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?

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right. —Henry Ford

It’s all between your ears.  All those thoughts.  As a client said to me “It’s a hamster wheel”.  The same thoughts over and over and over and over again.  The I think I can’t, I think I can’t, I think I can’t mantra.  You see your boss’ door closed and you assume you’re in trouble.  Your wife doesn’t respond to your text and you decide she must be mad about something.  You hear your coworkers laughing and you feel shut out.  Guess what.  You get to choose your thoughts.  Really you do.

But, Cathy, I can’t!  I can’t stop my mind chatter.  It’s always negative.  I know.  I’ve been there.  There isn’t a magic wand that is going to turn off that faucet.  What it takes is deliberate practice.  Having a coach (like me) is a really good way to change course.   A good coach will hold up a mirror and help you pick through those thoughts and question their value.  We all have different beliefs around trust, money, love and work.  “If I love, I will be hurt.” “I’ll never get a promotion, so why apply?” “I’m not worth more money than I am making.”  And then that broken record keeps playing over and over and over again.


Here are some disciplines to begin doing now and so you can throw out the recording:

  • Practice mindfulness. This means stop dwelling on the past or assuming the future.  Be in the moment. Now. And now.  And now.  Feel the chair you are sitting in.  Feel your chest rise with each breath.  Listen to your dog sighing.  Smell the aroma of your coffee cup.  Feel your big toe.  Mindfulness is being in the moment and tapping into all your senses.  It takes you out of your head and into your body.
  • Accept failure. As J. K. Rowling said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” You cannot break out of the status quo unless you are open to failure.  Most of your thoughts are full of “what if” scenarios.  That is a waste of energy.  It’s OK if you fail.  You’ll learn something if you do.
  • Stop worrying.  A quote from Arthur Somers Roche that I love: “Worry is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” I’ve met a lot of people who view worry as a sort of penance.  If I worry about my son driving to Orlando to meet me, then I am preparing myself for the worst. I’m expending energy and I can assure it is not changing the outcome.  It is futile and exhausting.  Worry does not change the future.
  • Think about positive outcomes. This is the flip side of worry.  So instead of worrying about my twenty-year-old son driving to Orlando safely, I think about embracing him when I see him.  I think about his magnetic smile.  I think about how his reaction times are so much faster than my own.  His flawless driving record.    I feel more upbeat now.  I’m in a much better mind set.
  • Use mantras. I have a mantra that I use in the middle of the night if I wake up from some sort of stress.  “In an easy and relaxed manner in a helpful and positive way, joy comes to me easily in its own perfect time for the benefit of all.”  I put that on a broken loop in my head.  Make your own.  Make sure it is simple and positive.
  • Good enough. So many of my clients are frozen by perfectionism.   Let it be “good enough”.  I’m not suggesting you do sloppy work but let go of it being perfect.   If there is anything blasting thoughts through your head it’s the perfectionism judge.   “I won’t apply for the job until I have that certificate.”  “I’ll sign up after I’ve lost 15 pounds.” “I’ll ask for a raise after I finish that project.”   It’s good enough. Quit being paralyzed.

This is not a quick fix.  Your thoughts have been riding the same railroad track for a while.   Even acknowledging that your thoughts are not the truth can help you slow it down.  Get off the train at the next stop and see the possibilities.

Living (And Cooking) by Feel. 4 Tactics to Learn From Failure.

I’m a cook. I’m a great cook. It’s taken years of practice to be great cook. I began my cooking career by making Hamburger Helper at about the age of 12 or so. My Mother wanted a night off and relinquished her kitchen to my novice hands. I can remember running back and forth into the living room and asking “how do I know when the meat is brown” or “what is sauteing” or “what number do I put the burner on the stove to if it’s medium-high”. My Mother was exasperated. It reached the point of my Mother saying, “I’ll just do it myself” but I prevailed. Who knew that making a meal from Hamburger Helper could be so full of questions? I’m sure my Mother could have made it with her eyes closed but I had to begin the Inquisition to make sure I did it correctly. It’s amazing how when you are new at something, it all seems so unfamiliar and foreign; like rooting around in the dark trying to find the light switch. Logic doesn’t always prevail. 1003p108-cooking-mistakes-intro-l

Flash forward 8 years and now I’m at the Cornell Hotel School and working in an institutional kitchen. I can’t remember the name of the course but we (the students) prepared food for the Rathskeller restaurant located in the hotel school. I was in charge of making a carrot cake. I burned the edges of the cake. I figured it was salvageable and then trimmed about 30% of the cake to get rid of the edges. I then inadvertently spilled some milk on the cake. I shrugged and just continued to trim and covered up all the remaining madness with icing. I took it out to the line to serve only to have the famed Professor Vance Christian take a piece. I cringed, sweated profusely and hid in the back of the kitchen. He hunted me down some 20 minutes later as I cowered in the back to compliment me on the cake. “It was so moist”. Hmmm, my hodgepodge had worked out. This was a long way from Hamburger Helper, I was flying by the seat of my pants and it actually worked out!

Sometimes I think we think that perfection equals mastery. What it really comes down to is having enough experience to be able to let go and riff. And maybe it’s not experience as much as confidence to know you can create something delicious out of failure.

So how to you let go of perfectionism and just go by feel? Here are some ideas:

1. Ask for help. We spend so much time acting like we know everything. It’s OK not to know everything, especially when you are new at something, like Hamburger Helper…or playing the clarinet…or being a boss. Ask your Mom, your best friend or a mentor for help. You can’t let go and go by feel if you haven’t learned the basics first. I didn’t come out of the hotel school knowing how to manage, I had to ask for help from coworkers, other managers, friends and my boss. Ask for help.

2. Read the book (slow down). My favorite chef is Alton Brown. He always says to read the recipe like a good book. I have to admit that most flops in the kitchen have come from not reading the recipe like a good book first. Invariably, there is some step I “skimmed” over and now the meat has to marinate overnight…for the dinner party in two hours. Oops. Read the instructions. This is helpful with anything involving upgrades on your computer to a newer version like say “Java”. I click through and don’t realize I have now committed to a new browser along with the upgrade. Slow down and read the book.

3. Experiment. Once you’ve learned the ropes, experiment. If I’m facilitating a new training, or a new recipe, or trying a new coaching model; I try it the first time by the book. Once I’ve got the hang of it? I experiment. Less stock, more salt, more cooling time, more students in the class, less time on the activity. Try it out by the book the first time, but then tweak it the next, and more after that. Now you are starting to go by feel.

4. Let go. Let go of the perfectionism, the technology, the “way we’ve always done it”. I was coaching a client recently who was able to run a personal record in a half marathon. He knew what his pace had to be to finish faster but he bailed on his running app. He “ran by feel”. He realized that “the numbers rob you of the joy”. When you are focused on what the app says your pace is or making sure you follow the recipe by the letter, you lose a little bit (or a lot) of the joy in the process. Let go.

As I write this, I’m trying to make homemade gnocchi for the first time. I have to say I read many recipes before trying this particular recipe out. I read them like good books. I’m following this to the letter, but if it turns out great, next time there will definitely be some revisions, I’ll let go and cook by feel.