Contemplating Impostor Syndrome: 3 Ways to Defeat Your Doubts
Recently, DECSA staff hosted a round-table discussion on impostor syndrome, sharing candid experiences, fears, nagging doubts, and coping mechanisms. Impostor syndrome may not be a clinical condition—it is typically described as a behaviour pattern or temporary state of being—but it has real consequences if left unchecked.
Impostor syndrome is a complicated condition that has many subtypes and variations. In its simplest form, it is characterized by an inability to acknowledge the role you play in your own accomplishments. Sufferers may attribute their achievements to good fortune, special connections, financial advantages, or even outright fraud, despite solid evidence of hard work and prodigious skill. Women and minorities are particularly susceptible, so we weren’t at all surprised to learn that several of our clients, most of whom represent at least one minority identity, exhibited behaviours associated with impostor syndrome.
If you’ve ever felt as though all your talents and skills are based on luck, trickery, or inflation of your success by others, you’ve likely experienced impostor syndrome. (If you’re not sure, you can take this quick quiz to find out.) Since these symptoms can interfere with a happy and productive lifestyle, you may want to explore some possible solutions.
The discussion on impostor syndrome was so compelling that we decided to prepare a general post based on insight from our clients and staff, as well as supplementary research used to enrich our perspectives. We hope these three suggestions will help you own your success without questioning your right to have achieved it.
1. Flip the Script
People dealing with impostor syndrome often treat mistakes as a sign of weakness. Clients and staff alike confessed punishing themselves for being underprepared, or not knowing everything about their chosen field, or failing to consistently meet their own high standards. But what would happen, we wondered, if we simply flipped the script on all these missteps? What if we transformed them into opportunities?
Imagine if we expected failure, and accepted it as part of the human experience. The employment sphere is filled with risks and challenges, so failing is inevitable. Why not embrace it as a teachable moment, instead of letting it define us?
Let’s take this one step further: What if we treated not knowing all there is to know as an asset? Being open and receptive means you’re more likely to try new experiences, take constructive criticism well, and improve existing skills. If we assume that every person and every experience has something to teach us, we’ll never miss valuable lessons. Everyone is a work-in-progress, no matter how advanced they are, so why not normalize this permanent state of flux and growth?
If we can encourage ourselves to prepare for failure and expect surprises, impostor syndrome will surely lose some of its power.
2. Seek Constructive Feedback
One of the topics that came up repeatedly throughout our round-table discussion was the issue of external feedback. Whether we’re talking about unqualified praise, unconstructive criticism, or biased opinions presented as concrete fact, we can point to the disastrous effects vague or inaccurate information can have on a person’s self-concept. If we were praised our whole lives for being “smart,” for example, but we eventually find a particular task difficult, we might start believing we’re not intelligent at all, rather than understanding that hard work is not a sign of intellectual deficit. Receiving lavish, nonspecific praise, or vague, ruthless criticism can be hugely damaging in later life, often leading to self-doubt and fragility when faced with failure or struggle. One person opened up about being the kind of student who found secondary school practically effortless. Accustomed as she was to everything coming naturally to her, she floundered when she began university, discovering it was much harder than anything she’d yet tried. Once she was no longer the shining star she’d once been, she misinterpreted a need to work harder as a mark of her own fundamental weakness.
To combat this, it’s best to surround ourselves with people we trust to provide unbiased, constructive feedback. We don’t want to accept unconditional, vague feedback like “You’re so brilliant!” or “You’re just not up to snuff.” Instead, we should seek out specific, thoughtful feedback like “You have excellent public speaking skills,” or “The way you handled that meeting suggests your group communication might need some tweaking.” Specific, constructive information helps us identify our strengths and weaknesses in a healthy and useful way.
Mentors, supervisors, colleagues, and peers can provide the best blend of compassion and honesty, so that we always know where we truly stand, and never have to wonder whether we’re genuinely good at what we do. Tying praise and criticism to specific actions helps us understand ourselves better, making our minds less hospitable to impostor syndrome. If people you respect believe you deserve your success, it’s tough to contradict them.
3. Create a “Reassurance List”
One of impostor syndrome’s most insidious symptoms is the tendency for us to doubt or dismiss our previous accomplishments. Even the most inexperienced of us has something to be proud of, but self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviours can eclipse the power of that pride, making us believe we have nothing to celebrate. While it’s important to stay in a growth mindset, ever aware of how we can improve, we also have to let go of unattainable perfectionism, and recognize what we have already achieved.
During our discussion, clients and staff brainstormed practical ways to keep tangible accomplishments close at hand. Here are a few of the ideas we came up with:
• Reference letters represent positive feedback written by people we respect, and can serve as ongoing reminders of our best traits.
• An updated resume or CV shows our job experience, preventing us from doubting where we’ve been and what we accomplished along the way.
• Written encouragement from friends and mentors is worth a hundred cheerleaders. Don’t be afraid to solicit this from people you trust. They’ll be happy to help you fight your impostor syndrome demons.
• A project list, kept up to date, is a constant indication of what we’ve worked on and what we might achieve in future. This item is particularly special because we get to decide, on an individual basis, how we might measure success.
We hope this article has given you some insight into why you feel like an impostor, and what you can do to stay on top of those feelings. If you have any other suggestions about how to manage impostor syndrome, feel free to leave them in the comments. We’d love to hear them!