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4 Strategies to Cope with Impostor Syndrome

By Sierra McConnell

women with imposter syndromeEver feel like…

  • You’re actually really dumb and your boss made a huge mistake hiring you?
  • Your incompetence is going to be found out and you’re going to be fired?
  • Everyone is just humoring you because they’re too nice to tell you the truth about you?
  • Your success is a product of pure coincidence?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, congratulations! You (probably) have Impostor Syndrome!

Originally thought to be more predominant in women, almost everyone, regardless of gender identity, grapples with feelings of fraud, including Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman, Tina Fey, and yours truly.

For example, when it came to writing this blog, my thought process went a little like this:

  1. Oh, man, I finally get to write a Leader Pulse blog! What am I super-passionate about (other than cute cat videos and Victorian mourning customs?) Ooh! Impostor Syndrome!
  2. Then again, there’s already a lot of good stuff out there on this topic. I’m never going to be able to compete with any of it.
  3. I’m honestly not even that good of a writer. What was I thinking when I agreed to write a blog?
  4. This draft is crap. Looks like this will be the project that finally gets me fired.
  5. No one’s even going to read this, and if they do, it’ll go viral as the absolute worst blog post of all time.

Apologies to my coworkers who have heard me saying, “This Impostor Syndrome blog is making my Impostor Syndrome worse!” like 30 times a day. Forget the fact that I have a master’s degree in professional writing, and I’ve been, you know, writing professionally for most of my adult life. There’s still this (not so) little voice in my head saying I’m no good at my job.

And there’s a good chance that same voice is living rent-free in your head, as well. In fact, 70 percent of millennials struggle with feeling their successes aren’t due to their talent and hard work, but to chance or oversight by their superiors. I’d wager that statistic is similarly high, regardless of generation, industry, and gender identity.

I’d also assume it’s not just creatives like me. Those in leadership roles aren’t immune from Imposter Syndrome, either. And if you are a leader, it’s important to keep in mind that most of your team members have these feelings of inadequacy. This is why it’s so important to address both personal and practical needs during interactions—and to not be stingy with positive feedback and sincere praise for good work.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

So, how do you beat it? I know there are tons of people who are going to disagree with me, but I don’t believe you can ever truly break free of Impostor Syndrome. However, there are ways to push back against that inner voice telling you you’re a fraud. Here are a couple that work for me:

1. Remind yourself that you wouldn't be in your position if you weren't qualified.

As someone in a creative field, feeling like a fake is just part of the job. Rarely do you find a writer, artist, or musician who feels like they’re good at what they do. But here’s the thing: You would not be in your job right now if your manager didn’t think you had what it takes to be successful. (Managers: Remember, you should continually remind your people of this fact.)

One of my undergraduate professors suggested keeping a file of things to read when feeling bad about yourself. This has proven to be excellent advice. (And at DDI, we’re encouraged to send STAR feedback to coworkers doing a good job, and we use the ones we receive in our quarterly performance reviews, as well.) Try it out. Keep every email or social media comment you get that talks about how awesome you are or in which you are thanked for your work on something.

Mine are all in a folder called “You’re not the worst.” In that folder are 10 years’ worth of notes from former professors, messages from managers, and emails (and STARs!) from coworkers giving me compliments on my writing, editing, and marketing expertise. Sure, it can feel a bit egotistical to save things like this just for the self-esteem boost, and to some extent it is, but it’s a healthy way to cope with an unhealthy mindset. It’s perfectly fine to believe in yourself as much as others do.

2. Accept that you'll never know everything.

The opposite of Impostor Syndrome is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which you’ve undoubtedly noticed in others. It’s that person in the office who thinks they’re an expert at something that, in reality, they are really bad at doing. The beauty of Dunning-Kruger? Ignorance. The person has no idea that they’re incompetent (but everyone around them certainly does). They can’t grasp the concept that they just might not know everything about everything, and no amount of training and teaching ever reaches them.

To paraphrase William Shakespeare: A fool thinks herself to be wise, but the wise woman knows herself to be a fool. By knowing you’re a “fool,” you also know that you don’t know everything, that you will never truly be a master of your job.

If that’s you, mazel tov! If you think you’re bad at what you do, you’re (99 percent of the time) not. And if that’s not you, well, you should probably step back and reevaluate.

3. Acknowledge that everyone else feels like an impostor, too.

When I mentioned my blog topic to a couple of coworkers (who all identify as male), the response was a resounding, “Hey, I have that!” This turned into an insightful conversation about who struggles with Impostor Syndrome, our theories on why it happens, and our strategies for coping. If anything, it was a relief to know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I participate in several Facebook groups and Slack channels for writers and marketers. Almost every one of us has had a mini (or not-so-mini) breakdown over feeling like we’re bad at writing and someone’s going to figure us out, humiliate us, and we’ll end up as “that person.” You know, the one who’s the topic of conversation at every holiday party and new hire orientation.

While it may not relieve your feelings of imposterdom, knowing that you’re not alone provides at least temporary relief. And, hey, recognizing you’re not alone means you can take solace knowing someone somewhere is doing the same work and feeling the same way. You’ve got a silent coterie of phonies who are in the same boat, no matter your industry or job title.

4. Talk about it!

Just about everyone you know is also suffering from Impostor Syndrome, whether they’re vocal about it or not. Ask your team if they ever struggle with feeling like they’re bad at their job and that they’re going to get fired any minute. Find out how they cope. Talk to your friends in other industries. Talk to a therapist. (Seriously. Everyone needs a therapist.) As with mental health issues in general, the more we’re vocal about it, the more we lessen the stigma attached to it.

To be fair, “Just talk about it” is my advice for everyone about everything ranging from mental health to controversial food opinions (Pineapple belongs on pizza, mayo belongs nowhere, and Taco Bell Cinnamon Twists are at their best when dipped in a side of nacho cheese. You can’t change my mind.), but it really does work. Kind of like how teachers encourage students not to be timid about asking questions; there’s always someone else in the room wondering the same thing. They’re just not confident enough to speak up.

If you’re struggling with Impostor Syndrome, stop reading this blog. Right now (Okay, after this paragraph.) Open up your résumé or your LinkedIn profile and read. Look at your qualifications. Look at your accomplishments. You are where you are because you’re good at what you do.

You may not see it, but others do. Keep reminding yourself of that.

(And for a really great take on all this, check out this TED talk by Elizabeth Cox.)

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sierra mcconnelSierra McConnell is a writer at DDI, where she's on a one-woman crusade against putting two spaces after punctuation and the word "utilize." When she's not grappling with constantly feeling like a fraud, she can be found trying to convince her coworkers to adopt a couple of cats and drink better coffee.

Posted: 12 Jun, 2019,
Talk to an Expert: 4 Strategies to Cope with Impostor Syndrome
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