7 ways to overcome impostor syndrome

Do you really know what you’re doing in that new job? Of course you do, you just don’t believe in yourself. Here’s how to go from a pretender to a contender.

Susan, a client of mine who was recently promoted to a very senior corporate position, called me with an urgent issue. “I’ve had a lot of success at this company but this new position is huge,” she whispered. “What if I can’t do it?”

“Why are we whispering?” I asked. “There’s no one else on the line.”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess I’m feeling like I’m an impostor and I don’t want anyone to find out.”

Impostor syndrome

When we start something new, whether it’s a new job, a promotion or expanded responsibilities, it’s very common to question our abilities. Can we really do this? What if we aren’t up to it? What if “they” are wrong about us?

The greatest obstacles to success are often our own self-doubts and a lack of confidence in our ability to perform at what feels like an elevated level. This condition is called impostor syndrome.

In 1978, psychotherapists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes found that many women with significant achievements also had high levels of self-doubt. Their lack of confidence was associated with feeling inauthentic and not being able to internalize their successes. Subsequent researchers have reported such fears in adults of all ages and both genders.

Impostors tend to believe they are successful not because they are competent, but because they are fooling other people or are lucky. As a consultant friend of mine said as she wrapped up a noteworthy assignment, “It was a miracle. They had something I could help with.”

As one of my mentors says, “The first sale is to yourself.” Before you can meet the expectations of your new boss or potential customers, you must first believe that you are capable of doing the job.

So how do you gain confidence to move forward, despite tendencies toward impostor syndrome? The following is your guide:

1. Don’t worry about whether you know what you are doing . Instead, make sure you understand where you are going.

Do this by clearly establishing measures of success. Ask your boss, client or whomever is ultimately engaging your services, “How will we know we’ve been successful?” Note the emphasis on “we.”

It’s critical that everyone involved—whether they are executing the work or signing the check that pays for it—has a definite idea of what success looks like. With clearly defined expectations, your road to success will be apparent and you’ll avoid the feeling that your success depends on whether or not someone “likes” you.

2. Don’t be overly concerned about having the right credentials or experience.

As Rudy Vidal, managing director of Xtreme Customer Loyalty says, “A game is determined by how well you play each hand, not by the hand that you hold.”

Previous experience doesn’t necessarily give you the right answers—it gives you the confidence to know you will come up with the right answers. If your experiences lead you to believe you can figure out how to do something, then proceed.

3. Give yourself permission to make some mistakes.

Examine your success rate. Do you make more right decisions than wrong ones? If so, you’re going in the right direction. Focus on your overall pattern of decision-making rather than individual missteps. When you make an error, look at it as a learning opportunity.

4. Be prepared for twists and turns.

You know the old saying about the best-laid plans? After 25 years in the consulting business, there’s only one thing I’m absolutely sure of: It’s unlikely that everything will go according to plan.

Your value is not only your ability to accomplish your daily responsibilities. Your value is your ability to rapidly respond to unexpected developments, incorporate a change of events, and take advantage of opportunities that may arise.

5. Ask for help.

Only a true impostor is reluctant to ask for advice. Create a support system for yourself with colleagues and resources you can turn to for counsel.

In addition to being active in five professional organizations, I’m blessed to be part of a mastermind group with four other business owners who have met regularly for three years. Our group is the business equivalent of those friends you can count on to tell you if you look bad in those jeans (and what to wear instead), and will show up at the front door with take-out and a bottle of wine if you’ve just been dumped.

6. Take calculated risks.

I have a plaque in my office with the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

I’ve achieved some of my greatest successes when I just held my nose and jumped. The first time I taught Introduction to Marketing at Chicago’s Columbia College, I finished all of my material for my three-hour class in one hour. Talk about winging it! Now in my ninth semester at Columbia, I race to get everything across to my students in just 180 minutes.

7. Don’t try to be perfect.

Particularly if you’re feeling a little trepidation, it’s tempting to do a lot of planning. However, it’s more important to accept the things you can’t control and make the best decisions you can. When you’re 80 percent there, go.

After you’ve followed my seven tips and made that first sale to yourself, you’ll move from feeling like you’re just pretending to truly contending.

Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc. A version of this article originally ran on The Measurement Standard.


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