Self-doubt in the workplace. Most of us have suffered from it at some point in our careers. It can crop up as that nagging voice that tells us we are underqualified, that we are frauds, and that we don’t belong. But for some, it cuts even deeper. Impostor syndrome is the isolating belief that you are a professional or intellectual fraud despite evidence of your success. Impostor syndrome is a unique psychological experience that is different from fleeting moments of doubt. People who experience impostor syndrome can also suffer from anxiety and an overarching fear of failure — it impacts more than 70% of Americans, according to research published in the Journal of Behavioral Science.
It’s also a condition that disproportionately affects women. Research has found that two-thirds of women have experienced impostor syndrome, as compared to 50 percent of men. One example of the results? A Hewlett Packard survey found that men apply to jobs where they believe they fit only 60% of the role requirements, while women responded that they only apply to jobs if they match 100% of the role description.
Impostor syndrome not only undermines confidence on the day-to-day level, there are long-term economic and professional impacts that come with the inability to believe that you can do your job well. Studies have found that women experiencing impostor syndrome push less hard for raises than those who don’t struggle with self-doubt. What does this mean for our careers and economic well-being? This evidence suggests that people — most of whom are women — affected by impostor syndrome limit their own career trajectories, because they don’t believe they are “good enough.”
I spent the first year in my role as a new fundraising director for a nonprofit in utter fear that I would be found out for being a fraud. At the time, I had more than ten years of experience in communications, advocacy and fundraising — as well as valuable issue area expertise in the work we did. But, I had never led a fundraising department before and so from the moment I accepted the position, I felt inadequate. I had dreams that I was playing the lead role in a play and had to perform onstage without ever having read my lines. I started out in the job accepting any and all input offered by the board of directors, my peers and my boss. I went into situations assuming they all knew more than I did and allowed feedback and group consensus, rather than my own knowledge, observations and intuition, to drive priorities for my role. Today, five years later, I wish desperately for myself and for the organization that I’d felt less like I was inadequate and instead had taken time to reflect on all the years of work that got me to that point ,and trusted that I am, in fact, quite skilled and capable.
While impostor syndrome looks different for everyone, there are telltale signs and habits of people experiencing it. An inability to accept and believe praise, and a tendency to discount accomplishments are twin habits that attribute success as coming from an external source rather than a personal achievement. Perfectionism and setting impossibly high standards for your work are other ways that people experiencing impostor syndrome set themselves up for failure and disappointment. If you find yourself working long hours and yet still focusing on what you haven’t done, you might be experiencing impostor syndrome. And of course, the syndrome is characterized by a persistent feeling that you are indeed a fraud or impostor who will be found out by your peers.
In the face of external factors that undermine our sense of value and belonging and that fuel negative self-talk, it’s important to take steps to owning our accomplishments. Here are a few ways to start your journey to overcoming impostor syndrome and advancing your career.
Be your biggest self
Don’t be afraid to take up space, literally and figuratively. Many of us have internalized messages that tell us that women in particular should be small, our voices quiet, and that we should play supporting roles. As we learn to claim space in the workplace by being physically present at the table and in the conversation, we become more comfortable with visibility, leadership and being our authentic selves.
Honor and own your expertise
People with impostor syndrome lack confidence in their abilities despite all evidence to the contrary that says they have the knowledge and experience for the job. Taking the time to think back on your professional journey and journaling about daily wins and achievements at work can help ground you in the reality that you have every right to be where you are.
Let go of fear
When we operate out of a fear of being “found out” or out of a desire to be liked, we lose sight of the work itself. Instead of putting forth bold ideas, or vocalizing our disagreements we may conform and go along with ideas and plans that we don’t support, further distancing us from our work and any desire to be better at what we do. It’s undoubtedly easier said than done, but to overcome impostor syndrome we need to cultivate courage and practice being visible and vocal at work. Seek out peers that you trust such as colleagues in Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), or external support groups that can help bolster your self-esteem and give you practical advice and support. Additionally, counseling and meditation are ways to help you destress and feel more empowered at work.
Find a mentor
If you find that you do need professional support and guidance, mentorship can help any professional hone her craft and deepen expertise in her field. Connecting with a mentor can be even more important for women and anyone who has experienced professional roadblocks based on their identities, or who has a harder time seeing themselves reflected in leadership. Once you’ve gotten to a stage in your career where you have wisdom to pass along, consider how you can step up and become a visible resource and guide for others.
Finish a big project? Make it through a speech or presentation? Perhaps you spoke up in a meeting for the first time? Don’t let those milestones go by without note. Celebrate your courage and contributions, because highlighting those accomplishments will help contextualize your professional journey with the highs and lows and everything in between. So, when you have something positive to share at the end of a workday, don’t be shy about calling up your parents or a friend to share your win, or by writing it down so that you can look back on it when you need a reminder of your strengths and skills.
Brené Brown writes in Daring Greatly that, “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” None of us come into our roles knowing everything we need to know to do our jobs. Projects often require some quick research or last-minute practice. This ongoing learning is nothing to be ashamed of, rather something to be embraced. And as for mistakes? We all make them. The important thing is to acknowledge the mistake and any harm that came from it, and learn from the experience so that you don’t repeat it. Lastly, don’t take constructive feedback personally. Colleagues who offer constructive criticism want to see you improve and are offering you an opportunity to do so. Instead view the feedback as a chance at skill-building, so that you can be better next time.
Enjoy what you do
Self-doubt and a lack of confidence in your work can be symptoms of other conflicts over what you do for a living. It’s easy to see how a lack of passion or interest in our work can result in a constant questioning of our place and feelings of fraudulence. If this feels like the case, it’s time to do a personal inventory of the things that bring you joy. Is it writing? Is it public speaking, or crunching numbers or environmental advocacy? Once we can identify the activities that bring us to life, then we can move toward work that incorporates those things — whether that’s entering a new field entirely or simply volunteering to take part in new projects at your current job. When we have more joy and connection to the work before us, we are driven more by curiosity than obligation and a fear of “getting it wrong”.
There are very real structures and factors that lead us to feel like we aren’t knowledgeable or experienced enough for our professional roles. We compare ourselves to others in the field and feel like we don’t stack up — we don’t speak the right way, hold the right degrees or certifications, or we feel like we lack the passion that drives others around us. Whatever the issues, impostor syndrome is an internal force that holds us back from thriving and accelerating our careers. While validation from peers and bosses might help lessen the impact of impostor syndrome, we are the only ones that can quiet the voices that whisper that we aren’t enough. It takes courage. It takes support from friends, mentors and workplace allies to learn to say, “I am enough.” And it takes practice and trust in ourselves to believe that is true.
Alli Auldridge writes, works, parents and dances in the Seattle area.