I’ve been coaching an incredible woman, Alison, who had recently been promoted from manager to director. In preparation for our 6 month coaching anniversary, I went back through all of my notes and pulled out key themes of topics that we been talking about. The list included many things you would expect (and challenges so many female managers struggle with): how to be better at delegating, how to deal with staff who did not do a good job on delegated tasks, figuring out what she is most passionate about, learning to say no and remembering that “if you don’t know what you want, you won’t ask for it, and you won’t get it."
As we went through the list, we shared reflections about each of the items. Then, Alison stepped back, thought hard for a moment, and said: “it kind of feels like all of the things on the list really get back to one single issue. I need to believe that I am good enough to be the director, and then act like I really am the director.”
As I sat there watching her, through our Zoom call, I could see this wave of realization wash over her.
I was in complete agreement; She was struggling with impostor syndrome. In fact, we had talked about impostor syndrome at our second meeting together. I had even forwarded her an article about it. But, at the time, she wasn’t ready to think about the idea that she was experiencing impostor syndrome. She was so deeply rooted in it, believing so much that she did not really deserve the job she was given that she couldn’t even fathom how impostor syndrome would fit in.
Alison is not alone. Not even close.
As reported in Forbes, “people who experience impostor syndrome are high achievers unable to internalize and accept their success, often attributing their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as frauds.”
As women get promoted, particularly to management positions and beyond, they are often not given the support they need. This is so unfortunate, because almost 3/4 of women experience impostor syndrome. And experiencing impostor syndrome affects the way you interact with those around you, and ultimately can be detrimental for your self-esteem, your self-confidence and your career. A research study of over 200 professionals found that when people experienced impostor syndrome, they had lower pay, were promoted less frequently and were less satisfied at work.
Christine Michel Carter — writer, speaker and consultant advising on the mindset of Black women and millennial moms — says that when women ignore impostor syndrome, it “either progresses into anxiety or summit syndrome, which is basically just the act of ‘chasing an unattainable corporate high.’ It's not only difficult to function in both spaces, but they are also bad for your career.”
So, what is one thing you can do to overcome impostor syndrome?
To figure out how to address impostor syndrome, I went right to the top. I spoke to Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally-known expert on impostor syndrome and author of award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.
“What you want is to stop feeling like an impostor. But feelings are the last to change," she said. "Instead we need to understand that people who don't feel like impostors are no more capable or intelligent or talented than those who do. The only difference between them and us is that in the same situation that triggers impostor feelings in us — a job interview, starting a business, having our work critiqued, getting a promotion — they are thinking different thoughts. That's it."
She continued: "[This] is really good news, because all we have to do is learn to think like non-impostors. The only way to stop feeling like an impostor, you have to stop thinking like an impostor.”
It isn’t an action you need to change. You just have to realize that your feelings are not rational.
Alison tried this tactic — and saw immediate results.
Alison and I talked about how she could approach situations with a different mindset. Rather than starting a conversation assuming people don’t think she’s good enough, what if she really focused on the facts?
Within one day, she began an incredible transformation and sent me this email:
I had a meeting and tried my best to keep our conversation in mind throughout. I wasn’t really as focused on having all of the answers, but focused on the questions that would help lead us to some decisions. It went well.
I paid more attention to the types of things my team members was talking about, and for the first time was able to see what he [a male colleague that reports to her] was saying with a different perspective. Our conversation helped me to realize that he wasn’t resisting or pushing back against “me," he just has a different way to look at things and different priorities.
Paying more attention to “why” he was making the suggestions he was making (as opposed to just assuming that he was implying that I am not good at my job, not worthy, etc.) also helped me realize that one of the things I bring to the position is historical knowledge of our organization and industry that he doesn’t have. I know we have spoken about that before, but it was just today that I really internalized it and it “clicked."
Reading her email gave me tingles. The idea that Alison could approach the meeting with this one different tactic in mind and was immediately able to see her unique value is amazing.
Overcoming impostor syndrome in a journey, not a one-time action. But changing your mindset has the power to begin that transformation. What would it take for you to approach your next work meeting with this tactic in mind — that people without impostor syndrome are no better, they just think differently? Are you ready to transform how you feel about your own value? Give it a whirl.
Julia Egan has a PhD from Penn State in human development and is the co-founder of Balancing Bravely, a resource for working moms striving to create a work-life balance that allows them to thrive. Sign up for free tips and resources and to read her latest posts on advancing your career, achieving financial freedom, balancing work and family, and finding a little time for yourself. Are you struggling to balance it all? Grab the Work-Life Balance guide to get you on the path to success.