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Career Coach: Don’t fall prey to ‘Imposter Syndrome’

By Joyce E.A. Russell,

Over the years I have worked with a number of people who suffered from Imposter Syndrome. The term, created by psychologists Clance and Imes in 1978, refers to the idea that competent people find it hard to believe in their own capabilities or internalize their own accomplishments. They see evidence of their competence as mere luck and sometimes feel they are not actually qualified for the position they hold.

Much has been written about successful women experiencing Imposter Syndrome, yet research shows men also experience this phenomenon. It has been documented that scientists, academicians, graduate students, people starting a new job, actors and actresses, and other high performers have experienced the syndrome.

When the topic of Imposter Syndrome pops up on blogs, it is amazing how many people write in and say they have felt this way since they were young.

Imposter Syndrome can lead to significant self-doubt, hindering individuals from feeling as intelligent and capable as they are. It can also cause these highly competent people to agonize over small mistakes and miss out on opportunities or advancements they are capable of achieving.

As examples, I once coached a person who had a PhD, an MBA, was an expert in a specialized domain and held a very high-ranking position at a prestigious agency. He kept questioning why he was put in such a high-level position despite all the evidence that he was very intelligent, talented and hardworking. Likewise, another C-suite executive kept telling me she was sure “one day she would be discovered” and sent back down to a lower-level position, in spite of her tremendous success at the firm. In both cases, these executives used up considerable energy worrying that at any time someone would unmask or expose them as frauds.

What can you do to
manage it?

Surround yourself with supporters. Anyone starting a new job might have feelings of self-doubt, asking “How did I get here? Do I know enough?” In this situation, it’s important to cultivate friends, associates and family who can bolster your confidence. You can even share your concerns with them so they can reassure you regarding your skills and strengths and let you know when you are being too hard on yourself.

Feeling insecure is natural and normal. There are times when we all feel stupid, but it doesn’t mean we actually are.

Get a mentor or coach. Find someone you can talk to who will allow you to be honest and share your thoughts without worrying about how they will use this information. If you can find someone outside of work, that would allow you to be candid. Sometimes, it is also helpful to find a mentor who is similar to you in important ways (for example, in race or gender) so that you can better relate to each other.

Be a mentor or coach. By sharing your own successes and ideas with junior colleagues, it reinforces your own accomplishments and successes.

Stay positive and focus on your accomplishments rather than focusing on everything you don’t know and have to improve upon. Visualize success.

Set goals and keep track of what you have accomplished. Write down your goals and accomplishments. This enables you to review what you have done so that you can see it’s not just luck.

Acknowledge your mistakes, but treat them as learning opportunities instead of fatal flaws. I knew an executive who kept a book of lessons learned so he could move on. Don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes.

No one is perfect. Recognize that others do not have everything all figured out. Your co-workers and peers once started a new endeavor and made mistakes.

Remember that people are not paying that much attention to you. We have the tendency to think people are spending a lot of time watching our every move to catch any mistake we might make. Honestly, people are much more focused on themselves, rather than on others.

Some feelings of anxiety are okay to have because they reflect respect for the limits of our own abilities. So, a level of self-doubt may be okay, as long as it doesn’t hamper your ability to enjoy your successes or beliefs in your own accomplishments.

© The Washington Post Company