“Whoa, I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“I don’t have a clue where to begin with this.”
“I totally lucked into this job, and it’s just a matter of time before people will see I’m in over my head.”
At some point in your professional life you will likely experience the Imposter Syndrome. While not an official diagnosis that can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Imposter Syndrome is common enough that it has earned itself a catch phrase. It’s that nagging self-doubt that we experience that sounds a little something like this, “I have no idea what I’m doing and it’s just a matter of time before everyone figures it out and the gig is up.”
While the Imposter Syndrome is perfectly normal, it can have a negative impact on work performance and overall well-being. For some that impact shows up in our mood – anxiety or an overall funk we can’t get out of. For others it can show up in behavior – sitting quietly in a meeting trying to fly under the radar, or babbling on and on about what we do know even though it is unrelated to the topic at hand. It can also affect our productivity – avoiding meetings, or procrastinating on a deliverable for fear of not knowing where to begin.
However it manifests, there are ways to overcome the Imposter Syndrome. For starters, keep things in a larger perspective – anyone who has taken on a new challenge is bound to experience it. This is referred to as the Peter Principle, named after educator Laurence J. Peter and his observation that people get promoted to their highest level of incompetence.
This doesn’t mean that you are incompetent; it simply reflects the way that companies work. If you excel at something, say Sales, Marketing or Finance you are likely to get promoted. Most often this promotion includes skill sets you have not yet mastered, such as managing a team of direct reports. And we all know that managing people can be very different than creating a killer marketing strategy. So how can you navigate your way through the Imposter Syndrome and use it to your advantage?
First, recognize what it is. No one likes to feel incompetent, so we often avoid the thoughts and emotions associated with it. Instead, I encourage you to lean in. Sit down and create a list of the areas in which you think you could improve. Once you have identified these, empower yourself. Create a specific plan for developing these skills. Find a trusted mentor, talk to your HR department about training opportunities or work with an independent Coach. Your company wants you to succeed – they didn’t promote you to watch you fail. So continue to focus on developing yourself as a leader, learning how to do something better will benefit you and your organization.
Another excellent coping skill is to reframe it – see it as a positive, not a negative. The Imposter Syndrome is very common among high-achievers; it tends to happen shortly after we’ve gotten a promotion or taken on greater responsibility – something that high-achievers continuously seek. So the very fact that you are experiencing it is indicative of your drive to succeed. Another positive aspect of the Imposter Syndrome – it lets you know you’re not a clueless narcissist.
Avoid the Comparison Trap
Do not get stuck comparing yourself to someone else and assume that you should know what they know. We can’t know what we haven’t learned so give yourself a break. We all bring unique talents and experiences to the workplace. Focus on your skills and accomplishments that landed you this new opportunity in the first place.
Although your self-doubt may trick you into thinking you lucked into the job you have, chances are that is categorically false. You’ve worked hard and you deserve to be where you are. Focus on all of the unique ways you add value to your organization every day. Ask yourself, “Why did they give me this promotion?” and focus on your strengths. Pull out awards you’ve received, or e-mails in which others have complimented your performance – maybe even scan your resume, a place where we compile our accomplishments in a flattering way.
Establish a Trusted Confidant
We all have moments of vulnerability, personally and professionally. It is one of the things that all human beings share. And as esteemed researcher and author Brene’ Brown points out, vulnerability and shame can’t survive when we speak it. So utilize a trusted mentor, a good friend who is in a similar leadership position or a Coach or Counselor. All C-level leaders work with an Executive Coach because they recognize that seeking guidance is not a weakness. It shows great strength to recognize our growth opportunities and tackle them head-on.
Continue to Focus Forward
Take a moment to reflect on how far you’ve come, and where you still wish to go. Do you have a dream job or position? If so, stop and think about how you imagine it would feel to reach that goal. Let yourself sit with that feeling, soak it in. That is your motivation to grow and you can tap into that at any time if you’re feeling stuck in your present circumstance.
Don’t let the Imposter Syndrome keep you from asking reasonable questions or from gaining valuable training. Set yourself up to succeed. What is the best way to ensure you don’t feel like an imposter? Make sure you’re not one! Do what you need to do to develop the skills and talents you need to authentically do your job well and reach your full potential.