How To Beat Imposter Syndrome In The Professional World

Imposter Syndrome is not a new topic for us. We talked about it earlier this year in the context of what you should know. While I believe that background is absolutely essential, I also think we need to dig deeper. How does Imposter Syndrome affect our thought patterns? How does it affect us at work? But, also, what does it feel like? As women, in particular, we tend to attribute our success to blind chance or luck (at least I do). What makes us discount success and think we somehow deserve failure?

Are you suffering from Imposter Syndrome? Take a look at this flow chart to dig deeper.


What Really Is “Imposter Syndrome”?

The premise for Imposter Syndrome, also known as impostorism, is the belief that you’ve somehow fooled the professional world. While it might be easy to think of it as simply a problem of self-doubt, it’s actually a bit more involved. Dr. Pauline Clance found that professional women experienced fear of failure, anxiety and dissatisfaction. 

It’s easier to believe the one negative thing you hear from critics, instead of the many positive reviews and feedback. That one negative comment may haunt you, stuck on repeat when all you want to do is get past it and finish that next project. It doesn’t matter that the evidence all points to the glaring truth of your skills and talents. Imposter Syndrome is hardwired. It’s a survival technique designed to “protect” us. It’s a projection of our worst fear.  

Instead of letting you savor success, Imposter Syndrome replays all your negative beliefs about yourself. What if you’ve been doing it wrong all along? What if that scheduled call or appointment means that you’ll be fired or that you’ll lose your client? If you focus on all the what-if’s, it’s even more difficult to face and accept the realities of your situation. 

How Does Imposter Syndrome Affect Leadership?

We’ve talked before about how women just don’t get promotions or raises as much. A Lean In study shows that “for every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired,” and the stats for women of color in leadership positions are even worse. It’s a troubling trend, and it’s not getting any better. 

Lean In updated their study to reflect what women are facing right now in corporate America. While women are making gains in areas of representation in leadership positions, entry-level managerial positions are still out of reach and women are experiencing significantly more burnout than men. 

Those epic burnout levels are making 4 in 10 women at least consider leaving or switching their jobs. AND, it’s not just talk. With that Great Resignation sweeping the country, women are leaving in droves. One woman (a Senior Vice President), in the Lean In report, captured a trending sentiment: “I just felt burned out so often. It was the hardest working year of my life.” 

We see those feelings expressed EVERYWHERE in our personal and professional circles; yet we fail to draw clear connections between burnout, the intense demands on female professionals, and Imposter Syndrome. 

What Triggers Affect You?

Most experts agree that we all experience Imposter Syndrome at some time in our lives, but it may feel manageable most days. What throws us off-kilter is when we’re triggered in some way. 

  • It could be that it’s a particularly challenging time at work. The last year with the pandemic could be a perfect example. 

  • You’re outside of your comfort zone. 

  • You’re receiving lots of unsolicited feedback.

  • Or you’re interacting with strong personalities, without reprieve. 

  • You may feel you just can’t say, “No.” 

It could feel like everyone is making demands of your time and attention, both at work AND at home; and you feel like you’re not able to keep your head above water. Or you could feel like someone you work with is treating you in a demeaning way. There could be any number of incidents that could trigger the onset of Imposter Syndrome. 

How Does Imposter Syndrome Affect Us?

The truth is that Imposter Syndrome will affect each of us in different ways. You might act or react in ways that feel like self-preservation. Or, you may overcompensate to prove that you are “good enough” or to prove that what they are saying is wrong. You’ve probably noticed this behavior in yourself and others, but you just never knew what it meant. Here’s what that might look like.  

  • Try to fit in better, like a chameleon. Emulate the workflow of others in the office to fit in and avoid being noticed. 

  • Hide, avoid confrontation, and just do the work. 

  • Obsess over work, trying to avoid any chance of error or oversight. 

  • Procrastinate, hoping that inspiration will strike in such a way as to overcome objections.  

  • Compare work and productivity to others, and judge their work, even vocally. 

  • Fly under the radar, without voicing opinions or challenging ideas. 

  • Go for it, attempting to prove the “good enough” standard.

  • Move forward, hoping that you can somehow leave the negativity behind. 

  • Play the game by taking on any and every project that comes up. 

Unfortunately, these tendencies are really just an effort to overcome criticism and negative feedback from ourselves AND others at work. And, our attempts to cope come across in all the wrong ways. If you hide, it could seem like you’re not a team player. If you’re comparing yourself to others, it could appear to be judgmental, even critical. Or, you could give off a vibe that you just won’t accept feedback, that you expect constant validation. 

Even though you are dealing with the effects of Imposter Syndrome and working through it the best way you know how, it may not appear that way to others. You’ve probably noticed some of these behaviors in co-workers, friends, or even acquaintances. Did you wonder what they were thinking when they appeared to be affected by one or more of those triggers?  Or perhaps you completely understood where they were coming from. You might have even offered some advice or words of encouragement, helping them feel less alone. What can you do? 

What You Can Do About Imposter Syndrome?

We all experience Imposter Syndrome. Although women tend to experience it more than men, those feelings creep in for all of us. When it feels like you need to do it all, or that you simply can’t do it all, that intense pressure could be a sign of impostorism. It does help to know that you’re not alone. Some studies indicate that Imposter Syndrome affects more than 70% of professionals, with as many as 60% of executives saying it has a negative impact on their leadership. There’s more that you can do to help yourself AND others get through this.

Get Help

Therapy is an important outlet and support system for our anxiety, fears, and behavior. It’s not enough to just complain about it or throw up your hands in surrender. Giving up is NOT an option. Just keep telling yourself that, and then reach out for help. Here are just a few resources. 

Examine Your Workplace

It’s possible, even likely, that your work environment is reinforcing and exacerbating the effects of Imposter Syndrome. If you face unclear expectations, poor communication, constant comparisons, and a sense of isolation, you may be in a petri dish. It may just be the perfect growth factor for your own personal brand of imposterism. It doesn’t have to be like that, but understanding the dynamics is the first step toward dealing with the challenge. Depending on the severity of the situation, you may decide that it’s not the right dynamic for you. 

Explore Mentoring Opportunities

A mentor can be a positive force in your personal and professional life. We know mentorship works. We know we need it. And it’s an essential resource for dealing with Imposter Syndrome. A mentor could be someone who is a co-worker with Senior status, an acquaintance with a skillset you’re eager to emulate or learn, a teacher, or even a coach. That person can remind you that you’re not alone and offer tips for how to navigate the often intimidating waters of workplace politics on the road to success. 

Share Your Experience

Imposter syndrome can feel so lonely and depressing. Now that you know what it feels like, you can make a difference in the lives of others. It could be a friend, colleague, cousin, or acquaintance. What can you do to offer a word of encouragement, a teaching moment, a tip on the best tool to use, or even a word of advice about their career? With Imposter Syndrome, the limits of your knowledge may feel daunting and overwhelming. But, to a friend who is struggling to learn and grow, your knowledge may be just what they need. 

There’s something else you should know about the gift of your knowledge and the shared experience of mentorship: it feels good to connect with another human being. It’s a great way to gain perspective, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity to nurture relationships. We’re all a part of this growth and development process. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of our own way, and encouraging one another as we deal with the fall-out from Imposter Syndrome.


How has Imposter Syndrome affected you? We’d love to hear more about it in the comments below.

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