I have a friend who I’ll call Sam.
Sam is extremely smart, is an excellent business person, and a wonderful human being. They are funny, thoughtful, and kind. Sam always looks to raise other people up and is always making connections between people that they think are somehow good for each others’ business. Sam is extraordinary. Sam is the kind of person that I aspire to be.
Sam also can’t imagine why they are successful in their tech career, or why they are regularly sought out for leading projects in their particular realm of tech. Sam is a textbook example of someone who experiences impostor syndrome, and wow, do I understand Sam.
Impostor syndrome is that not-so-small voice in your head that tells you untruths, like:
- I’m not smart enough …
- I don’t have enough experience to …
- Why would anyone want to know what I think about …
Impostor syndrome manifests as, among other things, fear being “found out,” or your inability to take credit for your work. You say things like: “Oh, it was luck,” or “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” when in fact you did the work, you worked very hard, and you made these things happen.
Three key attributes of impostor syndrome are:
- The sense of being a fraud
- Fear of being discovered
- Difficulty internalizing success
When you feel any of these feelings, the volume of that voice can get awfully loud.
Sam and I work for different organizations, but have a lot of the same positional characteristics. We are mid-career, senior staff; we do a lot of project management and business development work; and we have similar educational backgrounds. One of the things that Sam and I recognized in each other is the powerful hold that impostor syndrome has on us.
I was speaking at the conference where Sam and I met, and I made an offhand comment to Sam about how it seemed so weird to me to be speaking at the conference. “Gah, I don’t even know why they asked me to speak …” Sam, who had known me for about an hour at this point, looked at me with narrowed eyes and said: “You are smart and you have a lot of experience … why wouldn’t they?”
At another event sometime later in the year, Sam said to me: “I don’t know why they trust me to …” I looked at Sam and said: “You are one of the most experienced people I know, and you have a fantastic track record with that kind of … This is why they trust you.”
One of the challenges with impostor syndrome, is that we, the people experiencing impostor syndrome, know things. We know that we are good at specific things, and we excel, but we have an internal narrative that runs counter to what we know. The internal narrative is somehow so loud and convincing, that we second-guess all of those things that we know. I know that I am qualified to talk about impostor syndrome, on several levels, but I still hear that voice in my head: “You shouldn’t be writing this. Don’t show other people what’s behind the carefully curated wall of accomplishments.”
I have a number of strategies that I use to turn down the volume on that loud and convincing voice. Here are three that I use on a regular basis:
Embrace the struggle.
The worst thing you can do is pretend impostor syndrome doesn’t exist. Instead of watching it play out while falling down the shame spiral: Name. Your. Fear.
Write it down. Speak it out loud. What scares you? What are the scenarios and situations in which you find yourself most weighed down by impostor syndrome?
Take the time to reflect on what you’ve written, either daily or some other regular interval, and try to find patterns. How can you change the pattern? Make those changes, and the volume of that voice will go down.
Talk about and share the shame.
Professional advice giver Marie Forleo has a great video on impostor syndrome. One of her strategies, which I have adopted as one of my own, is to find people that I trust to keep my confidence, and who trust me in return. I have found these people and we speak about and share with each other, the untruths we tell ourselves. We offer each other reminders about how great we are.
Here’s where I have to come clean: Sam isn’t a person. Sam is an amalgamation of several people that I know, with whom I’ve had these conversations. While Sam is a fictional character, the places, situations, and feelings are real. Sam is the amalgam of the people who I have been able to “share my shame” with, and who give me real-time feedback that quiets that not-so-little voice telling me I’m not good enough.
Try talking to someone that you trust. You will see how quickly the burden lifts when you can share it with other people.
Find a mentor (or mentors).
We tend to see mentorship as important for younger or more junior workers, but once we become leaders or become the CEO of a company, everything we do is highly visible and we are expected stand on our own. I think this is terrible — we don’t succeed in a vacuum! We need mentors at all levels. Everyone benefits from a mentor at all points in their career. Many organizations offer mentor opportunities. If yours doesn’t, there are any number of ways to find someone who can step into that role. Just please, don’t ask a stranger.
If you’re a mentor for someone else, Harvard Business Review has a good article on how to mentor someone who is experiencing impostor syndrome. I’ll also point out that the article talks about how mentors can use their own experiences with impostor syndrome to illustrate that the mentee is not alone and that they can excel despite this challenge. Sharing the experience can do wonders, along the lines of “sharing the shame.”
If you experience impostor syndrome, know that you are not alone. Even if you can never completely turn it off, you can absolutely turn the volume down and enjoy all of the accomplishments in your career!
Knowledge is power!
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