Recently, I got a call from a leader, friend, and colleague who was debating whether to apply for a position that was opening up in his organization. When I encouraged him to do it (citing hockey-hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take”), he began to list all sorts of reasons why he wasn’t right for the job, or how he could fail. It was clear that he was starting to doubt himself.
I must say, his reaction surprised me because I had always viewed him as incredibly qualified and confident. He’s spent years acquiring specialized educational credentials and strengthening his leadership skills, and his resume is stacked full of experience. Somehow, he was suddenly doubting himself, fearing he wasn’t good enough. While he may actually be overqualified for this promotion, I could tell the nagging doubt just wouldn’t leave him alone.
What’s imposter syndrome?
It seemed to me that imposter syndrome was making an unwelcome visit in my dear colleague’s mind. Imposter syndrome is a thought that creeps into your mind, telling you that you’re a fraud – that you’re not good enough to be doing what you’re doing or don’t have a right to reach for what you want. These thoughts naturally breed more feelings of doubt and insecurity.
Imposter syndrome is a thought that creeps into your mind, telling you that you’re a fraud.
The term was first coined in the 1970s by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, who wanted to study why some women were more likely to attribute their success to luck rather than their own knowledge, skills, and abilities. In essence, they wanted to understand why these women didn’t believe they were worthy of their success despite overwhelming evidence that they had in fact earned their achievements.
The truth is imposter syndrome affects all genders, ages, and cultures. It doesn’t just occur when you’re new to something either – it can strike people who are very experienced and successful too. When we are on the verge of stepping outside our comfort zone to achieve something great, imposter syndrome can intensify. It can hit when you’re thinking of applying for a promotion, considering learning a new skill, embarking on a new romantic relationship, or even when deciding to start a family. It can take a powerful hold on us unless we stop and take time to recognize what might actually be happening.
When we are on the verge of stepping outside our comfort zone to achieve something great, imposter syndrome can intensify.
How do we get unstuck?
The first step is to get out of your head and into the present.
When we experience imposter syndrome, we are in a state of mind where we predict future catastrophic outcomes: What if it doesn’t work out? or What if people laugh at me? etc. It’s important to remember that these things haven’t happened yet (and most likely won’t). Most of us are not that adept at predicting the future, and this is one instance where it’s helpful to remember that.
To step into the present, you can try getting a good rest, exercising, listening to calming music, or meditating. The key here is to quiet your mind and consider what’s actually happening instead of paying attention to the scary stories your mind has made up for you.
Next you need to liberate yourself from judgement.
We are infinitely harder on ourselves than we are on others; sometimes it’s helpful to remember this when we’re afraid of how others will receive us. Thoughts like What if I fail? and What if people judge me? can be challenged by asking ourselves to consider the costs and benefits of these thoughts. While they may feel like they protect us from failure, giving into them also prevent us from growing and thriving.
Instead of feeding these fears, why not ask yourself, What if I succeed? What if things go well?
Last, ground yourself in your core values.
What are your highest priorities? What are your fundamental driving forces? For me personally, one of my core values is family. When I ground myself in this value by imagining how what I want to achieve will serve my family, I’m far more willing to take a risk.
When we reflect on our core values, it helps us decipher the proverbial forest from the trees; to see a higher purpose for what we are about to achieve.
When I asked my colleague what drives him, he cited “achievement and equity in the workplace.” When we reflect on our core values, it helps us decipher the proverbial forest from the trees; to see a higher purpose for what we are about to achieve. This exercise can help us metaphorically pinch our nose and dive in to face the fear and uncertainty, knowing that it serves our higher purpose.
Our dialogue aired my colleague’s vulnerabilities and encouraged him to stare at his fears straight in the face so we could bravely challenge them together. At the end of our conversation, he settled on the fact that he would apply for this promotion. He realized that every leader has, at some point, made a choice to believe in themselves. This made me think of a quote by Vincent van Gogh: “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
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