Got Imposter Syndrome? Here Are 5 Fixes.

There have been countless times in my life where I felt like an imposter. When I was in Junior High, I was first flute in the All-State Orchestra (granted Delaware is a very small state). I was initially proud of making first chair only to be overwhelmed by feeling like I would be caught. Found out. Attending the Hotel School at Cornell University where I was a work study student feeling completely inadequate with my fellow upper crust students whose pedigree far outranked my own. My first job out of college as a manager for a catering company in Manhattan. I was a 21-year-old woman working in a basement with 25 men, some twice my age, trying to manage a fast-paced catering business where the only rule was to “yes” to any customer request (i.e., lunch for 100 people in 45 minutes). Every day in that basement was complete anarchy with four phone lines of incoming orders and trying to supervise a largely immigrant crew. I felt like I would be unmasked every day.

As written by Chris Palmer for the American Psychological Association, “Up to 82% of people face feelings of impostor phenomenon, struggling with the sense they haven’t earned what they’ve achieved and are a fraud (Bravata, D. M., et al., Journal of General Internal Medicine, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2020). These feelings can contribute to increased anxiety and depression, less risk-taking in careers, and career burnout.” 82% of people are feeling the same way as me?  This doesn’t surprise me because I coach people every day who struggle with these same feelings. This manifests in my clients as countless work hours, fear of delegation and perfectionism

Got imposter syndrome?  Here are 5 fixes:

  1. Shine a light.  It starts with acknowledging you are feeling inadequate, or you are harboring doubts. As Jack Kelly wrote for Forbes, “The first thing you should do is acknowledge these feelings when they arise. There’s no need to hide it from others or feel badly about harboring these thoughts. By confronting your self-defeating thoughts, it’s the start of taking proactive steps to change your mindset.” Turn on that light switch and make what is in the back of your brain into the light.  Acknowledging is the first step in addressing it.
  2. Acknowledge your accomplishments. It’s really easy to have amnesia about your accomplishments.  Did you grow up in a single parent home and manage to graduate from high school? Are you able to speak two languages? Have you been able to raise a child to adulthood? Did you thwart a deadly illness? Have you finished a 5k? Did you finally earn that certification you always wanted? I remember finally crossing the mile high bridge on Grandfather Mountain.  I was terrified, but I did it. Write down your accomplishments and take stock.
  3. Watch your self-talk. I find the easiest way to reframe self-talk is to use the third person.  So instead of saying “I’m an idiot”, I think “Cathy you’re an idiot”.  Seems harsh.  I would NEVER call anyone an idiot so why the heck would I call myself an idiot.  It’s similar to reframe it to what you would say to a friend.  As Palmer wrote, “Try to observe when your impostor feelings surface and how you respond to them.” Be compassionate in your self-talk.
  4. Let go of perfectionism. I’ve coached countless folks who struggle with perfectionism.  In my mind it’s the manifestation of imposter feelings.  So, they constantly work harder and longer to make their output as perfect as possible so that no one will find out that they are imperfect and, therefore, an imposter. Palmer wrote, “It may help to release yourself from rigid roles. For example, Orbé-Austin said people with impostor phenomenon often see themselves as helpers––people who come to the rescue. “Breaking free from those roles so you can be someone who doesn’t know it all or someone who can’t always help can allow us to be more robust people and professionals,” she said.” Perfection is failing, it’s suffocating and keeping folks stuck.
  5. Share your thoughts. Perhaps through therapy, a coach, or a trusted friend, share your imposter feelings with someone you can confide in. I find when I coach that when my client actually says something out loud (instead of rumination), it will bring insight.  Saying it out loud makes it real and prompts examination. As Kelly wrote, “By sharing with others, it will release the pent-up burden. You’ll quickly find out that you’re not alone and this is shared by many other professionals. You will feel a big sense of relief once you find out that it’s commonplace, you’re in good company and it’s not just you.” Share your thoughts so others can weigh in and help examine their validity.

I believe that comparison is at the root of most imposter feelings. I envy my neighbors new Tesla, my friend’s vacation to the Alps, or my sister’s promotion to Vice President. Comparison is the thief of joy and will keep me in the imposter zone. As a friend said to me recently, “Stay in your lane.” Focus on what’s in front of you and your experience and let others focus on their lanes. How do you address imposter feelings?

6 Steps to Realistic Optimism.

I’ve written about optimism before and, recently, have adjusted my viewpoint.  In reading several articles and the book “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” by Tony Schwartz, I’ve come to realize that optimism is critical but, more importantly, it has to be realistic.  Tony gives the example of a 5’4′ guy who wants to play basketball.  Unrealistic optimism would show up as this guy wants to play in the NBA.  Realistic optimism shows up as this guy wants to be the best basketball player he can be.  It’s an adjustment in perspective or focus, the ability to see that it might be a struggle and it’s going to take hard work but you feel like you can persevere. 6 Steps to Realistic Optimism 2

Basically, it’s turning blind faith or just plain wishing into reality.  I’ve wanted to go to Paris for the last twenty plus years.  I have yet to go.  I know I’m going to go but the reality of two kids in college, a mortgage, my parents now living ten feet away…well, the reality is, that it’s a few years off.  I am confident that I will be standing on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées at some point with a warm baguette in hand, it’s just going to take some planning and patience. 

So how do you go from wishing to reality?  Here are some tips.

1. No Storytelling.  I see this in clients all the time.  They tell themselves that they can’t do something.  I can’t get that promotion.  I can’t get a CPA.  I can’t move to San Francisco.  The old Henry Ford adage is right.  “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” It is not possible to succeed if you think you can’t.  Stop telling yourself stories.

2. Lenient. As Tony Schwartz recommends, you need to be lenient and forgiving in your evaluation of past events.  So if you didn’t pass the exam the first time, meh…you were having a bad day.  Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep.  Cut yourself some slack.  Forgive yourself.  I cook on a regular basis; I can assure you that if all I focused on was my failures, we would be eating out for Thanksgiving.  Be lenient in your view of past events.

3. Gratitude. Frequently show gratitude for your current situation.  Do you have electricity? A roof?  A job?  Dwell on the positive.  In a consumer society, we can constantly focus on what we don’t have.  This will leave you empty.  You will be constantly looking to fill the shelves and your attic with things.  Appreciate the present in all its imperfection.  Got gratitude?

4. Possible. Mission possible.  This is the glass half full mentality.  I can remember telling my doctor that I was planning to run a half marathon.  I was worried that I wouldn’t do it fast enough.  He said, “You can always walk it”.  What a relief! Refocusing on what could be, made it attainable.  Focus on what is possible.

5. Acknowledge. The key to success is acknowledging that it won’t be easy. Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen did a study with obese women.  The women who thought that losing weight would be a walk in the park lost less weight than those who understood that there may be some adversity along the way.  Think through what possible adversity you might encounter along the way.  Krispy Kremes at the breakfast meeting, free toffee samples at the grocery store and sub freezing temperatures for your 6 AM run.  Acknowledge adversity but don’t let it stop you.

6. Honest. Be honest with yourself.  If you are 6’4″, a career as a jockey isn’t likely to be fruitful.  If it’s your passion and you understand that you will never race in the Triple Crown, then go for it.  Make sure you are realistic in your self view.  I remember being on the swim team in high school.  I was the slowest on the team but by year end, I had improved my time the most.  That’s all that matters.  I knew I wasn’t going to win any races but focusing on my own improvement paid dividends.  Be honest.

To move from wishing to success involves optimism with a reality check.