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Shutting down that pesky imposter syndrome

Not just self-doubt

     The more driven to succeed we are, the more vital our process of personal growth becomes. As anyone who has sought out challenges on their way to achievement can tell you, the path towards success is replete with obstacles that require facing. One of the most notorious obstacles that ambitious people must face is none other than that pesky imposter syndrome. If you’ve ever felt like you’re perpetually stuck in a mode of self-doubt despite being steeped in the research and latest best practices and having experience in what you are engaged in, you might be struggling with imposter syndrome. 

What is it?

     Let’s dig into what imposter syndrome is so we can understand the best approach to shut it down. Imposter syndrome is a type of experience or phenomenon characterized by feelings of self-doubt over one’s competence, a fear of failure and evaluation, a sense of incompetence resulting in over-compensating or passing on opportunities, and/or an inability to take credit for one’s achievements. You’ll know you struggle with imposter syndrome if success creates a worry that you’ll be “found out” as not truly deserving of that success.

     While imposter syndrome may seem like a regular bout of low confidence that merely causes some unpleasant feelings, it can have much more profound effects than just occasions of self-doubt. The risk of experiencing unchecked imposter syndrome is the influence it has upon our willingness to pursue challenges. If you doubt your abilities and let opportunities pass, you’re less likely to reach the peak of your potential. The fear of success that is a core aspect of imposter syndrome creates an unnecessarily negative experience around the process of achievement. The symptoms of imposter syndrome have been found to resemble certain aspects of depression and the phenomenon is a similar experience to struggling with anxiety and stress. Not only does it impede your potential success, but imposter syndrome also impedes your ability to experience feelings of wellbeing and positivity.

     You might recognize some of the common themes of imposter syndrome within yourself and want to find ways to curtail the harm this phenomenon can do. When it comes to imposter syndrome, as with every process of personal growth, there is no quick fix. Instead, you’ll begin a challenging but vital process of observing and reframing your thinking process.  The best way to think of imposter syndrome is as a processing error just like in any computer program—the computer program is your brain and imposter syndrome is the processing error. By treating your imposter syndrome as an error, you short circuit its potency. The only power imposter syndrome has over you is in convincing you to think in a way that isn’t reflective of your reality; if you deny it the power to convince you by treating it as an error, you deny it the power to affect you.

Changing the pattern

     The first step in shutting down imposter syndrome on your path to personal growth is observation. Familiarize yourself with the stories that imposter syndrome tries to convince you of, stories like “What if I’m not as good as they think I am” and “I hope people don’t realize I’m not actually an expert on this matter.” Once you know what to look for, you’ll more easily identify your own thoughts from your errant, imposter syndrome thoughts. This is where observation comes in, as you begin to notice and challenge the thoughts that crop up stemming from imposter syndrome. 

     Once you’ve got a strong identification system going for observing and picking out the problematic, imposter syndrome driven thoughts from your regular thought patterns you can move onto the next vital step in shutting down imposter syndrome—challenging those thoughts. This step can feel just a bit awkward, but it works. As you practice challenging your imposter syndrome, you’ll begin an ongoing conversation with yourself where you ask yourself whether questionable thoughts are helping or harming you. When those damaging imposter syndrome doubts arise, open a dialogue with those thoughts; is this thought beneficial? Is this thought corroborated by the external evidence in the situation? Would my friends and family accept or reject this thought? By questioning your thoughts you’ll give yourself the chance to break the habit of immediately accepting all imposter driven thoughts as facts.

     Another great strategy for shutting down imposter syndrome that has crossover benefits for personal growth and confidence-building, in general, is to compartmentalize your imposter syndrome by naming it. This might sound like an odd solution, but giving a name to the source of your problematic thoughts makes them much more easily rejected. Think of a funny and perhaps slightly insulting name for your imposter syndrome so the next time a problematic thought arises you can say “You’re wrong, ___!” and go about your day. 

The bottom line

     Imposter syndrome is a common experience that many people struggle with; part of controlling the problem is in realizing it’s not an unusual problem at all. According to research, nearly everyone is equally at risk for imposter syndrome—both men and women suffer from this phenomenon as well as people of all ages and social identities. Controlling imposter syndrome is all about observing and taking charge of your inner monologue to transform it into a dialogue where you can challenge the damaging thoughts originating from your imposter syndrome. At Thriven Partners, we work together with leaders to identify success-limiting factors like imposter syndrome, and offer powerful coaching to control their negative influence. While it’s not easy, shutting down imposter syndrome is a major benefit and an integral part of moving forward towards success and a journey of personal growth and professional advancement.

     A good rule of thumb when considering what you can use your own platform and role to accomplish in championing diversity, equity, and inclusion is to let your role be determined by those you’re attempting to assist. Rather than offer predetermined assistance, be open to hearing from BIPOC leaders (whether in title or role) how you can best be of service in that situation. By allowing yourself to be open and take instruction from those you’re attempting to support, you’ll be ensuring that your efforts are closely aligned with their needs rather than with your idea of what those needs might be. 

     Practicing inclusive and equitable leadership requires you to engage reflectively and intentionally with BIPOC colleagues and leaders. You’ll need to have brave and candid conversations about what their experiences have been at the organization and what opportunities they have their eyes on. Learn more about what barriers exists for them and if they’d like your help with gaining access. If your support is welcomed, use your position, decision-making power, and influence to open doors and opportunities for those diverse leaders.  You can facilitate connections between key decision makers and diverse leaders that may not yet exist or help to strengthen ones that do exist. You can serve as a bridge for those diverse colleagues and leaders who are usually on the periphery of social networks and working groups that most often serve as spaces where future organizational leaders are groomed. 

     This leader and ally work can seem complex, but if you think about the way you’ve learned new business skills and mastered them, you’ll recognize that effort pays off.  You will see and experience change in your organization only after having done the work on yourself to better understand how systems are set up to be exclusionary, surfaced your own biases, done the work to shut those biases down, stepped aside to enable BIPOC leaders to lead, follow their lead, learn about their goals, and facilitate connections. At Thriven Partners, we provide specialized coaching to help you uncover the blind spots in your life and unlock the power you have to be an outstanding ally and leader.

Melissa Álvarez Mangual, Ed.D

Dr. Álvarez Mangual is the founder and executive coach of Thriven Partners, LLC. She has over 20 years of workforce and talent development experience that has intentionally centered inclusion, equity, and justice.

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