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Removing Limits: Growing Out of Imposter Syndrome

Growing out of imposter syndrome

Ranging from thoughts of “I’m not capable” to full blown fears of being “found out,” some high achieving women commonly find themselves struggling with sometimes incessant and nagging feelings of doubt referred to as imposter syndrome.

In her book, The Imposter Cure, Dr. Jessamy Hibberd explains how these thoughts can often lead to deep-seated and chronic fear, self-doubt, and other negative beliefs that make it difficult to enjoy life and the work you do. Before we can tackle the psychological mind trap of this condition, however, it’s important to spend some time learning about how it manifests in the first place. By understanding the origins and negative impact that imposter syndrome has on our lives, we will be better positioned to effectively manage and overcome it.

It’s important to recognize that research into imposter syndrome often excluded women of color and people of various income levels, genders, and professional backgrounds. Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey explain in the Harvard Business Review that sometimes what people attribute to imposter syndrome is actually a result of trying to thrive amongst historical workplace bias, systemic racism, and exclusion. This is why when places of business want to support and empower their women leaders, it’s imperative they also take a hard look at their company culture.

A closer look at imposter syndrome

Where does this damaging self-narrative come from anyway? In the late 1970’s, while conducting research on high-achieving women who did not feel a sense of belonging among their successful peers, psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes identified a disturbing pattern in which individuals diminished their accomplishments and internalized a persistent fear of being revealed as a “fraud.” Sound familiar?

While imposter syndrome affects both men and women, research suggests that women tend to experience it more intensely than men. Research suggests this could be because of social expectations around traits such as modesty, which are often placed on women in particular. Women are also more likely to internalize their successes, which can lead to feelings of guilt or shame and make it difficult for them to accept compliments.

Digging a little deeper, studies have traced the origins of imposter syndrome back to family dynamics and childhood upbringing. What these studies discovered was that women fell into one of two groups: those who were raised with high expectations and those who were underestimated and discounted for their intellectual gifts and abilities. Stemming from the pressure of having to consistently meet high expectations or to seek validation from others, these women were especially prone to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.

How is it showing up in your life?

Have you ever had thoughts such as:

  • I am not qualified to do xyz.
  • Everybody is going to find out that I am a fraud.
  • Who am I to think I can teach/lead others?
  • I am not half as good as (insert a colleague/competitor’s name).

If so, you are not alone. In fact, the International Journal of Behavioral Science reports that 70% of professionals across all industries have experienced some form of imposter syndrome at least once throughout their career. Because these self-defeating thoughts can wreak havoc on your mental and emotional well-being, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms that may be showing up in your life.

While not a complete list, here are a few signs to look out for:

  1. General and social anxiety
  2. Pervasive self-doubt in most experiences
  3. A persistent fear of being “found out,” regardless of achievements and success
  4. Perceiving successes as being “lucky” or a fluke
  5. Seeking external validation to confirm your success

Not only are these symptoms unhealthy, but they can also hinder your ability to function at your best capability and be the impactful leader you strive to be.

Combating imposter syndrome

While no easy feat, you can overcome persistent feelings of inadequacy with a combination of positive mindset and behavioral strategies.

Edna Ambundo,

VP of Research and Innovation, Loréal

In a recent interview with Edna Ambundo, VP of Research and Innovation with Loréal, when asked about the signs that show up in her life that reveal imposter syndrome, Edna shared that one of the first questions she’ll ask herself is “What is new right now?” Before she can deal with the emotions that accompany imposter syndrome, she works to understand the details of her context. By getting to the root cause of what is leading her to feel untethered, Edna is able to separate fact from fiction and proceed with a greater sense of clarity and confidence.

Here are some helpful strategies you can incorporate:

Ask yourself clarifying questions

Whenever you notice self-doubt creeping up, ask yourself (1) Is this a fact?, (2) What are the factors contributing to these thoughts?, and (3) Are these thoughts helpful or harmful? By asking these types of clarifying questions, you will separate fact from fiction and get to the root of these negative thoughts.

Reframe your thinking

Pay close attention to the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing. Look at them from all angles and use “…yet” or “and…” to reframe beliefs. For example, if you have the thought that you are not equipped or qualified to do something you can say to yourself, “I don’t know how to do this yet, and that’s okay– I will figure it out.” The simple addition of words like “yet” or “and” can dramatically shift the impact of self-defeating thoughts and turn them into power statements.

Acknowledge and embrace success

No matter how small, it’s important to self-validate every accomplishment you have. While imposter syndrome leads you to dismiss your achievements, a consistent practice of acknowledging them will help you achieve greater self-worth. The next time you facilitate a team meeting, sign a client, or hit your daily goal, whatever that may be, take the time to celebrate your success!

Talk about it

By sharing your thoughts with a therapist, life coach, friend, or family member, you can freely express the feelings you are experiencing. Talking to others is a wonderful way to get outside support and perspective.

Although many of us will deal with imposter syndrome, especially as we grow and develop in our professional roles, employing strategies that will help us overcome its negative impact allows us to be present with confidence and provide value wherever we are.