August 7, 2023

Beating Imposter Syndrome

Shailja Sharma

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Have you ever considered an opportunity to be way beyond what you can handle or deserve and turned it down? Have you remained quiet when you should have spoken up because you did not believe your contribution was worth any attention? Do you feel afraid that you could lose your position at work at any moment?

People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the acclamation they get from others. They feel that they are not as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them. People with imposter syndrome are often accomplished however, they struggle with low self-esteem and self-worth. Perfectionists are also prone to never feeling good enough because they cannot match the ideal versions of themselves that they have created in their minds. Instead of acknowledging their capabilities as well as their efforts, they often attribute their accomplishments to external causes. They regularly down play their own efforts and capabilities.

In my work as a Leadership and Career Coach, I often come across individuals with incredible talents, skills, and accomplishments. Unfortunately, some of these people do not fully believe in themselves and overlook their achievements. They are focused on what they do not have and what they have not done rather than the myriad of fantastic accomplishments they should be proud of.

Imposter syndrome can stem from childhood experiences. Many people who develop these feelings may have faced intense pressure about academic achievement from their parents. They inevitably end up working hard and holding themselves to impossible standards which perpetuates the feelings of not being good enough. The pressure they put on themselves can even take a toll of their emotional well-being and performance. In some cases, speaking with a mental health professional may be necessary to address negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions.

If you regularly write off your own successes and put intense pressure on yourself, it is important for you to explore the root causes driving your behaviour. Are you worried that others will recognize your shortcoming or failures or lack of intelligence? Identify what your fears are. It is important for you to break the cycle or you can end up depressed and burned-out. Remember, the most important relationship you will have in your lifetime, is the relationship you have with yourself. How do you treat yourself? Monitor your self talk, silence that inner critic. You can become your own inner coach and cheerleader. Celebrate every success and accomplishment in your life. Sometimes cataloguing all your achievements and reading over the list regularly will help build up your self-confidence. Furthermore, accept compliments gracefully and do not down play your efforts.

New responsibilities and roles can also trigger imposter syndrome which is not at all uncommon. I once coached a new manager who felt desperately unworthy of the role. She had no experience and felt her team members were older and had more experience. However, as she bravely faced her fears and forgot about all the expectations that had been placed upon her and concentrated on doing her best, she found her rhythm and became successful. As she settled in and became more familiar with the role, she was able to take things in her stride. All new managers will have to overcome challenges that is natural and part of the process. If you are a new manager, cut yourself some slack. If you fail at something, ensure that your fail-forward by learning from your failures. When you let yourself show vulnerability to your team, you show them that you are human. When you couple that with persistence and hard work, you demonstrate courage and resilience. Your team will respect you for that and they will be able to relate to you. However, even if you do not receive support, validation, and encouragement from your peers, direct-reports, or supervisors, remember your own internal validation is more important. Respect your efforts and persist. Relying on external validation gives away all your power to others.

Gender bias can also play a part in impostor syndrome. Many top women in leadership have expressed these feelings in forums and panels discussing gender bias in the workplace. Awareness of the bias against your gender at work can help you to break negative cycles of overworking. People tend to work harder and longer in order to prove themselves which can lead to them becoming demoralized and exhausted. Ensure that your work environment is not toxic. If there are issues that cannot be changed by having open discussions and if they are really are affecting your mental health then change your environment.

Additionally, institutionalized racism can also fuel imposter feelings. Research has shown that people that have less representation in professional environments, struggle with a sense of not belonging. Discrimination can be both blatant and subtle and reinforce existing feelings of imposter syndrome. Becoming aware of this and its effect on you can start the healing journey. Remember the many historical figures that overcame systemic bias and chose to shine brightly. Their light has led humanity out of some very dark places.

Beating imposter syndrome can be difficult but it is not impossible. Regularly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, embracing fear and taking action will help you build your self-confidence. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Get out of your own way by cheering yourself on and refusing to shrink. Remember, courage and persistence will help pave the way to success, accept your imperfections and move forward.

Article by Shailja Sharma, SBS Faculty Member and Leadership and Career Coach

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