Working Through the Impostor Syndrome

Mannequins wearing suitsBy Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

A former colleague of mine, at another institution, once suffered from one of the worst cases of professional impostor syndrome I have ever seen. She’s incredibly smart, accomplished, has a Ph.D., has worked in conflict zones in multiple parts of the world, and still would walk into meetings with colleagues and clients doubting herself and her value. When she spoke, which was not often, she would preface her remarks with phrases like, “This may be wrong, but…” or “I may not know what I’m talking about, but…” Finally one day she flopped down in my office and said, “I’m so sick of being treated like the dumb blonde in the room” (she’s a natural blonde). I looked at her and pointedly said, “Then stop acting like the dumb blonde in the room. You know more about this topic than everyone else in there, combined, and you diminish yourself every time you open your mouth.”

We’ve all been there at one point or another. We’ve all had times, whether through our own doing or others, that we question our own value and who let us into the room, and how long it will be until someone finds us out and kicks us out. Sometimes, unfortunately, this is due to other people’s actions and words that can make us feel less than. But more often than not, it comes from right inside our own psyches, that little voice telling us that we’re a fraud, a mistake, a literal impostor.

The voice of the impostor syndrome tells us things like

  • “I don’t possibly know enough about this topic to be an expert.”
  • “Who let me manage these people? I don’t know anything about management.”
  • “I don’t deserve to be in this room. I’ll just take a seat at the back and listen.”
  • “That guy keeps talking, so he must know what he’s talking about.”

The impostor syndrome doesn’t just get in our way. It actually prevents us from moving forward, from stepping up, from raising our hand, from taking a seat at the table and owning our expertise. But it’s a balance, and this is where it gets particularly difficult. Because getting over the imposter syndrome isn’t just about running your mouth when you truly have no idea what you’re talking about, or pretending to be an expert in something that you’re not. It’s much more nuanced than that.

So how in the world do you work through it? Here are a few tips that you can start to use, today:

Take note of your strengths. Spend some time honestly reflecting on the things that you do well. Think about the things that other people seek you out for, whether it’s for certain roles, topics, types of feedback, and so on. Be as objective as you can be: don’t inflate your skill-sets, but also don’t shortchange yourself. Write all of these things down, and post them somewhere to remind yourself that you DO have strengths and skills to bring to the table, that are unique to you.

Ask for feedback. Sometimes we need other people to shine a light on our strengths and on our opportunities for growth. My friend at the beginning of this piece had no idea that she was consistently diminishing herself with her language until I pointed it out to her. Ask someone you trust to observe you in meetings or other interactions and to provide some objective feedback on your language and your behavior, and how those may be impeded your ability to be successful.

Find a mentor or a coach. Just as you want someone to observe you, spend some time observing others and identify someone who you think does a good job of owning his or her skills, expertise, and voice. Seek them out for some mentoring or coaching to help you to improve. One of the best ways to work through the impostor syndrome is to connect to the stories of others who have been there as well. And we have all been there, at one point or another.

Finally, if you are in a position of leadership or someone who has a seat at the table, make sure that you are supporting others who seem uncomfortable there. Seek out the voices of those who are remaining silent. Don’t let people take a seat at the back of the room. Provide positive reinforcement to those who seem to need it. Having someone who believes in you, and advocates for you, can be one of the best ways to learn how to believe in yourself.

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