Imposter syndrome is a topic I encounter often when coaching women.
Many women I coach have feelings of inadequacy, of being unworthy or undeserving of where we’re at in life or at work, and have even thought that one day we might be exposed for a fake.
Research has shown that up to 75% of female executives will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their lives. So what exactly is it, how does it manifest, and what can we do to overcome it?
What Imposter Syndrome Can Look And Feel Like
We all deal with inner voices that tell us good and bad things. You can spot imposter syndrome by noticing thoughts and feelings that include:
• Feelings of self-doubt, whether in your ability to be effective in your role as a whole or in decisions you make and your ability to make them
• Feelings of unworthiness of our accomplishments or attention from others; feelings of being unworthy in your role at work
• Feelings of fraudulence or being phony, or that you don’t know what you’re doing and/or don’t know enough
• Thinking your nothing special no matter how skilled you are in your field or specialty
• Attributing your successes to luck or to others; being overly modest and not owning your accomplishments and talents (i.e., “I didn’t do anything — my team did it all and I just got out of the way.”)
• Sidestepping accomplishments and recognition out of discomfort
All of these reactions boil down to fear.
Why Imposter Syndrome Becomes More Difficult For Executives
The best antidote for imposter syndrome is to talk to others about your thoughts and the feelings you’re experiencing, but I’ve found the circle of trust often becomes smaller for leaders and executives. They have fewer mentors and people who feel like they can talk to honestly. They feel more pressure to be perfect and to deliver.
A senior leader may have an amplified experience of imposter syndrome because they feel like they have more people relying on them. Even though they most likely have enjoyed a successful career leading up to their promotion, they may also feel like they have not earned their position, like they were only lucky to have been chosen for it.
Executive positions often equate to high-stress roles that can quickly wear you out. If you have perfectionist tendencies, you may suffer over every small mistake while pushing yourself without feeling fulfillment in your role.
How To Deal With Imposter Syndrome, Especially a Female Leader
You can’t prevent the feelings of imposter syndrome, but you can raise your awareness and take action to work through them. Those inner voices — that I refer to as the “committee of idiots” — will come up, but if they are spotted early, they can be addressed and reframed so you can practice resilience.
Remember that you are not the only person who feels this way. There is nothing like talking to someone else about your feelings of self-doubt, and the best way to get comfortable with asking for help is to start, even if that means starting slow at first. Talk to peers, mentors and coaches. Ask your mentors and peers about times they’ve felt in over their heads and experienced similar feelings of self-doubt.
Although it might seem like you have fewer peers in your position, you can always reach out to others who might have previously been in a similar situation. For example, I’ve worked with a mayor whose town was devastated by a flood. He went through great challenges, short term and long term, that seemed one of a kind. Years later, another mayor whose town was ravaged by a wildfire reached out to him to talk. Even though they had never met before, they connected with one another through their shared experiences.
If you feel like you can’t talk to just anybody, allow yourself to be vulnerable with those who have earned the right. They could be long-term mentors, or even peers in similar roles but completely different industries. Coaches and mental health professionals can also be part of this circle. It is important to cultivate a wider support network around you with whom you can freely express your feelings.
Mentoring others also helps to reconnect with the wisdom you possess and recognize your strengths and expertise. Sometimes we forget how much we know and all that we have experienced. This reaffirms that you have something that not everybody has. People look up to you for a reason.
Most importantly, practise self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. Challenge your expectations of yourself, especially where they might be unrealistic.
We Need To Keep Talking About Imposter Syndrome
We tend to believe we are the only ones who feel this way. Left unchecked, these feelings can lead you to derail your own career. It can hold you back from sharing your ideas and from accepting promotions or challenging projects for which you are qualified.
With increased light on imposter syndrome, we can feel freer, to be honest about our feelings and reinforce to ourselves that we do belong. It’s important for us to have feelings of worthiness of our talents. If we want to be healthy leaders, we need to understand where imposter syndrome shows up and work through those feelings.