How to Overcome the Imposter Syndrome
Updated: Aug 19, 2019
I still remember my first day in Intro to Computer Science class in college. It felt like I was the only person in the room who hadn't started programming at the age of 12. I also couldn't understand the professor's "techie" jokes, while everyone around me seemed to be having such a great time. I struggled a lot in my first semester and I clearly remember how someone (a woman!) advised me to switch to the easier Management of Information Systems degree "because women weren't cut for computer science." I kept thinking that perhaps I made a mistake and that I didn't belong there but I stuck it through. I ended up graduating in the top 10% of my class. I felt the same way during the analyst training for my first job on Wall Street, the first months of Business School and for about a year as a Strategy Manager in Brazil. As an entrepreneur, I still get this feeling very often. In all cases I found that persistence and resilience helped me overcome the initial learning curve and the naysayer comments, and prove [mostly] to myself that I was just as (or even more) capable and deserving to be there. Later on in life, I learned that I had experienced the classic case of The Imposter Syndrome ("IS"):
Imposter Syndrome = false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill
The term was coined by American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who published an article called "The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" in the 1978 journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice :
"The term "impostor phenomenon" is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women…. Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise."
In the following years, additional research showed that the imposter syndrome was not unique to women but both sexes were equally likely to experience it. Men were just afraid to talk about it. What are the implications of having the Imposter Syndrome? This "imposter" feeling lowers your self-confidence even further and therefore affects your executive presence. It may cause you to withdraw from engaging with others - avoiding speaking in meetings, asking for help on a project, or participating in social activities. You're also more likely to be dissatisfied with work and less likely to explore new opportunities. Many of my students report that they experience the imposter syndrome so I wanted to offer some solutions.
[Learn more about my programs for high-potential women]
How can you overcome the Imposter Syndrome? According to Resilience and burnout prevention expert, Paula Davis-Laack, there are 3 things you could to do overcome the Imposter Syndrome:
Get more social support by cultivating high quality relationships at work
Prove to yourself that you're capable of achieving results by mastering tasks successfully, observing others whom you respect and admire, and listening to those who praise your abilities
Turn your inner-critic to your inner-coach by understanding and labeling these feelings and anxiety, and talking about them. Understand the root causes but also have some self-compassion. Know that this is a common thinking style that can be corrected with practice and self-awareness.
If you know someone who may be suffering from the Imposter Syndrome, be a supportive ally. Give them perspective, highlight their past and present achievements, and celebrate their successes with them. Finally, challenge them to strive higher.
p.s. If you're still trying to figure out if you suffer from the imposter syndrome, check out these funny 13 Charts That Will Make Total Sense to People with Imposter Syndrome!  Merriam-Webster, Where Does 'Imposter Syndrome' Come From?