrome and the coping mechanisms she adopted to quiet the drone of self-doubt that was preventing her from enjoying her successes.
One of her most effective tools, she says in her book, was simply making a list.
“Either with a pen and paper or with someone you trust, write down an inventory of your accomplishments,” she explains. “This will give you the ability to internally validate yourself.”
Armed with this concrete list of your achievements, you now have something to focus on when you find yourself feeling like a failure. (Coincidentally, this list also gives you great material to update your resume and LinkedIn profile or to mention to your boss when seeking out a promotion or raise.)
Fake It Until You Make It
Even if you aren’t feeling totally sure of yourself and your abilities, it’s important you present yourself otherwise. That means shifting your body language to portray confidence. So, while you may be so nervous before your big interview or meeting that you want to curl into a ball, resist the temptation to cower or make yourself smaller, and walk in with your head held high.
The best news is, this shift in body language can not only trick others into believing your confidence, but it can change how you perceive yourself as well. In her remarkable TED Talk, Amy Cuddy explains her research into body language and how simply tweaking the way we carry ourselves can significantly change the way our lives unfold. Her experiments show that by “power posing” for just two minutes, people were able to raise hormones associated with leadership and perform significantly better in high-stress interviews—meaning it’s possible to use powerful body language to actually feel more confident.
Cuddy concludes her talk with an emotional story describing her own experience with impostor syndrome: She explains how, for most of her career, she felt like she wasn’t supposed to be there, but was encouraged to fake it until she made it. She did just that—accepting every speaking opportunity and pretending to be smart enough—until she realized one day that she had faked it until she became it. She was the confident person she never thought she could be.
While it may be far easier to be successful than it is to feel successful—because we can always change our definition of success, strive for perfection, or move the “success target” farther away from where we stand—allowing yourself to acknowledge your accomplishments is important for your career. Once you take ownership of your wins at work, you’ll be able to embrace your talent and acknowledge that you are, indeed, doing great.
Photo of man at work courtesy of Shutterstock.
Michele Hoos is a digital content and social media strategist working in health communications. A former English teacher with a graduate degree in journalism, she lives in New York City.More from this Author