How are you supposed to feel at one of the high points of your career?
Empowered, inspired, encouraged, proud and confident are all a few feelings that seem likely to come to mind. But for the vast majority of high-achievers, these are not the feelings that grip them when the door to that corner office closes. Instead, a whopping 70-percent of people say they feel like they are not qualified to be in their current roles and are afraid that they will eventually be exposed for frauds.
Imposter syndrome does not discriminate based on achievement. Even Nobel laureate Maya Angelou suffered from this anxiety. She once said: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” One would think that her Presidential Medal of Freedom or her Tony Award or her three Grammy Awards might have convinced her otherwise but, alas, imposter syndrome doesn’t yield to accolades.
Researchers have pointed to an Imposter Cycle that fuels this self-doubt. For these achievers, the cycle begins with anxiety which generally fuels hard work leading up to completion of a task. When the subject then receives positive feedback, he is quickly able to pick it apart and toss it from his mind. The anxiety ratchets up again and continues to mount until the next task comes his way. Then, the cycle begins anew.
So how can a person overcome this common but uncomfortable mindset?
Keep track of your achievements
It may make you feel self-conscious but that’s the point: try keeping a journal that you fill with your achievements in the workplace. For starters, keep tabs on measurable wins. It’s best to start with those things you have accomplished that have a number you can assign to them so that even you cannot reframe them as just the result of a lucky break. If you were able to generate a 20-percent increase in sales over the last week, then you need to write that down. But, as you get more comfortable with this task, it can also be helpful to track even the less tangible wins. For example, maybe you convinced one of your reports to take a training course that could accelerate his career and benefit your team. Sure, your inner imposter may tell you he was going to sign up for the course with or without your encouragement. But write it down as if it is certainly your win. Read it and re-read it. Over time, you may begin to believe it just a bit more than you would if you’d let it be shaped by your memory’s neuroses.
Many career gurus encourage self-confidence as a cure for the imposter syndrome. But feeling self-confident is easier said than done. Instead, a more manageable new mindset might be one of self-forgiveness. Where self-confidence demands an ego boost and belief in one’s accomplishments, self-forgiveness only calls for empathy toward oneself. Self-forgiveness allows for mistakes and is gentler on taking yourself to task. Instead, try replacing that inner self-critic with a kinder voice. This voice might recognize that you’ve made a mistake but, instead, will say that it’s okay and it’s not the end of the world. Self-forgiveness gives you room to be vulnerable without being weak and, most importantly, gives you the space to learn without feeling incompetent.
Use it to your advantage
There’s likely a reason that so many famous people say they’ve suffered from imposter syndrome: this feeling of inadequacy drives them to their success. In other words, without that imposter syndrome fueling their need for perfection, they wouldn’t have arrived at the heights of their careers. They’ve found a way to take that nagging inner voice that says you’re not good enough and managed to hear it differently. For them, it says your work is not good enough and they knuckle down to make their work better and better. This small difference in how you perceive your anxiety is enough to make it less about you (something you can’t immediately change) and more about the quality of your work (something you can). Armed with a new mindset that you can actually deliver on may make all the difference.
You’re not alone in feeling like you’re an imposter in your job. More importantly, you’re in excellent company with luminaries like Maya Angelou, Tina Fey, Renee Zellweger and others with awards and accolades to their names. But this mentality does not have to paralyze you. Instead, you can use it propel yourself to even greater heights.